Andrew Steele is a vice-president at StrategyCorp and worked in election war rooms for the Liberal Party of Canada and the Ontario Liberal Party.
If you are reading this, you are probably not the intended audience of Tuesday’s federal budget. In fact, the primary focus was on demographic groups united by one thing: They don’t read political news.
The 2015 election was decided by three million new voters who previously rarely or never voted, and the preponderance of whom cast ballots for the Liberals. While this group skews young, there were also new voters who were seniors over 75.
This group generally avoids traditional media coverage of politics. But the Liberals reached out to them in places political campaigns don’t usually emphasize like Instagram, e-mail or good old-fashioned door-knocking.
The Liberals added these three million new voters to the 2.7 million Liberal base voters who stuck with Michael Ignatieff in 2011, the one million NDP-Liberal switchers who lent Jack Layton their vote in 2011, and a relatively tiny group of around 300,000 Conservative-Liberal switchers who left Stephen Harper.
Remember that most of those who consume large amounts of news often select their media to reinforce their pre-existing beliefs – and likely won’t be swayed from their political camps.
Also, relatively few people decide directly between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Instead, contemporary elections are about unifying and mobilizing distinct coalitions of voters. The NDP and Liberals fight over a set of swing voters to determine who will be the contender for the government, and the winner tries to energize enough new voters to defeat the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, the Conservatives try to hold together their fractious coalition by playing down social issues and playing up their shared dislike of taxes and deficits. But they are prone to splinter parties or a demotivated base that depresses their vote count.
Looking at the budget through this prism, the election-year budget strategy becomes clear. The Liberals need to energize specific constituencies of new voters, while keeping their base and NDP switchers polarized against the Conservatives.
As the single largest variable in their fortunes, the bulk of the Liberals’ budget appeals to sets of new voters in three ways:
- The First Time Home Buyer Incentive appeals to millennials shut out of the housing market. Home affordability is an easy message to push through social media to those who otherwise ignore political debate.
- The Canada Training Credit provides four weeks of EI support every four years to take time off for training. It creates a narrative around opportunity that should resonate with new voters worried about jobs.
- Older seniors with low incomes are a large part of the new voter segment. The government will pro-actively enroll eligible seniors in CPP and increase the guaranteed income supplement for the vulnerable. And what is more obvious to a person on fixed income than a higher income?
The secondary focus was on NDP-Liberal switchers (who are news consumers seeking clues about how best to stop the Conservatives) and the Liberal base. They got red meat like LGBT and anti-racism initiatives or funding for major health challenges and the arts. Incremental progress on Pharmacare may remove that arrow from Jagmeet Singh’s thinly stocked quiver. There is even government support for journalism.
The NDP’s declining fortunes have made the Green Party a bigger threat for defections, hence incentives for zero-emission vehicles.
But as The Globe’s Campbell Clark noted, the political cornerstone of the budget is the deficit.
It is not 1994, Canada’s balance sheet is strong, and voters in the progressive universe do not prioritize deficit reduction over spending, particularly new voters. But Conservative voters do tend to prioritize deficit reduction over spending.
Andrew Scheer played lip service to deficit reduction between attempts to keep the SNC-Lavalin issue going. But the deficit issue should linger. The Conservative platform will have to show a path to balance. That means reducing program spending. And those reductions are pocketbook issues for the very voters the Conservatives are trying to demotivate by emphasizing the SNC issue.
Furthermore, if the Conservatives don’t emphasize the deficit, they are open to splintering. If Mr. Scheer abandons deficit reduction, he opens the door to Maxime Bernier to run as the only one who will end Liberal spending on liberal priorities. The deficit issue could turn a People’s Party nuisance into a real threat.
By projecting deficits, the Liberals put 300,000 Conservative-Liberal swing voters at modest risk. In exchange, they can motivate three million new voters by giving them a tangible stake in the federal government and also set Mr. Scheer between opposing those benefits or empowering Mr. Bernier.
The strategy may not work. A hyper-negative Conservative campaign could demotivate new voters. The NDP could suddenly capture the zeitgeist. Mr. Bernier could focus on ugly anti-immigrant issues. An economic shock or Donald Trump tweet could change the fundamentals.
But we do know the election will likely come down to how many new voters decide to go to the polls, and this budget is designed to make that number as big as possible.