New Brunswick held an election on September 14th that the governing Progressive Conservatives won. Yes, many of you did not notice that our neighboring eastern province had a minority government that failed to secure an agreement with the opposition parties to allow them to govern to the end of a four-year mandate. Premier Blaine Higgs called a short, 28-day campaign and figured that he could win a majority based on public satisfaction with his handling of the COVID crisis and he was correct. What is most interesting is that there were no big rallies, no door to door campaigning, no expensive busses filled with media running from one campaign event to another – essentially, a stripped-down campaign that focused on the leaders and carefully controlled minimalist events. Candidates stood on street corners and waved at passing cars while supporters carried their signs, that was the best they could do. The New Brunswick experiment demonstrated that even with the difficult imposition of far more mail-in ballots that usual, it is possible to run a campaign and have it cost far less than usual.
The New Brunswick experience holds important lessons for the federal political parties as the government reconvenes parliament with a new Speech from the Throne that will be subject to a confidence vote at the Liberal’s insistence. The conventional wisdom amongst the political chattering classes is that the NDP will have no choice but to vote with the Liberals to keep them in power because they are saddled with debt and cannot afford to run an election campaign so soon after the last one. The NDP would have to vote with the other opposition parties for the government to fall. The Liberals will supposedly fill the Throne Speech with progressive goodies to give the NDP enough of an excuse to let Team Trudeau continue in power.
Not so fast. What if a campaign under COVID costs a fraction of what a normal election demands? No expensive plane filled with media, a small private jet for key political leaders will do. No major rallies, no printed pamphlets for door to door campaigning, all virtual literature in digital format e-mailed to voters’ homes. Campaigning via social media and Zoom become the communication tools of choice. The NDP could manage a campaign on maybe 1.5 million dollars, instead of three times that amount. The NDP may figure that they are more likely to save the seats they have now on a quick election that extending the Trudeau mandate and allowing the Liberals to fight a real, full campaign a year or so from now that the NDP would not be able to afford to match. So, who knows, they may find something to seriously object to and vote to bring down the Liberals after all. Chances are slim but not impossible, sometimes political posturing goes too far and Singh may paint himself into a corner and have no choice but to vote against the government because they did not satisfy his list of demands.
The situation is different in the US. Trump is running a campaign with rallies devoid of masks and social distancing. Biden is reluctantly emerging from his basement and has begun to travel to battleground states, holding carefully controlled events with media only and meeting small groups as he respects social-distancing guidelines. Trump is far behind in the national polls, some showing a gap of 12% or more, but those same polls show that voter enthusiasm is much higher with Trump than Biden supporters. Trump still has a narrow path to victory – he must win Florida, hold Wisconsin, and turn Minnesota his way because he is likely to lose Arizona this time. He needs to keep Ohio and Pennsylvania. If Trump voters turn out on election day and vote in person and Biden voters use mail-in ballots that are counted later, it is possible that Trump could win on election night and have the results overturned a week later when the mail-in ballots are counted. Election-night victories all the way down the ballot could be the most important victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether or not we get a federal election in Canada this October, campaigning will be forever changed by the pandemic. New digital strategies for reaching voters will remain, and it will level the playing field for smaller parties who cannot afford the expensive physical outreach that the majors enjoy. It may also lead to more emerging parties, like the Greens, become more successful in identifying pockets of voters and motivating them to participate in the election via mail-in balloting. An increase in younger voters and older voters may result, and they will likely vote for different parties in key swing ridings across the country and have a material effect on the result. New Brunswick was just a test case – the real show may be imminent whether we want it or not.