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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)
Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)

Andrew Steele

Why incumbents are down across the board Add to ...

Over the past four months, incumbents across North America have seen their public opinion leads crumble, and in some cases, their chances of continuing in government fade.

Stephen Harper's eight-point lead in the June Ipsos survey was pointing to a majority government. However, the numbers dissolved to a statistical tie with the Liberals in the latest Ipsos Reid.

EKOS tracked a similar deflation in support for the Conservative government, from an 11 point lead at the beginning of summer to a tie at the end.

In Ontario, the Progressive Conservative Party has drawn into a statistical tie with the governing Liberals. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's leadership numbers are at a record low.

Alberta Conservatives are looking over their shoulders, with the upstart Wild Rose Alliance suddenly competitive to govern. The PQ holds a 10-point lead over the governing Liberals in Quebec.

South of the border, only 8 per cent (eight!) of Americans would re-elect their incumbent senator or Congressional representative in the United States, according to a poll taken in February.

That anti-incumbent mood is punishing the Democrat majority in Congress, where the generic ballot between Republican and Democrat gives the Republicans a 7.8 per cent edge, one of the highest margins ever recorded.

Congressional job approval is an unbelievable negative 49 per cent, with 72 per cent of Americans disapproving of the job Congress is doing.

It's safe to say that an anti-incumbent mood has taken root in most places in North America. But why?

Local media and observers tend to attribute public opinion to micro-factors, things like communications, advertising, speeches, scandals, announcements or policies. For instance, most political observers seem to attribute the decline in support for Harper's Conservatives to the census issue or Michael Ignatieff's tour.

This is almost definitely a cum hoc fallacy. This is the problem of attributing a causal relationship between two separate but simultaneous events.

A classic example is that the number of pirates has declined since the 19th century, while global temperatures have increased. If correlations implied causation, then the solution to climate change is everyone putting on eye patches and stealing booty from passing schooners.

The reality is that parties across the political spectrum, and in defiance of local issues, are all suffering a similar downturn in their fortunes. The cause must be something larger than individual political fortunes.

So what is driving this phenomenon, particularly over the past few months? In a word, the economy. In particular, it is the stage of the recovery we are currently in.

The economy is typically the main driver of electoral fortunes. And often, it isn't even the economy generally. It is two simple factors: interest rates and unemployment.

The single greatest statistical correlations to the successful the re-election of the incumbent party to the United States presidency is not rhetoric or candidate or record. It is the combination of interest rates being low and unemployment being low at the same time. These two factors tend to trail leading indicators of a recession, things like the stock market or real estate prices.

We are lucky that interest rates are remaining low, but the high levels of sovereign debt our governments are racking up will change that in the medium-term. However, unemployment remains stubbornly high, despite more jobs being created.

That stubborn unemployment - along with the general approach most governments took over the past two years - is leading to a growing anger toward government.

The sad truth is that most of the policy levers available to combat a recession - stimulus spending, shoring up failing banks, deficit financing, tax reductions for employers - tend not to be aimed at lower and middle class voters directly. They are designed to restore consumer confidence, rally the market and keep the economy alive through a contraction. Primarily, they are about staving off something worse than a recession: a depression, hyper-inflation or deflation.

For a while, those efforts work and there is some buoyancy in the economy. The stock market rebounds. The unemployment numbers plateau. The black clouds of economic collapse break up.

But eventually those temporary boosts fade. Fiscal stimulus hits an end as the transfer of debt from individuals and companies to the state begins to become critical. Short-term boosts for firms like selling off inventories quickly run out. Like a drug, the impact of the stimulus wears off, leaving the subject feeling a Blue Monday.

Those who feel the harsh reality of a recession most acutely are modest income individuals for whom belt-tightening is a literal reality. Choices are made between food and rent, between shoes for the kids and money for gas.

The sight of bankers getting bailouts while their kids go with shoes that are too small would make anyone angry. That's the position we are in now.

It's the same phenomenon seen from 1980 to 1985 and from 1990 to 1995. Only governments that could prove to their electorate that they were on their side in improving the economy survived.

At present, most governments in North America have spent the last two years responsibly tackling the recession with counter-cyclical efforts. However those tend to come across as wonkish and helping someone other than me, the voter. Things like the GM bailout and the bank bailouts in the United States are particularly upsetting to someone dealing with their own struggles and unable to get a similar bailout.

The result is a feeling among voters that their political leaders are not looking out for them. It's exacerbated by opposition parties of whatever ilk offering pie-in-the-sky populist solutions to complex problems. And it's compounded by the reality that it's actually very, very hard for governments to help directly.

The past two years were the easy part for most governments: spend a lot of money, reform your tax code to prime the pump for recovery, build lots of hockey arenas. The heroic work of preventing catastrophe is over. Now the hard work of building up the economy again must begin.

The test of the incumbent governments will be to prove to the electorate that they are on their side again. And the only issue that matters is the economy.

Governments need to find ways to directly help those feeling the pinch from this recession. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only way to survive.

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