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Keeping old voters while winning new ones

It’s been about a month since the federal election that made Justin Trudeau prime minister.

It’s been about a month since the federal election that made Justin Trudeau prime minister. The election results illustrate both sides of the challenge that political parties face at election control – the need to motivate the party’s base, while also getting undecided “swing” voters to support them.

The Conservatives led by Stephen Harper illustrate one side of the challenge. Many of the Harper government’s policies were supported by the Conservatives’ base, such as the selling of the Canadian Wheat Board, the end of the long-gun registry, tax policies such as income splitting and harsher sentences for criminals. However, commentators such as John Ivison noted how many Canadians had become fed up with Harper and wanted him gone. On election day, most of Harper’s seats came from his strongest base of support on the Prairies, enough to make the Conservatives the Official Opposition but not enough to let Harper stay on as prime minister.

The New Democrats led by Tom Mulcair had the opposite problem. In 2011, Jack Layton made the NDP the Official Opposition for the first time in Canadian history largely by tapping into new support in Quebec. However, in 2015 Mulcair wasn’t able to retain much of that support, leading the NDP to lose over half its seats and returning them to third-party status in Parliament. Some commentators attributed the NDP’s loss to Mulcair’s attempt to bring the NDP closer to the political centre in an attempt to attract swing voters. Mulcair’s moves are said to have alienated many of the NDP’s most devoted supporters and led many progressive voters to support Justin Trudeau and the Liberals instead.

By comparison, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals managed to not only retain the support of places that have frequently voted Liberal in the past such as in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, but also pick up new support in Western Canada. A lot of this support obviously came from past Liberal voters, but the Liberals also benefited from progressive voters who wanted Harper replaced and saw the Liberals as the party most likely to succeed. Justin Trudeau gained from the losses of both Harper and Mulcair.

What we can take away from this is just how difficult it can be for political parties to balance the expectations and goals of their base while also appealing to swing voters. Sometimes a change in a party’s policies might be seen as a principled attempt to broaden its appeal. At other times it might be seen as a crass attempt to get elected, or a betrayal of what the party stands for. A party that sticks too closely to its traditional base, and doesn’t show at least some kind of flexibility, may never get elected – which is supposed to be the whole point of being in politics!

The balancing act between appealing to a political party’s base, and appealing to swing voters, is one of the most difficult challenges in politics – but when it’s successful, the results can speak for themselves.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.