June 8, 2005

You seem a bit frustrated with your countrymen these days; you say you can’t understand how the federal Liberals can lead in public opinion polls with all the corruption and incompetence going on in Ottawa. You really need to be able to step back and take an objective view of Canadian politics if you ever hope to understand what is going on.

I’ve got a theory of my own to explain Canadian politics, and I hope you find this helpful in bringing your blood pressure down.



Sours and Blands - A More Fruitful Way to Analyze Canadian Voters

Basic Assumptions:

1.         The overwhelming majority of Canadian voters have already or will someday vote for more than one political party.

2.         Everyone eligible to vote is aware of their voting rights; not voting is a conscious decision.

3.         Even allowing for the possibility that there really are voters who base their decisions on purely intellectual grounds, not just people who try to look smarter than they really are by covering their emotional responses with the cloak of ideology; the number of votes cast in any election according to only the rigorous application of logic is too small to be worth examining.

4.         Your personal beliefs, convictions, prejudices and motivations are generally established by the time you reach voting age, and it takes a major event in your lives to change them.

5.         No one running for public office has enough friends, relatives, or otherwise personally indebted voters to be elected without the support of at least a few strangers. This may not be true for an aboriginal band council election, but certainly holds true for your federal elections.

6.         Most voting decisions involve far more thought than anyone wants to give the electorate credit for; but the motivations of most voters are far less noble than you want to admit (Laziness and personal gain at the expense of your neighbor are two ignoble motivations high on the list).

Canadian voters are remarkably volatile. Unlike the U.S., where presidential candidates will beat each other up for the best part of a year in an attempt to produce single digit percentage changes in the popular vote in just a dozen or so “swing” states, Canada’s politicians can gain or lose 10% of the popular vote over the course of a couple of weeks, especially at the level of individual ridings. If your convictions change slowly, and only in response to major changes in your personal lives, then those big vote swings aren’t a result of a changing electorate; it is the politicians who are moving around in order to catch more votes. It is a bit like a bunch of fishermen trying to beat each other to the best fishing grounds.

Just as there is more than one type of fish in the lake, not every Canadian voter acts the same way. I think we can divide the Canadian electorate into two major camps, based on their long standing motivations. Some Canadian voters experience a type of catharsis, or psychological release, by voting against something or someone they dislike. Those voters I’ll call Sours. Some Canadian voters prefer to stay within their comfort zone, and will strategically vote (or not vote) to avoid discomfort. Those voters I’ll call Blands.

Characteristics of Sours:

           Sours seldom dislike a political party itself, they almost always dislike a number of things that have become associated with a particular political party. A Sour will vote against the Conservative Party because he or she dislikes Albertans, Stephen Harper, Christians, capitalism or any number of things that person currently identifies with the Conservative Party..

           On a national level, Sours have a multitude of dislikes, and those dislikes are widely distributed, so no particular dislike is predominant. However, on a regional level, certain dislikes will play an important role in determining the outcome of an election. Regions can “send a message” to Ottawa by electing candidates who come from a Sour base.

           Sours cast their votes according to a process of elimination. A Sour voter will first discard the political parties that represent very strong dislikes for the voter (gun control, for instance) and then progress to less powerful dislikes if there is still some question as to who to vote for. A bunch of little dislikes will never overrule a single major dislike, but those little dislikes will be the deciding factor if there isn’t an obvious choice based on major dislikes.

           Sours are less likely to vote strategically than Bland voters. A Sour voter is unlikely to hold his nose and vote for a strongly disliked party, just to prevent a win by a candidate from a different disliked party. Sours want to express, or vent, their political dislikes, and the overall outcome of the election is not as important. Public opinion polls are not going to change the way a Sour votes.

           Sours will almost always vote in an election, because they obtain their catharsis by voting against something. If a Sour somehow cannot find a way to vote that expresses his or her dislikes (in other words, all parties are an anathema to that voter), then the Sour voter relapses into a Bland voter. Ex-Sours may be unhappy, but like all Bland voters, they now want to stay in their comfort zone, even if it means being miserable all the time.

