Sunday, June 21, 2009

On impacts

Jason's list of which factors affected (and didn't affect) the Saskatchewan NDP leadership race is definitely worth a read. But I'll note a couple of factors where my take apparently differs from Jason's, as well as one more worth adding to each list.

Here's Jason on advance voting as his #1 factor which did play a major role:
1. Advance Voting
Did I read somewhere that Ryan Meili got something like 75% of the votes of people who chose to wait until the convention day, hear all the presentations and endorsements, see the buzz for each candidate before making their own choice? If so, it's tempting to re-imagine the results had everyone been required to wait until the day of the convention to vote. A couple real life examples - we had one woman at our table who said she was torn between Ryan and Yens based on everything she'd seen so far. After the floor shows were over, I asked, "So?" and she just smiled and asked if she could have one of the Ryan buttons I'd offered her earlier. I also heard from a couple people who said they would've changed the order of their vote based on the floor shows. I'm sure many others felt the same way. I still love the idea of every individual member being able to vote by a variety of methods (by mail, phone, online or in person) but perhaps limiting the vote only to the day of the convention would reduce the chances of people re-thinking (or regretting!) their choices? (Can you imagine if the news of the membership scandal had broken on June 3, only a couple days before the convention and after most early votes were already in?)
Now, I don't think there's much room for doubt that advance voting did have a significant impact on the race. But I'd disagree with Jason to the extent he's suggesting looking to limit its effect in the future.

I'd note first that the trend in other political forums seems to be toward a greater focus on advance voting. To my recollection the U.S. election in 2008 saw a record turnout of early voters, while the percentage of votes cast in advance polls was up in Canada's 2008 election (the raw number dropped from 2006, but less than the raw number of total votes). And as it makes sense for parties to want to lock in their votes early during an election campaign, it doesn't make sense to me to run a party's leadership races based solely on one- or two-day voting.

Of course, different timing for votes will favour different types of organization. And a longer voting period can favour a front-runner who's able to lock in a large number of votes early - as it seems to have done for Lingenfelter.

But it can also give more time for a social-networking model to reach a greater number of people, encouraging a better-dispersed model rather than a one-day phone blitz to reach would-be voters. And it wouldn't be at all surprising if some of the same ideas which have served Meili's campaign and other challengers well could be adapted for advance voting: wouldn't a "vote bomb" be an entirely viable response to any issues that do serve to fire up one's voters during an advance voting period?

Indeed, the biggest timing issue for Meili may have been the membership deadline which prevented people who heard of him only late in the campaign from casting a vote, limiting the amount of impact that his own online presence could have late in the campaign. And the timing of the vote wouldn't have made any difference there.

So the impact of advance voting should serve more as a lesson to future campaigns to take full advantage of the opportunity, not a need to change the leadership rules.

The other issue I'll raise with Jason's analysis is his take that the membership controversy would be classified in the "less impact" department:
This was the elephant in the room at the convention and I was surprised how little attention it got except in subtle allusions and whispered side conversations. Yes, the party did a report that cleared Dwain Lingenfelter of any wrongdoing but the day after the convention ended (nice timing there!), the RCMP announced they were investigating the matter then a couple days later, announced that it had become a criminal investigation. Some people are able to let bygones by bygones and chalk it up to "just politics" or "that's behind us now" but I think there are also a number of people who saw "Waterhengate" as going beyond the usual attacks and back and forth you might see in a political campaign. (Since I keep rewriting history in this post, I should also note that the flip side is that Ryan might not have had as strong of showing as he did had this scandal not happened.)
I'd be inclined to draw a far stronger conclusion as to the impact of the membership controversy. Remember that despite the large number of advance voters, the final vote saw a surprisingly low turnout rate, as over a quarter of party members chose not to vote in the leadership race.

If even a few hundred more people who didn't vote had voted with Lingenfelter, or if an even smaller number did shift their allegiances from Lingenfelter to another candidate in the wake of the membership controversy, then the convention would have seen a first-ballot win rather than the close contest that it became. And in the absence of any other obvious group of NDP member who would have had reason to be turned off by the leadership campaign, it wouldn't be surprising if Lingenfelter had gained far more votes than the bare minimum for a majority - maybe even approaching a 60%-style romp which would have served as license for him to marginalize the other leadership camps.

So while the membership controversy didn't manage to completely undermine Lingenfelter's campaign, it likely served as one of many necessary factors to make the race as close as it was in the end.

With that out of the way, let's add one more item to each of Jason's categories.

More impact than expected: One-choice voters

It's understandable that each leadership contestant sought primarily to lock in his or her own first-ballot support rather than encouraging members to take a closer look at down-ballot possibilities. But the problem with that strategy became obvious on voting day when a combined non-Lingenfelter vote turned into something less than the sum of its parts - due in particular to voters who had listed only one option on their ballot.

Of course, it's tough to say how candidates might handle that issue in future races. But it wouldn't be all that surprising to see some semi-formal alliances among candidates to ensure that similarly-positioned contestants maximize their chance of ending up on the winning team by the final ballot.

Less impact than expected: Endorsements

I'll make one possible exception here, as the joint Meili endorsement from former MLAs Peter Prebble and Lon Borgerson early in the race can plausibly be seen as one of the turning points at which Ryan Meili pulled decisively ahead of Yens Pedersen as the youth/renewal candidate. But even in that case, it's difficult to tell whether the endorsement simply reflected what was happening behind the scenes rather than doing much to shape where the race was going. And there's otherwise virtually no indication that even the biggest-name endorsers did much to sway opinions during the course of the leadership race.

Andrew Thomson's endorsement of Deb Higgins could have been the most significant of all in theory, since Thomson would seem to have been a natural Lingenfelter supporter based on his own positioning within the party. But it didn't seem to have any impact in bringing the centre-right of the party into Higgins' camp.

Meanwhile, a constant stream of union endorsements for Lingenfelter didn't stop plenty of key figures in the labour movement from putting their money and efforts behind other candidates. Meili's endorsers Nettie Wiebe and Maynard Sonntag combined in 2001 for twice Meili's first-ballot support in terms of raw votes, suggesting that past supporters weren't particularly motivated by their endorsements. And of course, the presence of a half-dozen caucus endorsers wasn't enough to push Higgins ahead of Yens Pedersen and his zero named endorsements prior to the convention.

Of course, that's likely for the best to the extent it shows that voters were deciding for themselves rather than allowing somebody else's judgment to dictate their choices. And indeed, it may signal how much of a grassroots organization the Saskatchewan NDP truly is - as no matter how well-known or even well-respected a figure might be within the party, no one person or organization was able to exercise much top-down impact on how members cast their ballots.

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