Tories Reach Out to Young Voters

The LIBERAL opposition's favourite game, Retreat From Defeat (Step 1: Threaten to bring down the Harper government; Step 2: Change your mind; Step 3: Repeat) cannot last forever. It only feels that way.
The LIBERAL opposition's favourite game, Retreat From Defeat (Step 1: Threaten to bring down the Harper government; Step 2: Change your mind; Step 3: Repeat) cannot last forever. It only feels that way.

Tories Reach Out to Young Voters

The LIBERAL opposition's favourite game, Retreat From Defeat (Step 1: Threaten to bring down the Harper government; Step 2: Change your mind; Step 3: Repeat) cannot last forever. It only feels that way. The good news is that by October of 2009 there will be a federal election whether Stéphane DION wants one or not. And then it will matter which leader has done his homework in the interim, and which party's message finds a receptive audience.

Frank Graves does not pretend to know any better than you or I how the next election will end. Graves is the founder and president of Ekos Research Associates, one of Ottawa's more prominent polling firms. I did not visit him for predictions but for a look at longer-term trends that might have a bearing on the next few years in Canadian politics.

Graves identified two big trends emerging. One is a steady, marked shift in Canadians' political identification from liberal to conservative. That's obviously bad news for the federal Liberals. The other trend looks less menacing: the emergence of two broad cohorts of under-40 voters, one broadly left-leaning, the other more conservative. Since they're about the same size they should more or less balance out. Except both of these groups of younger voters have their own generational quirks, and so far Stephen HARPER's CONSERVATIVEs have had better luck reaching out to "their" young voters than the post-Paul MARTIN Liberals have to "theirs."

"It isn't just that Canadians are waiting around for the next Liberal government to come back and find its natural place," Graves says. "There have been - I don't know if you'd call them tectonic - but there have been fundamental changes going on in the political value orientations of Canadians."

These are easy enough to demonstrate. Graves periodically asks respondents of all ages whether they consider themselves small-l liberal, small-c conservative, or neither. Most people say they're neither, but among those who state a preference, Canadian respondents have tended to more frequently identify as liberal than conservative.

That's changing. In one round of polling in 2006, Graves measured 34 per cent who called themselves liberal and 23 per cent who called themselves conservative, while 39 per cent said they were neither. Earlier this year the number who identified with neither camp was up two points to 41 per cent, the conservative group was up five points to 28 per cent , and the liberal number down 10 points to 24 per cent.

"This is not a simple opinion blip but a clear trend line," Graves says. It's backed by other findings. Support for a robust international role for Canada's military is rising. Support for a single-payer public medicare system over private-sector alternatives has fallen from two-to-one to more like 50-50. And Graves is discovering other new attitudes among younger voters - attitudes that for the moment seem to favour the Conservatives.

"When we started segmenting Canadians into various groups, we found there were two groups that tended to capture post-boomer Canada," he says. He calls the first group Progressive Cosmopolitans. They're optimistic, global in outlook, no fans of George W. Bush, and basically left-of-centre in political orientation.

The problem for the Liberals is that this new under-40 group is hard to get a policy handle on. They're immune, for instance, to the siren song of an active federal government. "They would have grown up during the period of retrenchment and dismantling of many of the ingredients of state nationalism that would have propelled Trudeau to his popularity," Graves says. "There's a view that the social safety net has become a hammock and it's perpetuating the problems it was set up to solve."

The biggest surprise for Graves is the emergence of another group of conservative younger voters. He calls them the Continental Conservatives. "They're also optimistic, very comfortable economically, they feel things are going their way." So the Continental Conservatives and Progressive Cosmopolitans, taken together, are far less worried about the assorted security issues - crime, terrorism, illegal immigration - than are Canada's greying baby-boomer voters. But that is where the similarities between the two groups of younger voters end.

The Continental Conservatives, Graves says, "are people who are having young families. They're not allergic to things like immigration. And they're certainly not conservatives in the traditional Canadian sense, which would have still been fairly nationalistic, the DIEFENBAKER lineage. These guys, relatively speaking, are very receptive to things like a North American union, the Security and Prosperity Partnership (the fledgling series of trilateral summits launched by George W. Bush with a succession of Mexican and Canadian leaders), those things would not be troubling to these guys at all.

"And they like Stephen Harper."

The Prime Minister's inability to grow his appeal beyond the 36 per cent of the electorate he won when he was elected is a cliché in political Ottawa; what is less often noticed is that the Harper Conservative vote is as reluctant to shrink as to grow. There's a hard core to the Conservative vote that will make them very hard to beat.

In my 2006 book Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism, I chronicled the efforts of Patrick Muttart, a bright young Conservative strategist, to target the party's message at the gettable voter market, while ignoring those who would simply never consider voting Tory. Tellingly, much of Muttart's research was aimed at those under 40. He found that a couple with one or two children probably voted Liberal, but that a couple with three children was 50 per cent likelier to vote Conservative. The party's odds of attracting that voter's support get better with every child after the third.

Graves's right-leaning Continental Conservatives are actually a little younger, at the median, than his Progressive Cosmopolitans. So were Muttart's voter archetypes, imaginary characters he used to help Conservative strategists understand who they were trying to appeal to. Everyone in the Conservative war room knew "Zoë," the hypothetical single woman in her late 20s who lived in a Toronto condo. Graves would call her a Progressive Cosmopolitan. Similarly, Muttart invented "Mike and Theresa," who moved out of Toronto to suburban Oakville to raise their two children. Mike and Theresa are Continental Conservatives.

Young Ottawa today is visibly more like Mike and Theresa than it used to be. And it's not quite as fun a town if you're a Zoë. The bars don't rock until closing time with quite as many suit-clad political staffers on the make. Tory staffers - never, ever speaking on the record to journalists - admit there's a subtle in-group pressure to get married and start raising a proper brood of children. The poster boy for Generation Harper could well be Ken Boessenkool, who runs the Calgary office of the public-relations firm Hill and Knowlton Canada. Boessenkool played key roles in Harper's 2004 and 2006 campaigns. He and his wife home-school their four children.

Two years ago, Graves was inclined to regard Harper's election as a reaction to Paul Martin's spectacularly unlucky two years in office and, more broadly, to voter fatigue with 13 years of Liberal rule. Without some kind of impetus - probably a "security shock" like a new terrorist attack close to home - he wouldn't have rated Harper's chances of re-election very high. "But now we're seeing that the Conservative movement in Canada has its own demographic feeder group in post-boomer Canada, which I did not expect. Not this clearly."

Remember, none of this is a prediction. Polls tell us interesting things about the recent past and nothing conclusive about the future. But Graves's research identifies a series of challenges for the Liberals. For one thing, Canadians as a whole are simply in a pretty good mood these days. When asked whether their country is on the right track, Graves's Canadian respondents reply "Yes" by a margin of two to one; Americans reply "No" by the same margin. A lean economy might change that, but right-track numbers are generally a strong guide to a government's chances of re-election.

Then there's the novelty of the Progressive Cosmopolitans' preoccupations. A few time-worn avenues of Liberal appeal simply don't work on this crew. "In many respects, they're post-nationalistic," Graves says. "They're not particularly wedded to the old notion of state nationalism. The CBC or medicare aren't the things that make them feel all warm and fuzzy about Canada. They actually couldn't care less. It may be nice that health care was created for their parents and they might be interested in it 10 years down the road, but frankly they don't really believe it's going to survive anyway. They're not really at the stage where they're thinking about pensions yet. The CBC, yeah, okay, but it certainly doesn't have the iconic status that it had for their parents. The old kind of parental state that does things for you from cradle to grave, an ever-expanding range of things that help you out, I don't think that's what they're particularly interested in."

The odd thing is, if you wrote down the characteristics of a leader who could appeal to Progressive Cosmopolitans, the result you'd get would look a lot like Stéphane Dion. For much of his career he was much less interested in defending a Fortress Ottawa against the provinces than most of his cabinet colleagues. He's global in his outlook, identifies strongly with the environment - a winning issue with both of Graves's young voter groups - and he's younger than his erstwhile rivals Michael Ignatieff and Bob RAE. There's a voter pool out there for him, too, if he could only find some way to get its attention. But that's a hurdle Harper has already overcome. And the difference in the two leaders' ability to tap into emerging wellsprings of new voter support may make all the difference when this long phony war ends and their final confrontation begins.

Maclean's May 12, 2008