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Lacking style and substance, elections treated like horse races

And they’re off. The federal election now officially on, much of the coverage will focus take on a horse-race feel, concentrating on polling numbers and seat projections.

Nothing like the perpetual election cycle in the U.S., where the contest to lead the Democrats is the current warm-up race, Canada’s relatively short run-up to the vote will very much focus on poll numbers and the personality of the leaders – issues of substance, the public good and the very high likelihood of poor governance to follow whoever wins won’t factor into the discussion.

There are real substantive differences between the parties, though not as much as they’d have you believe and certainly fewer than would actually be delivered by the eventual winner. But the media coverage will focus on a few hot-button items – the bloom is off the rose with Trudeau, Scheer is a social conservative determined to turn back the clock on rights, Jagmeet who? – and the potential swing ridings that will get all the attention.

We’ll be drowning in polling numbers, which is essentially the betting line for the horse race in question.

Polling numbers are the stock in trade for Barry Kay, a political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University who’s spent years tracking polls and extrapolating seat projections.

Noting that the number of polls has been increasing even as their reliability has trailed off, Kay quickly points out that polls aren’t predictions. Rather, they’re akin to taking today’s temperature more so than telling us what the weather’s going to be like on October 21.

 “It isn’t about the future, but the recent past,” he says of polling.

Those looking at the numbers can extrapolate from past opinion polls to assess what the outcome might look like. That was a more precise exercise in decades past, but has suffered from the same technology-driven fragmentation that afflicts much of our society, particularly the media.

With polling, the reason is simple: lower response rates.

Thirty or forty years ago, about 75 per cent of those contacted by pollsters answered their questions. Today, you’re lucky if that’s 10 per cent.

“Fewer than one in ten people who are contacted will participate. For that reason … it’s not as accurate as it used to be,” he said of polling, where the response rate is “dramatically worse.”

Because there’s more a self-selection aspect to responses, pollsters aren’t getting a real cross-section of the voting public, says Kay. That’s why we’ve seen some fairly divergent results from what poll numbers suggested.

Still, it’s not astrology. Even if we give too much credence to polls over more useful coverage, they do serve to gauge something of the public mood. And they serve as an easy shorthand for writing about elections … and for those who aren’t chuffed about looking at the issues, and the even fewer who actually vote.

The fact that government has deteriorated to its current state is testament to what happens when we disengage from politics, ironic in an era of constant political chatter.

Of course, the nature of that constant chatter is indicative of the problem’s root: partisan sniping exacerbated by the fact we’re getting dumber and with an ever-shrinking attention span.

There’s nothing like watching American politics for sheer entertainment. Unfortunately, it’s more amusement than it is the thoughtful political philosophy of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Yet like the accident on the side of the highway, we can’t help but gawk.

As Canadians, we have the luxury of watching at a distance. The sniping between Republicans and Democrats goes on 24 hours a day, every day. It’s fodder for everyone from news channels through the most detached-from-reality blog.

What’s playing out next door could be a version of our future. Dumb. Partisan. Bereft of policies. And the opposite of an engaged citizenry, despite the populist trappings.

The problems in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in Canada, are complex. Partisan bickering and sloganeering won’t help. Apparently, that’s the best we can do. That’s why we have pundits yelling on TV. Ersatz politicians using homey platitudes. And issues reduce to the lowest common denominator.

The crazy-making rhetoric never seems to subside, even after the seemingly-constant election cycle. Such is the polarization in the circus tent that is U.S. politics.

Partisan, divisive politics are now the norm. Not for the betterment of the country, but simply to help to gain or hold on to power, no matter what it costs the rest of us.

If voters are so polarized that they can’t see the obvious – they’ve truly drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid – then we can never have a rational debate about how to move forward.

Of course, that assumes real change is actually a possibility. Keeping the public occupied with mindless partisanship, petty bickering and, above all, pop-culture distractions works out just fine for those who are happy with the status quo: the real power elites who have no interest in changing a good thing.

Powerful corporate interests spend millions to influence public policy, from fighting public health care to quashing environmental controls. Their efforts pay off.

That’s why we won’t see anything of substance from those involved in the federal election campaign. Kay expects negative attack ads to be the norm this time around, the kind of election that reduces voter turnout, a number already expected to fall given our lack of excitement about those heading the parties – Trudeau isn’t generating the buzz he did four years ago, and Canadians know little about Scheer … and are content to keep it that way.

“People aren’t impressed with any of the leaders,” says Kay. In fact, “people are turned off by most of the leaders.”

The partisan, hardline supporters of each of the party won’t be swayed by the campaign messages of others, so the swing voters are the ones all the candidates will be targeting. Right now, polls have the Liberals and Conservatives at a virtual deadlock, and there has been nothing to cause any fluctuations.

But that’s subject to change, which is why today’s polls aren’t a dead-certain prediction of what will happen on October 21.

“Anything can happen. Things can happen in a campaign that we couldn’t see at the beginning,” says Kay, who’ll be taking part tomorrow (Friday) in a symposium hosted by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP) looking at polls and their influence on the electorate.

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