For two years, Conservatives will be all about the 10 per cent

Posted on December 21, 2013 in Governance Debates – Globe Debate
Dec. 21 2013.   Jeffrey Simpson

Almost all you need to know about Canadian politics in the next two years can be summarized in one simple number – 10 per cent.

Ten per cent is the share of the electorate that has deserted Stephen Harper’s Conservatives since the last election. In that contest, the Conservatives captured a shade less than 40 per cent of the votes. For months now, polls have given the Conservatives about 30 per cent.

At 40 per cent, the Conservatives would win again, likely with another majority; at 30 per cent, they would lose power. Their aim – and it will drive almost everything they do in the next two years – will be to recapture all or most of the difference.

What about the other 60 per cent of the voting public? The Conservatives could care less about them. The overwhelming majority of those people aren’t going to vote Conservative, period.

Nik Nanos, the pollster, asks this interesting question on an ongoing basis: Could you imagine voting for a given party? He consistently finds that 60 per cent of voters reply that they could not imagine voting Conservative. The party’s ceiling, therefore, is 40 per cent.

No matter what the Conservatives have successfully done in office, no matter how hard they have tried and how much money they have spent, no matter how favourable the economic circumstances, no matter how inept the other parties, the Conservatives have never shattered that 40-per-cent ceiling. But if they don’t crawl back close to it by the time of the next election, they will struggle to be re-elected, let alone to win another majority.

Given this strategic imperative, you might think that midway through a majority government’s term, a party mired at 30 per cent would be rethinking its strategy. That would be to misunderstand the Harper government.

Instead of rethinking, the Prime Minister has doubled down on his long-term strategy, which depends on polarizing the electorate and identifying and mobilizing the Conservative vote. He reshuffled his cabinet to add younger ministers of the same type as the more experienced ones: hard-edged communicators and sharp-elbowed partisans. He regrouped people in his office and at party headquarters who are unreserved loyalists. There are no even mildly discordant voices, let alone fresh faces or new views, in Mr. Harper’s inner political circle.

Of critical importance to this strategy is identifying in great detail where possible Conservative voters lie and how to motivate them. The party’s vast data banks, its impressive fundraising lists and its years of experience in government give the Conservatives a precise picture of their potential electoral world – the 40 per cent.

Therefore, domestic and foreign policy will be bent with even more relentless direction and energy at hitting the issues to swing that 10 per cent back into the fold. (They also hope, not unreasonably, that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau will continue to provide them with gaffes to be used at an appropriate time.)

This micro-identification of departed or possible Conservative voters will be seen in foreign policy, as in more wooing of Jewish voters through blind support of every Israeli government position, helping Toronto’s Tamils recall the boycott of the Commonwealth Conference, reminding Filipinos about Ottawa’s efforts after Typhoon Haiyan. As an ambassador of a traditional ally recently remarked privately, never had the representative ever seen a government whose foreign policy was so driven by local ethnic appeals.

In domestic affairs, there will be all sorts of micro-initiatives directed at the 10 per cent: action to “protect” consumers against high wireless fees and cable charges, little tax breaks for this group or that, income-splitting mostly to benefit the middle to upper-middle class, protection against bank charges or whatever focus groups reveal Canadians don’t like about the banks.

This political strategy involves finding out what irks the 10 per cent and acting on it. It has nothing to do with vision. The Conservatives know they enjoy a rock-solid base of 30 per cent, and the 60 per cent who dislike them now won’t change.

It’s all about the 10 per cent, and that’s all you need to know.

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