Three parties, one strategy: Capture the senior vote

Originally published in the Globe and Mail March 23rd, 2011. To go to the globe and Mail website please click here
At election time senior citizens are worth more than the rest of us.

They vote.

And that’s why Canadians will go to the polls for the third time in five years over the Conservatives’ failure in Tuesday’s budget to satisfy an NDP demand to enrich benefits for the elderly.

The Guaranteed Income Supplement may not resonate with the masses, but this election won’t be about the masses. It will be a battle for segments of the population that can be effectively targeted. For all three national parties, wooing the seniors vote is a win-or-lose-the-election priority.


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By targeting doctors for rural areas, new jails and some improvements to the GIS, the Conservatives feel they’ve done enough to appeal to older voters. By making a stand on the GIS and a home-heating tax credit, the NDP have made their own poverty-reduction agenda clear. And since Michael Ignatieff became leader, the Liberals have targeted seniors’ priorities early and often, proposing that family members caring for an ailing relative receive the equivalent of unemployment insurance.

About 75 per cent of Canadians over 65 are reliable voters, meaning they voted in the last federal, provincial and municipal elections, according to the Statistics Canada General Social Survey (and nearly 90 per cent vote in federal elections). Among 25- to 44-year-olds, the proportion of reliable voters is closer to 45 per cent. Targeting older voters is clearly an efficient way to campaign.

And as political scientist Christian Leuprecht points out, rural ridings, which are often only half or one-third the size of urban ridings, also tend to be older. That makes seniors’ votes even more significant in areas such as Atlantic Canada, rural Quebec and Northern Ontario, where several races will have a significant impact on the election. Of the ridings identified by the political website as Conservative targets, Sault Ste. Marie, Welland, Kingston and the Islands, Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, Vancouver South, Burnaby-Douglas and Edmonton-Strathcona all have senior populations that exceed the Canadian average.

“In the demographically fragmented space that Canada is becoming … you need specific strategies to attract these specific segments of voters,” Prof. Leuprecht said. “One of the liabilities the Conservatives have is they’re inherently a party that favours a smaller state. This makes them vulnerable to populations that rely on state interventions. Those tend to be older populations, who rely more on state services such as health care, and those in rural areas who need government to provide economic opportunity and infrastructure.”

The Conservative effort to target ridings described in a party memo as “very ethnic” is by now well known. Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been aggressively courting immigrant voters concentrated around the edges of Toronto and Vancouver. But the Conservatives admit they’re still losing that fight to the Liberal Party.