Canada votes in a general election on Monday. It seems a good time to consider what drives voter choice. There are multiple explanations and most have at least some support. One popular theory is that people vote for the leaders of parties. Certainly leaders get much of the blame when things go wrong — as they have for the Liberals in recent elections.
Some people don’t like it that leaders get so much focus. Intense scrutiny of a leader seems more appropriate in presidential systems, the US, rather than the parliamentary model of Canada and the UK. Some commentators suggest that voters should decide on other factors that the commentators feel should be seen as more important by the public, such as the economy. The problem with assessments based upon the economy, either retrospective (punish/reward the incumbent for past failure/success) or prospective (choose who you think will be best for the economy going forward), is that assessing the economy is hard. (There are three types of economic commentators — liars, fools and those who admit that they don’t know much.) The public are rather better at assessing people than the economy. We assess people every day of our lives and while we aren’t perfect there is often some basis to our assessments.
Do people therefore use assessments of the leaders in their choice? Yes. But what type of assessment? “…evaluations of character affect vote choice more than evaluations of competence…. What is not clear is why?” (Bittner, 2010, page 1999). Some commentators seem unhappy with this. I personally tend towards a slightly more optimistic view than most. Maybe we assess character because what the candidates try to do is indicative of their priorities. Most policies will be implemented by someone other than the prime minister so the winning candidate will have help on the competence front but if the candidate’s priorities are wrong no one can help with that.
If you are able to vote in Canada on Monday it’ll be interesting to see how much your assessment of each leader’s character plays in your choice.
Read: Amanda Bittner (2010) Personality Matters: The Evaluation of Party Leaders in Canadian Elections, page 183- 207, in Voting Behaviour In Canada, Edited by Cameron D. Anderson and Laura B. Stephenson, UBC Press