The 2011 campaign was supposed to be different.
It was the province’s first fixed election, with a host of new rules and plenty of organizational lead time to level the political playing field. It was Premier Greg Selinger’s big test, his first time wooing an entire province, his chance to step out of the shadow of charismatic former premier Gary Doer, one of Canada’s most popular politicians.
Two years ago this month, Selinger squared off against Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh Mc-Fadyen, who already had one campaign to his credit and whose party had gained strength. Polls, and the final vote on Oct. 4, showed it really was the tightest race since the 1950s, with the NDP and the Tories within two points of each other in the popular vote.
It was supposed to be the first exciting campaign in a dozen years.
In some ways, it was. Thanks mostly to a series of relentless NDP attack ads, 2011 was the most negative campaign in living history. And, when the dust cleared, two party leaders announced their resignations.
In other ways, virtually nothing changed in 2011. Almost no seats swapped hands. Voter turnout remained abysmal. Policy ideas, especially those geared toward women and the poor, were meek. The 2011 campaign revealed a lot about the fundamental nature of Manitoba’s political culture and its geographic and class divisions.
It’s that fundamental nature, and how the 2011 election illuminated it, that local and national political scientists set out to explore in a new book slated to be released next year.
The book — Understanding 2011: The Manitoba Election — is part of a first-of-its-kind national research project in which experts surveyed thousands of Canadians right after a cluster of five provincial elections in 2011, including Manitoba’s.
And, the book is part of renewed interest in provincial politics, a topic that typically gets little love from academics who have for years focused on more esoteric subjects such as the nature of federalism, multiculturalism and identity politics.
The Winnipeg Free Press got a sneak peak at the book, edited by University of Manitoba political scientists Andrea Rounce and Jared Wesley. It covers everything from Twitter to how civil servants voted to why women’s issues got short shrift. Among the most interesting elements are the anatomies of the three major campaigns.
Polling has gone so disastrously wrong in recent elections in Alberta, BC and Quebec that it might be surprising to know just how right pollsters were in Manitoba. That's according to University of Manitoba political scientist Andrea Rounce, who dissected public opinion research during the last campaign. In 2011, Manitobans got the most polls ever, but they all came during the last week of the election after everyone complained loudly about the lack of polls. They were also pretty accurate, especially those done by Winnipeg's Probe Research and Angus Reid, which were bang on. And, many of the legitimate criticisms of campaign-period polling didn't appear to hold true. The release of the polls did not appear to alter the outcome of the election, either because people jumped on the bandwagon of the perceived frontrunner or chose to vote strategically. All in all, polling actually worked pretty well in the election, according to Rounce. "Ultimately, the argument made by public opinion researchers that the public deserves to know how others are feeling about a party, party leaders and election issues during an election is a fair one," she wrote.
HOW DID BUREAUCRATS VOTE?
For the NDP, mostly, and that's part of the reason the New Democrats have been so successful in Winnipeg. Using the Canadian Provincial Election Survey, the U of M's Andrea Rounce teased out responses from roughly 200 public sector workers and 200 private sector workers in Manitoba. She found that civil servants, not surprising, tended to be more bullish than private sector workers about Manitoba's economy, the state of democracy in the province and Greg Selinger's performance as premier. And, they voted heavily for the NDP, while private sector workers overwhelmingly voted Conservative. One element of this could be the perception the NDP will be easier to bargain with when collective agreements come due, said Rounce. The provincial civil service is 15,000 strong and lives mostly in Winnipeg -- not including federal employees and city staff. It's too simple to say civil servants keep the NDP in power, but they are a reliable and friendly voting block, and the divisions between private and public sector workers is a key one in Manitoba politics.
HOW DID PRIVATE AND PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS VOTE IN 2011?
It was supposed to be the closest election in more than a decade. If a tight race drives interest and interest drives people to the polls, turnout was supposed to be high. It wasn't. Only 55.8 per cent of Manitobans voted, near the record low.
