Voter Dealignment or Campaign Effects? Accounting for Political Preferences in Ontario

Article excerpt

Elections in Canada are rarely subject to the delays in voting counts present in the United States. For Americans, the time required to count hundreds of millions of ballots has made exit polls an attractive option to political commentators hoping to fill the void between the close of polls and the confirmation of results. Often face-to-face surveys with individuals leaving the ballot box, exit polls not only allow for a quick prediction of election results, but also allow students of voting to say something meaningful about the reasons behind ballot decisions. The speed with which election results are usually announced in Canada, and the sheer cost of mounting an exit poll for such a comparatively small voting population, has meant that exit polls are not a feature of Canadian politics. For the 2003 Ontario election, however, the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), at Wilfrid Laurier University, mounted an exit poll in one of the 103 Ontario ridings to determine what lessons, if any, could be drawn from the experience. The LISPOP exercise, the first American-style exit poll conducted in Canada, provides unprecedented data on voter motivations only minutes after individuals cast their ballots. This article provides an analysis of the results of this poll.

The LISPOP exit poll had two purposes. First, the project provided an opportunity to determine the feasibility of exit polls in a Canadian context, and we have published an analysis of the methodological lessons of the experiment (Brown et al. 2006). Second, the poll provides much-needed information about the provincial voting habits of Canadians. At the federal level, reports of the Canadian Election Study (CES) allow us to determine why individuals vote and why they back the parties that they do. Such studies allow us to make links among an individual's attitudes, demographic background, and political behavior. Students relying on federal electoral studies to understand sub-state voter behavior face two limitations, however. First, the act of voting and participation in the survey are separated by several days, a period in which media coverage often highlights the main themes of the campaign, and provides justifications for why voters backed the eventual winner. It is possible that in such circumstances voters could begin to blend their own reasons for voting with those highlighted by the national or local media. The timing of data collection thus presents a challenge to the reliability of the survey. The second limitation to federal election studies has nothing to do with methodology and more to do with the gaps that remain in our knowledge. Although operating since 1965 at the federal level, electoral studies at the provincial level are rare. Obviously, federal electoral studies are not meant to probe provincial political behavior. We still do not know whether the factors that lead individuals to vote one way at the federal level are also at play in provincial voting decisions.

As a result, this paper addresses three research questions. First, are the predictors of support for political parties similar to those we find at the federal level? Obviously the nature of partisan competition is different in the three-party system of Ontario than in Canadian elections, where the partisan spectrum is more crowded. We are less interested to discover that predictors work in the same direction than that they are equally relevant. Second, in the context of the Ontario election, are we able to identify predictors of behavior that are consistent with past studies of voter behavior? Research has suggested that gender was a significant factor in determining support for the Conservative Party in previous provincial elections. We are interested to see whether voting behavior in the 2003 election can be explained by this and other previously identified predictors. Last, we know that the 2003 election produced a change of government, an event made possible by the existence of vote switching within the electorate. …