In the vote that gave us the original Free Trade Agreement in 1988, Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney won the election with the slogan “Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Only four years later, Bill Clinton crushed his incumbent opponent, Republican President George H.W. Bush, with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.”
But if that strategy worked three decades ago, it doesn’t seem to be working now. In fact, there is increasing evidence that people frequently end up voting against their own economic interests.
The Quebec economy, booming in a way it has not for years, was simply not enough for voters to re-elect the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard. And Quebec is just a single example. There is evidence the same thing is happening around the world.
Voting against yourself
Arguably, the U.S. economy under former president Barack Obama’s Democrats had been recovering sharply before they were ousted by the Republicans. Next door to Quebec, Ontario’s economy was also strong when the Liberals got the boot from Doug Ford’s Tories.
Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the the European Union has already created the contraction predicted by many experts, including Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who warned it would lead to inflation and unemployment. Large numbers of poor people in the U.S. continue to support President Donald Trump even though his tax cuts for the rich did nothing for them.
In the U.K. something similar happened as wealthy urban elites, who live where immigrants are plentiful, favoured remaining within the European Union, whereas poorer rural and small-town voters, where the number of immigrants is small, supported Brexit at least partly on the grounds of reducing immigration.
It is almost impossible to be sure exactly why Quebecers voted the way they did, says Ming Li, an economist at Montreal’s Concordia University who has studied the psychology of voting.
For one thing, a vote for the winning Coalition Avenir Québec was by no means a vote against the economy. The CAQ platform, while untried, is full of things the party expects to make people better off, from tax cuts to better pre-school.
Li also says strategic voting may have come into play, as longtime Parti Québécois supporters looked for someplace to park their vote as that party sagged. As in Ontario, the Liberals had been in for a long time and many people wanted a change.
An expert in, among other things, economic game theory, Li has tried to decipher some of the complex set of reasons that voters use to make their decisions. And according to his research, people may not vote for the reasons you think. In other words, people do not add up all their economic interests and see which party will fulfil them best.
“There is definitely the theory that voters are not necessarily rational,” says Li.
Instead, election psychology may be an expression of dissatisfaction with the government you have lived with for several years. The more grievances you have, over things like immigration, or taxes, or health care, the more likely you are willing to ignore the good things the government has been doing for you.
“The governing party might sell how good the economy is,” says Li, “but then the challenger can always find something (voters) are not satisfied with.”
And that may be a lesson for coming elections, including the one quickly approaching in Alberta, and even the federal election just over a year away. Economic well-being and stability just aren’t enough to satisfy voters.
Li says that is the challenger’s advantage. While criticizing a bad economy can help the challenger win, a strong economy may simply not be enough to help an incumbent to cling to power.
And being a little bit angry at the government that has, on the whole, run things pretty well can mean voters are willing to roll the dice on a brand new kind of government with an unproven strategy.
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis