Welcome to Part Three of our series: Campaign Styles and How to Use Them to Your Advantage. In this final edition, we will look at campaigns run on vote splitting.
What is vote splitting?
Before delving into the specifics of vote-splitting campaigns, it’s first important to understand what vote splitting means in practice. Vote splitting occurs when two parties, typically close in ideology, share the same base of voters. Come Election Day, the two parties end up sharing the base of voters between them, allowing for a third party to eke out a win with a slim plurality of the votes. In cases where vote splitting occurs, the majority of voters did not vote for the winning candidate. This is one of the many idiosyncrasies of Canada’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system. (If you need a refresher on Canada’s electoral system, check out Elections Canada’s overview.)
Let’s look at a practical, real-life example. Below are the results for the Calgary-Shaw riding, coming out of the last provincial election in Alberta (May 2015). We selected this riding for our case study as it happens to overlap with Federal Minister Jason Kenney’s riding, Calgary-Midnapore (formerly Calgary-Southeast).
As you can see, the NDP won by a margin of 145 votes over the Wildrose candidate, and 212 votes over the Alberta PC candidate. If the Wildrose and the Alberta PCs, both right-leaning parties, had run under one banner, the NDP would have lost by almost double their own vote. Looking at these results, it’s clear that the majority of voters in Calgary-Shaw would have preferred a right-leaning candidate to win, but due to the rules of our “first-past-the-post” electoral system, the candidate with the most votes (even if they only secured votes from 30 per cent of the riding) wins the seat.
When you hear pundits talking about the possibility of “uniting the left” or “uniting the right”, this phenomenon is exactly the one they’re looking to avoid.
Campaigns run on vote-splitting
Unlike our look at Personality Campaigns, or Issue Campaigns, parties do not set out to run a campaign on vote splitting. Certain conditions must exist prior to the start of the campaign in order for vote splitting to become a deciding factor. First, you must have three or more parties running, and second, two of those parties must share voters from the same base (typically left-leaning or right-leaning.) Finally, for vote splitting to truly impact an election, the base of voters that the two parties close in ideology share must be greater than the base of voters expected to cast their ballot for the third party.
If these conditions exist, the third party is in a position to run a campaign based on vote splitting. These campaigns are typically designed to create “infighting” or division between the two ideologically linked parties, and work to prevent one of the linked parties from gaining a substantial lead over the other.
If you happen to be a strategist for one of the two linked parties, your challenge is to differentiate your party in the eyes of the voters. This is a fine line to walk, however, as too much fighting between the two linked parties could drive voters away from the polls all together.
Elections where vote-splitting is a factor are notoriously difficult to predict in advance. Assuming the base of voters from the linked parties are not diehard party loyalists, strategic voting at the ballot box could lead to some surprising results. Ultimately, it all comes down to voter turnout.
The 2015 Federal Election
Vote splitting is likely to play a role in the upcoming federal election. With a large cohort of voters who are considering options other than Harper, the NDP and the Liberals run the risk of splitting the vote and affording the Conservatives a fourth mandate.
For Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, he stands to benefit the most if neither the NDP nor the Liberals gain an edge over each other. Conventional wisdom would dictate that the Conservatives should focus their attack ads on both parties. However, as of mid-August, the majority of Conservative efforts have been focused on reducing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s support numbers. While there are some ads targeting the NDP from the Conservatives, they are few and far between.
The Conservative focus on Trudeau may originate from Stephen Harper himself, who has said in the past that his decision to support conservatism in his youth was strongly motivated by his opposition to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s tenure as Prime Minister. Perhaps the opportunity to take down a Trudeau is the driving factor behind the party’s decision to focus on the Liberal party almost exclusively.
Whether or not the Conservative strategy will make an impact in the final polling numbers remains to be seen. The risk is this: the base of voters that support Trudeau are more likely to vote for the NDP if they feel that the Liberal Party does not stand a chance of winning on October 19. The Liberals and the NDP share a combined total of 60 per cent support. All it takes are a few voters willing to cast their ballots strategically for one of those two parties to form the next government.
How to use Vote Splitting Campaigns to your Advantage
As a stakeholder during a vote-splitting campaign, your goal is to avoid overt alignment with one political party. With close three-way races it’s difficult to determine which party will hold the balance of power after the votes are cast, so it is vitally important not to alienate or create distance between your organization and any political party.
If your issue is not pressing, the safest course of action would be to lay low for the duration of the campaign. If you decide to do outreach to one party, outreach must then be extended to the others as well. Positive relationship building without partisan influence is the safest, most productive approach when faced with a vote-splitting campaign.
Ultimately, it is extremely difficult to talk about the impact of vote splitting on electoral campaigns before or during the writ period. Only after the dust has settled and the votes are tallied are we able to determine whether vote splitting was a deciding factor.