Characteristics of Blands:

           A Bland voter is of the opinion (actually, it is a firmly held conviction) that all political parties are similar (no one better than the rest) and these voters can change their voting intentions in a heartbeat. Not voting is the default voting preference for Blands because it is comfortable and easily justified.

           Bland voters can be easily intimidated by envy, guilt or fear, all of which make the Bland voter uncomfortable. The Bland voter will not retaliate when he is intimidated, because retaliation involves even more discomfort. Voting for the party that intimidates you is perfectly logical to Blands.

           If 40% of the electorate decides not to vote, and just 20% of the Blands decide to vote, then the Blands comprise a majority of eligible voters. This is just mathematics. Almost 100% of Sours vote, and approximately 100% of the people who don’t vote are Blands. Federal elections are trending towards a 60% voter turnout, which means that Blands who don't vote are 40% of the electorate. If more than 20% of Blands do vote, then Blands are more than 50% of the total electorate. There may still be fewer Blands than Sours actually voting, but since Sours will only change their votes if the political parties realign themselves (and most political parties are too smart to alienate all of their core supporters), almost every election is determined by how the Blands vote.

           Voting decisions for Blands are always a two part process. First, the decision to go to the polling station has to be made. This will only occur if the Bland voter perceives a threat to his or her comfort zone, and believes that if he or she doesn’t vote, there is a risk that the political situation will not right itself. Second, a candidate has to be selected once the voter gets to the polling station, and there is always the possibility that a Bland voter will be reconsidering his or her vote right up to the time he or she steps into the voting booth.

           Blands make strategic voting decisions, with the idea that his or her voting decision will help to produce the desired election outcome overall, not just on a local level. Public opinion polls influence Blands for two reasons. One, Blands like to think of themselves as “mainstream”, so it is important to know where the main stream is, and two, public opinion polls make it easier for strategic voting to take place. Neither Blands or Sours are influenced by commentators, columnists or editorial pages.

           It takes a personal event of great discomfort to make a Bland become a Sour. Ex-Blands tend to become single issue Sours.

           Blands look for ways to justify their voting patterns after the fact. This is a well-known marketing phenomenon, where consumers spend more effort researching their purchases after the sale, not before. To build up our self-image, we have to imbue our personal decisions with the appearance of exercising rational altruism. This can produce somewhat illogical rationalizations after the fact for voting trends among Blands.

The Canadian political landscape can be analyzed in terms of Sours and Blands in a number of ways. Geographically speaking, Ontario has the highest ratio of Blands to Sours. It is not that people in Ontario are that different from other Canadians, but as long as Ontario controls the outcome of federal elections, there is little fuel for regional alienation, and less stimulus for Sour voters. Quebec and Alberta both have high levels of Sour voters, but since federal parties historically chase the 75 seats in Quebec with more fervor than Albertan seats, federal parties will realign themselves more often in regards to Quebec, and that is reflected in the greater volatility of Quebec election results.

Sour voters stay that way in civic, provincial and federal elections, but because the issues at stake change at each political level, and the politicians change their spots from time to time, the Sour voter cannot be counted on to support the same party provincially as federally, and from one election to the next. In the same vein, since Bland voters are defined by their attitude towards politics and politicians (“they are all the same” and the Bland desire to avoid discomfort), Bland voters are changing all the time. These characteristics suggest that there really is no such thing as a rock-solid voting block, and the facts bear that out. For instance, Liberals do not have a lock on the votes of immigrants in Vancouver, and voters in the Atlantic provinces cannot be taken for granted by any party (as evidenced by the ebb and flow of Tory seats, and the discrepancy between federal and provincial wings of the same parties).