Why? There are lots of answers, argue political scientists Lydia Summerlee and Jared Wesley. For one, most seats were considered safe, especially in the north and in the North End of Winnipeg.
Voter turnout in safe seats was abysmal, bringing down the provincial average.
And, as always, a voter's real life mattered. Manitobans who were older, richer, better educated and more interested in politics voted more often, and they tended to vote NDP. A tight province-wide campaign could not trump the downer effects of safe seats and socio-economics.
All this bodes badly for the future, even as voting gets more accessible. "Given the entrenched nature of Manitoba's electoral map, and the number of consistently safe seats and regions, however, provincial turnout is unlikely to increase dramatically in the absence of major changes to the electoral system that would provide a different set of incentives to political actors to broaden their electoral appeal beyond strong regional support bases," wrote Summerlee and Wesley.
RIDINGS WITH THE HIGHEST TURNOUT
(All featured tight, high-profile local races)
River Heights - 72.5%
Seine River - 70.8%
Southdale - 70.1%
Kirkfield Park - 69%
River East - 67%
RIDINGS WITH THE LOWEST TURNOUT
(All safe seats with little buzz during the campaign.)
Morden-Winkler - 40.8%
Thompson - 36.7%
Kewatinook - 35.7%
Flin Flon - 35.3%
The Pas - 30.4%
University of Winnipeg political scientist Joan Grace scrutinized how women fared in the 2011 election, and the results weren't pretty. Grace found that women's issues were largely left out of the campaign, especially in the NDP's platform, even though the party traditionally relies heavily on women voters and has cast itself as a promoter of equality. When women's issues were mentioned by any party, they were often embedded in policies pitched to families and parents. "What about women as part-time workers, the primary caregiver, as victims of violence or as poor single mothers or a struggling senior or aboriginal woman?" wondered Grace. Interestingly, the Tories had the lowest number of female candidates, but were the only ones to make specific references to women's issues in their party platform, which included support for mammograms and a mention of women as the frequent victims of crime. And, later in the campaign, the Tories made the only specific pledge geared toward women when the party promised an expanded Osborne House and ankle bracelets for men convicted of domestic violence. Meanwhile, the NDP, which a decade ago had a party policy promoting equality, made virtually no mention of women in its platform. Instead, the party reverted to its tried-and-true strategy of hugging the centre and dominating its idealism with electoral pragmatism. That often leaves women off the agenda, argues Grace.
Green - 16 / 50%
NDP - 18 / 32%
Liberal - 14 / 25%
PC - 12 / 21%
Other - 1 / 25%
In 2007, 32% of the province's MLAs were women. Following the 2011 election, that number dropped slightly to 28%.
During the 2011 race, campaigns tweeted and Facebooked, but grudgingly, and social media wasn't a huge element of the campaign. Nor did being a frequent and effective tweeter make a candidate any more likely to win, argues former journalist and frequent tweeter Curtis Brown, now with Probe Research. The Liberals were the most freewheeling tweeters, and leader Jon Gerrard was the only leader whose tweet weren't typically written by a staffer. The Tories tried to restrict and discourage candidates from tweeting for fear they'd run afoul of official party policies, while the NDP used Twitter to wage "a highly-organized propaganda campaign" that included a rapid response team that tweeted spin and counter-attacks quickly. Still, in the end, it was partisans and political junkies talking to each other, rather than the parties really having a two-way conversation with undecided voters, says Brown. It was a lost opportunity in a campaign that was still almost entirely waged the traditional way.
Leaders on social media
NDP Leader Greg Selinger
Twitter followers - 2,138
Tweets during the campaign - 43
Facebook friends - 784
PC Leader Hugh McFadyen
Twitter followers - 1,273
Tweets during the campaign - 38
Facebook friends - 982
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard
Twitter followers - 1,169
Tweets during the campaign - 101
Facebook friends - 2,054