From almost the moment it began, Ontarians have relentlessly been told – by media, by chattering classes, by family and friends – about the terribleness of the election campaign that ends on Thursday.
The messaging was too negative, the fear-mongering excessive. None of the parties could be trusted – the governing Liberals because of their record, their opponents because of flaws in their platforms. Nobody could break through and connect to Ontarians’ everyday needs.
None of these complaints are without merit. But none add up to the increasingly and alarmingly prevalent viewpoint that voter disengagement is merited – a perspective that encourages Ontarians to opt out of the most fundamental decision about their province’s future they have faced in two decades, and all but ensure that everything they do not like about this campaign is even worse the next time.
That more than half of voters stayed home in the Ontario election 21/2 years ago was, if not justifiable, at least understandable. The 2011 campaign was a dismal affair in which all three major parties battled over marginal wedge issues while aping each other on the province’s major challenges, with a tacit understanding that whoever won would address them.
This election is different. The Liberals, in power for the past decade, favour new government investments to help the province’s troubled economy, while proposing a highly ambitious provincial pension plan to provide retirement security. The Progressive Conservatives counter the Liberals’ faith in government with a distinct lack thereof – proposing sweeping cuts to the broader public sector, less regulation and big corporate tax cuts. The NDP is a sort of neither-of-the-above option, offering modest pocketbook relief in place of the others’ ambition.
The options are not perfect, but nobody could look at them and think they are equal, and it should be difficult to have no opinion on which is preferable. It is perhaps comforting to tell oneself that politicians are all the same, and will do the same things if elected. But they are not, and they will not.
If the parties have not got that through to most voters in this campaign, that is partly on them. But it is also partly on the electorate.
The oversimplification of advertising and talking points and other communications is a reflection of parties’ view that most voters are not paying close enough attention for anything more sophisticated to work. And the fact that the parties are all but ignoring large swaths of eligible voters can be directly traced to low turnout.
The PCs’ campaign is a case in point. Their strategy of playing largely to their base with staunchly conservative policies revolves largely around research suggesting that, when relatively few people vote, more advantage can be gleaned from motivating likely supporters than trying to attract new ones. To the extent their candidates on the ground do target the undecided, it is only people who have voted in past elections; if you’re not an identified supporter and you do not usually vote, the Tories figure you are not worth their while.
The other parties might still put a little more faith in persuasion, but all of them are moving more and more toward data-driven efforts to cast their message to a relatively narrow audience.
In the United States, the Democrats in particular have used such techniques to reach out to previously unengaged corners of the electorate. But there is not nearly as much money here to fund such efforts, so limited resources are deployed to target people they think offer the highest return.
The best rebuke to the narrowcasting, the best way to persuade parties to reach out more broadly, would be to reverse the decline in turnout. Those working on the ground, though, predict the share of eligible voters who cast ballots will be lower than the 49 per cent last time.
If that proves accurate, a small share of the province’s population will have made some huge decisions about its future. And by next campaign, those who did not vote this time may find even less incentive to do so.