The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Who won the debate, again?

The Ipsos Reid poll which has just been released shows that among viewers who watched at least one of the two debates, Stephen Harper won, at 37%. Next come Jack Layton (20%), Stephane Dion (17%), Elizabeth May (13%), and Gilles Duceppe (5%).

But let's look at these numbers a bit more closely.

Hard right and hard left, represented by Harper's Conservatives and Layton's NDP, are almost exactly those percentages which have not changed ever since the the Alliance allied with the old Progressive Conservatives. In other words, in these camps, the poll results represent both parties' core vote, with only (maybe) a little additional soft support, certainly nowhere near the 10% minimum either would need to be a serious challenger for majority (Conservative) or opposition (NDP).

The same thing goes for Duceppe's Bloc Québecois, when results are averaged across the entire country. In the French language results alone, Duceppe ends up with 23%: which does echo the Bloc's core support level. Dion is perceived to have won that one (38%), with Harper and Layton tied at 13%. This gives Dion most of the francophone soft support, but that also means he has the most to lose. May is scarcely on the board in that one (2%). The equivalent numbers for the English-language debate are Harper at 40%, Layton (21%), May (15%), and Dion (13%). Myself, I thought Duceppe made a valuable contribution to the English-language debate, precisely because his party does not contend for seats outside Québec: since that made it uniquely possible for him to say when an issue fell within provincial and not federal jurisdiction, something which none of the other leaders were politically able to say lest they be seen as lacking "leadership".

Language itself is invisibly an issue. Both Dion and Duceppe work at a serious disadvantage in English-language communication; while the reverse holds true in French-language communication. Whether or not it is actually the case, the effect is that each party is perceived as regionalised along language lines. Politeness forbids that any of the leaders mention the language barrier directly, but nevertheless it is relevant.

Language may have been a significant part of why Dion's performance was so far rated down in English-language Canada and up in French-language Canada. In the first case, he was pared down to core Liberal voters, primarily to May's benefit. In the second case, his lead pulled entirely from Duceppe's soft support and virtually every gain Harper had managed to make in Québec during the previous election.

(These language results may well have the effect of further exaggerating regional differences in a first-past-the-post system.)

Only May benefitted strongly from soft support on a net basis, doubling her usual poll standings on a national basis. (It remains to be seen what the Greens' core support will actually turn out to be. They are still too young a party to identify it just yet.) Of all the leaders, she had the most to gain from a leadership debate: and she took every chance to do so. Language clearly was a factor in her French-language performance, especially with the traditional Big Two of Québec both so very competent in both substance and delivery. For now, her potential is best seen in English-language debate. The Greens will want to address this issue before the next debate.

No wonder the poll discovers that only 13% of voters were swayed. It seems that in this debate, perhaps more than any in modern politics, people judged almost entirely based on the political value hierarchy they already held. In other words, most people came into the debate with specific preconceptions.

How can we be surprised that they saw what they expected to see?

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