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The Simple Math and Complex Psychology of Strategic Voting

10/27/2014 05:50 EDT | Updated 12/27/2014 05:59 EST
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Do the math.

With Doug Ford at or below 30 per cent in vote intentions -- and no visible signs of an electoral machine to pull out his vote in Ford Nation today -- there is no need to vote strategically in Toronto.

That's because there is no vote split in which Doug Ford can win.

Don't believe me? Then think it through:

* Subtracting the Ford's 30 per cent leaves 70 per cent of the vote for his major competitors.

* To win, either John Tory or Olivia Chow needs to reach 35 per cent of the vote. Even if there was a perfect split of the non-Ford vote between Chow and Tory, that's enough for either to win the mayoralty.

* You'd have to believe that Doug Ford could get more than a third of the vote, before a strategic vote for your second choice to defeat him would make sense.

Quite fantastically, the polls have Doug Ford polling higher now than Rob Ford was before he withdrew. And yet Doug will have had less time to assemble a machine to identify and pull the Ford Nation vote, and he'll do so without the key people behind Rob's successful campaign of four years ago, notably numbers whiz Mitch Wexler and strategist Nick Kouvalis. Doug even lost the thumb drive Wexler gave him with the 2010 Ford mayoralty database on it, if you remember. Thus they would have had to start from scratch this time.

So, I don't believe even 30 per cent will show up at the polling booth for Doug Ford, polls notwithstanding.

But suppose they did.

Anecdotally (although it's not been explicitly tested in any opinion poll I'm aware of), people who claim to prefer Olivia Chow for mayor say they are reluctantly supporting John Tory to make sure Doug Ford doesn't win.

Assuming 1 in 4 of John Tory's current voters fell into that group, if they all swung back to their first choice of Olivia Chow, she would win the race.

So, there's nothing "strategic" about a strategic vote (there rarely is). But people seem to really really want to do it anyway, and I'm not sure why.

I'm starting to wonder if it makes people feel better about their choice to *say* it's strategic, when in fact they actually really prefer the person they're planning to vote for.

Or maybe it's a desire to go along with the crowd, or a reluctance to buck the status quo.

I've also noticed that strategic voting arguments don't work equally well for all candidates. Chow launched her campaign with a strategic voting pitch, that only she could beat Rob Ford. The most important strategic objective of John Tory's campaign was to prove that wasn't true, and having succeeded in doing so, they've been able to reap the "strategic voting" bonus in a way Chow could not.

Certainly the people who advocate it want to be seen as king- or queen-makers who influenced the outcome of the race, and presumably collect some influence in the new regime.

The Toronto Star also tries to insert itself into elections to push the "strategic" option, but not always wisely. In 2010, they pushed a number of candidates to pull out of the race so their choice could have a clear shot at Rob Ford. In retrospect, Ford's vote only grew in response as there were fewer candidates to cut into his vote.

The one thing that is clear, is that the consequences of strategic vote last a long time. To guard against the very low risk of a rerun of the last four years, Toronto progressive voters who back John Tory may be setting themselves up for four more years of the same Ford agenda, only more competently administered and with less fodder for the tabloids.

In Alberta, progressive voters held their nose and voted for Allison Redford for fear of a Wild Rose government. We all know what happened next.

The problem with strategic voting is that it always looks backward, not forward, it is a negative vote that gives no positive mandate for change, and it leaves the winner with no accountability for any platform commitments and far too much carte blanche. Strategic voting completely sucks any debate of issues out of political debates, and reduces our democracy to a series of Seinfeldian elections.

It also gives a pretty easy playbook to people who want to keep a conservative agenda in place.

Now all they have to do is to back an extreme candidate, and a slightly less extreme candidate. The more extreme the first candidate, the more willingly progressive voters will flock to the slightly less extreme candidate against all their own claimed values and political interests.

They only need to dangle a terrible option, to get progressives to accept something slightly less awful from their perspective.

This is why conservatives love it when progressives engage in strategic voting. And this is why progressives can't have nice things. If they don't vote for progressive change, they won't get it.

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