Thursday, August 19, 2021

On time-shifting

There's been some discussion about parts of Canada's federal election campaign which are surfacing somewhat earlier than usual - ranging from party platforms (with the notable exception of the Libs'), to typical late-campaign scare tactics. But it's worth noting that there's obvious reason to make closing arguments from almost the beginning of the campaign - as well as a need for parties to consider what the means as the campaign progresses. 

The provincial elections held in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic have generally seen both a continuation of the trend toward increased advance voting, and a substantial increase in the use of mail-in ballots. But by the time the votes have been counted, the overall turnout hasn't been all that strong.  

And that combination of increased early voting and decreased election-day turnout raises important considerations for campaign. 

First, it means that persuasion in the opening days of the campaign will actually serve to lock in votes early - or conversely, that a failure to reach people by that stage could put them out of reach for the duration of the campaign. And so even to the extent a party might otherwise be tempted to hold off on messages or platforms to reduce the time in which they can be picked apart, the balance tilts strongly in favour of ensuring that early voters have a chance to see what's on offer. 

By the same token, the events which would normally be seen as shaping the outcome of an election - from debates to gaffes to movements behind a particular leader - are all likely to have comparatively less effect than in previous elections due to the votes which have already been banked by the time they would take place. 

At the same time, while those most motivated to vote need to be reached with persuasive messages early in the campaign, the voters left to be accessed on election day are then likely to be those who have put relatively little thought into how to vote as a matter of both partisan support and process. (This factor looms particularly large given the prospect of a COVID wave increasing the risk of attending any remotely busy polling station.)

That doesn't reduce the need to be perceived building momentum in the course of the campaign, or eliminate altogether the prospect of a late-campaign shift. But it does mean that the message for election-day voters may need to focus more than usual on making the case for people to vote at all - while at the same time taking into account the risk that relatively unmotivated voters may be tired of the campaign by then. 

We'll find out in time whether the federal campaign follows the pattern set at the provincial level. And it may be that a national-level air war leads to somewhat different results. But we shouldn't be surprised to see an "always be closing" principle applied in a campaign where potentially decisive votes may be cast long before election day. 

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