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Elizabeth May’s strategic voting dilemma

Right up until the day she became the Green Party leader, Elizabeth May stated unequivocally that the role of the Greens should not be to get votes but to influence other parties on the environment.

And now, even though the Greens probably will not win a single seat in this election, they could determine its outcome and usher in the Conservative agenda that May has been attacking throughout the campaign.

The dilemma is of May’s own making, for she could have from the beginning declined to run in ridings where Liberals or NDPers had a chance of defeating Conservatives (like her Green Party counterparts in the U.S).

That May is getting nervous about playing the spoiler was revealed two weeks ago when she suggested in an interview that she was in favour of strategic voting: “Clearly, the contribution Canadians can make to a global solution [to climate change] is to get rid of Stephen Harper. I won't say, `You've got to vote Green if you believe in our policies.' I'll say, `Here's our policies, figure out what you need to do ...I'd rather have no Green seats and Stephen Harper lose, than a full caucus that stares across the floor at Stephen Harper as prime minister.”

But it was loo late for such a call and her members and candidates let her know. The next day she issued a statement denying her call for strategic voting: "As I have said time and again, including all during this train tour, strategic voting does not make sense.” But she also revealed her ambivalence: "On top of that, there is no possibility of a deal with any of the other parties."

And yet, a large number of Green supporters seem quite ready to make the leap to another party for their own reasons. According to a recent poll done for CTV, 48 per cent of those intending to vote Green said they were “likely” to change their vote, the highest of any party (for the NDP it was 39 pe rcent, the Libs 31 per cent and the Conservatives, 27 per cent).

There has always been much speculation about which parties the Greens actually take votes from. But a comprehensive study of the 2006 election -- called the Canadian Elections Study -- actually revealed the numbers. And, while 44 per cent of 2006 Green voters identified the NDP as their second choice (20 per cent picked the Liberals and 12 per cent said Conservative) the study showed contradictory results regarding where Green votes actually came from when compared to the 2004 election. When 2006 Green voters were asked who they voted for in 2004, the results in English Canada were surprising: 35 per cent had voted Liberal in 2004, 12 per cent voted NDP and 7 per cent voted Conservative. And the Greens tend to be strongest in areas where the NDP are weak (like Alberta and B.C.’s southern interior) and the fight is between Liberals and Conservatives. This may help to explain the deal between May and Stephane Dion: the Liberals were trying to prevent further losses to the Greens.

And thus Elizabeth May’s dilemma becomes even clearer. Her strategic-voting flip-flop may reflect her agonizing over the possibility that her supporters will help marginalize Stephane Dion, the man she has said she prefers as prime minister.

If the Liberals don’t continue to recover lost territory, watch for subtle signals from Elizabeth May to her supporters regarding voting strategically -- and saving Stephane Dion. She might anger her members and candidates, but her voters are flexible.

The CES report concluded: “Green Party voters tend to be ‘soft’ voters, meaning that their loyalty to the Green Party is weak. Compared to supporters of other parties, greater shares of Green party voters [23 per cent] made their decision to support the party on election day and smaller shares were committed voters before the campaign began.” Just a whisper from May might do the trick.

Murray Dobbin writes the State of the Nation column for The Tyee.

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