Despite a less than stellar campaign, the Liberals were saved by a last minute shift of public support in their favour. One election night pundit suggested it demonstrated the underlying strength of the Liberal political brand. In fact, the election tells us a great deal about the different party brands
When you look past who won and lost but who came close to winning, an interesting picture of the party’s relative strengths and weaknesses emerges. We looked at how many second place finishes each party had but, more particularly, how many competitive second place finishes they had. We defined a competitive finish as a 2nd place party candidate coming within 3000 votes of the eventual winner. It tells us how a few points shift in public support might have triggered a different outcome.
The most competitive party was the Bloc Québecois. It won a majority of seats in Québec; it had a second place finish in all others and was highly competitive in a third of those.
Brand Analysis: Months before it had been written off as an anachronistic, irrelevant, sovereigntist remnant, but party leader Gilles Duceppe used the sponsorship scandal and a strong performance in the debates to successfully reposition the party brand as an effective trustworthy opposition. Duceppe and the Bloc were the Cinderella story of the election campaign.
Among the national parties, the strength of the Liberal brand stands out. When it did finish second, it was more competitive than either the Conservatives or NDP - and in some regions, highly competitive. For example, it was competitive in almost two thirds of the ridings in Atlantic Canada in which it came second, over fifty per cent of the ridings in Ontario, and a third in BC. Just a few more points of public support in the last couple of days of the campaign would have resulted in a majority Government, comparable to Mr. Chrétien’s last victory. The Liberal weak spots were Québec and Alberta. In Québec where it was highly competitive in only 3% of the ridings in which it had a second place finish. In Alberta, apart from its two MPs who appear to have a personal hold on their seats, the Liberals are not competitive.
Brand Analysis: Since it is the only national party able to win a strong minority position and hope to win a majority government, the Liberals clearly have the strongest national party brand but it does need reinvestment and rebuilding, particularly in Québec.
While majority government was within the grasp of the Liberals, despite their second period surge, it was never close for the Conservatives. They had 95 second place finishes but were highly competitive in only 16. Specifically, they were not competitive in Québec and - even Atlantic Canada where the Progressive Conservatives had traditionally been strong. The Conservatives did well enough to deny the Liberals a majority government but a major surge in public support was required for them to generate a weak minority government position.
Brand Analysis: Party Leader Stephen Harper clearly recognized the weaknesses of his party brand and had been trying to reposition it both before and during the election. But the brand issues remain. The 'chattering classes' would jettison the social conservatives and position the brand as ‘Liberal Lite’ to boost market share. This is probably not a viable strategy since that space is already so well occupied.
The NDP had a new high-energy leader and spent far more in advertising in this election. They were hoping for a better showing than the 19 seats won. They were most competitive in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Numerically, with a surge in support the NDP had a chance of picking up in excess of 30 seats. Practically, they were squeezed between the Liberal and Green Parties, making it very hard for them to climb out of the basement.
Brand Analysis: Without a major collapse in the Liberal brand (unlikely), the NDP are perennial fourth or third place finishers. Their best-case scenario is to occasionally hold the balance of power in a minority Parliament, which, in this case, they missed by one seat. Support for their brand peaked many elections ago. Repositioning has been unsucessful so far but they could consider selling their brand to the Liberals or merging with the Greens to create a new brand.
Political Brands Overall:
This gives a sense of the relative strengths of the party brands but we also have to recognize that party brands as a whole have a diminishing value. Each electoral cycle brings an additional drop in voter participation. This time, 39.5% of all eligible Canadian voters simply opted out of voting. The Liberal Party won the most support with close to five million votes or 36.7% of all votes cast but that only represents 22% of all eligible voters. 78% did not vote, or voted for someone else. With so many people absent or voting for other parties, every party that now forms a government does so with an inherently weak and conditional mandate.
Declining participation creates a value premium on the support of the people that do vote. This exacerbates the natural tendency of political parties to curry favor by catering to narrow interests as opposed to the broader public interest. It also creates a vicious cycle. Issues get reduced to slogans. Identity politics moves to the front. Intimidation and self-censorship remove relevant public issues from electoral discussion. Tactics to repel voters such as negative ads have greater currency. The more politicians cater to narrow interests, the more the general public tunes out and stops voting. As fewer people vote, narrow interests become more electorally important. And so on it goes.
Apart from dealing with their own brand issues, it is not apparent political parties have solutions to the gradual deterioration of political brands overall.