To motivate Bland voters you need to convince them that the status quo will be disrupted if they don’t vote. Since Bland voters aren’t ideologically driven, nor motivated by specific issues, or even inclined to use their vote to send a message, something more primal than a new policy position is needed to move the Bland vote in a particular direction. This is where envy, guilt and fear come in. Envy in voters is usually envy of someone else’s wealth and/or ambition, so envy of Albertans or Americans can usually move some Bland votes. Guilt is the result of being unhappy with one’s self-image, not the result of a moral failure. Bland voters are continually checking their own self-image, yet are almost oblivious to absolute ideals of right and wrong. A Bland voter might feel guilty about voting for a party that is vilified in the media, or voting against a star candidate, or even feel guilty about propping up a corrupt and/or incompetent government for more than one term of office (because it makes him look stupid), but a Bland voter will never feel guilty about voting for an immoral politician. Fear is even more powerful than guilt, and the Bland voter moves quickly in response to fear. One Bland favorite is the fear of change, the risk that you might lose something important (health insurance or your job, for instance) if the status quo gets upset.

Blands also fear Sours. Sours are unhappy with something, so they are always tempted to change the status quo, which always makes Blands uncomfortable. Blands aren’t strongly opposed to Sour viewpoints (if a Bland was strongly opposed to anything, even Stephen Harper’s personality, he or she wouldn’t be a Bland anymore), but Blands do fear that the Sours will take something away from them. Unless an opposition party can use envy, guilt or fear to push Bland voters out of their comfort zone, those Bland voters will turn up in sufficient numbers to maintain the status quo on election day. How Blands manage to vote strategically, en masse, to achieve the least uncomfortable result, with such regularity, is a complete mystery, unexplainable by modern science. The laws of probability suggest that you should get unexpected election results on a frequent basis. The only result that I can remember that might have surprised Bland voters was the nearly complete annihilation of the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1993 federal election.

 Voter turnout in civic elections is almost always lower than in provincial and federal elections, and one reason is that it is very difficult for Sours to separate the “good guys” from the “bad guys” without political labels. Bland voters don’t perceive a threat to their comfort zone coming from “radical” Sour voters in most civic elections, so there is no great stimulus for them to go and vote either. To increase voter turnout in civic elections, you need to introduce political affiliations; to really stir things up, you need to have a slate of candidates that have an “agenda” they want to push on City Hall.

Sour voters who dislike the federal Liberal Party also tend to dislike the federal NDP. This favours federal Conservatives, because the Sours who dislike the Conservatives tend to split their vote between the Liberals and the NDP. Rural voters are much more Sour than urban voters, as are the self-employed and workers in the private sector. Unfortunately for Conservatives, 70% of the Canadian population is urban, about 40% of employees work in the public sector, and as mentioned previously, Sours are a minority group.

Political candidates for any mainstream political party can be either Bland or Sour. Sour voters can vote for Bland candidates and vice-versa. Labels, not personalities, count in politics. A Bland candidate sees herself as being just as qualified to hold the prestige and salary of an elected official as the next candidate, so Bland candidates affiliate themselves with the political party that provides the best electoral odds in that particular riding. Reformed Blands are Sours with a single issue, and they usually start out with an opposition party, but their party affiliation only lasts as long as the party remains aligned with that single issue. Single issue candidates often run out of motivation (because they fail to get their way), and they either resign from politics altogether, or revert to Blandom, and are co-opted by the government party. Sours are happiest in opposition, that should be obvious. However, if it wasn’t for Sour politicians, your country would be run into the ground by Blands who only cared about self-preservation, and neglected everything else.

In order for politics to function effectively in Canada, there needs to be a balance between Sours and Blands. Something like a pH balance. You start with the acidic pool of Sour politics and then the Blands are added until a neutral balance is attained. If you overshoot or fall short of a neutral balance, then the Blands change their vote in the next election to compensate, and this is what is commonly referred to as the swinging of a “political pendulum.” For the political parties riding that pendulum, though, its motion is anything but regular. Between the diversity of dislikes among Sour voters, and the fluidity of the Bland vote, there is always a potential for abrupt changes in the pendulum’s momentum. Controlling that momentum is also much harder than it looks. Voters know when they are being manipulated, even if they decide not to do anything about it, and every time a political party changes its alignment to gain new supporters, it risks the loss of current supporters. Add it all up, and you end up with something that looks like democracy.