WASHINGTON — Economic statistics can be a pretty good predictor of election trends — which is why so many people involved in Canada's current federal campaign are bracing for the release of quarterly GDP data on Tuesday.
Research from different countries including the United States shows an uncanny correlation between trends in the Gross Domestic Product and voter behaviour.
A book by American political scientists shows that since the Second World War the incumbent party lost the White House all three times the economy grew less than one per cent in the first two quarters of an election year.
"Why are these things so important? Because, taken together, they correctly predict the winner of most presidential elections," says the book "The Gamble," by political scientists Lynn Vavreck and John Sides.
There are exceptions, where freak factors played a role. In 16 recent elections, the incumbent party lost three times when GDP grew above two per cent. In all three of those elections, there were prominent third-party candidates — George Wallace in 1968, Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000.
So what do the numbers say about Canada?
For Stephen Harper, there's good news and bad news.
The Canadian Press analyzed economic and election data since the Second World War and found a similar correlation between GDP numbers and election results as in the U.S.
The bad news for the Conservative leader: Canadian governments are far likelier to lose re-election in years when the economy grows at a rate lower than three per cent — and the current economy certainly appears to fit that description.
The good news for him? He's defied the law of political gravity before.
The Conservative leader is the only incumbent prime minister since the Second World War to actually gain seats in a year where the economy grew less than 2.5 per cent.
He achieved that in 2008, when the global economy was rolling off a cliff.
In fact, only three times has a prime minister in the postwar period gained seats in a year where the economy grew less than three per cent. Harper did it twice. The third time it happened also involved a relatively new Conservative prime minister, governing on the tail end of a long Liberal reign: John Diefenbaker.
A prominent political economist says lots of other factors come into play.
Conrad Winn says voters also make choice based on how long an incumbent has been in office, how likable that leader is, how the rest of the world is faring and whether the incumbent is likelier than the opposition to secure a recovery.
That being said, the GDP numbers matter here, too.
"There is a monumental amount of evidence in democratic countries ... that show the economy is a fantastic predictor of outcomes," said Winn, a political scientist and polling expert at Carleton University.
"That is because in the culture of democratic peoples, voters normally worry most about the economy."
Governments in Canada have a 12-4 record in winning re-election in years when the economy has grown three per cent or more since the Second World War. Their record is only 4-3 when it hasn't.
Harper has prepared for Tuesday's news by delivering the same three messages he clung to as the storm broke in late 2008: deny a recession is coming, present his party as an island of stability and cast himself as the only leader who'd run a budget surplus.
"We're living in times of ongoing, global economic uncertainty," Harper told a rally Monday.
"Now more than ever is the time to stay the course, with our government's plan for jobs and growth."
His Tories have also launched a pre-emptive strike against any headline-writers inclined to blanket news pages, depending on the numbers, with banners like, "Country in recession."
Harper declined to discuss whether sub-zero GDP numbers would place Canada in recession. A day earlier one of his senior ministers, Jason Kenney, suggested it wouldn't.
Kenney argued this year's downturn is mainly limited to the energy sector and not a widespread, economy-wide slump that would meet the technical definition of a recession.
When asked about the R-word at a news conference Monday, Harper said: "We're seeing the economy grow over roughly 80 per cent of the sectors. So we're seeing positive non-energy export growth."
Here's another bit of statistical history.
No postwar prime minister has ever called an election during a recession. In 2008, Harper visited the governor general to dissolve Parliament a few weeks before the first of three negative quarters — and an undisputed, major global recession — began.
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