Partisanship and Ideology in a Non-Partisan Election

In this post we examine if, and to what extent, Torontonians viewed the 2014 mayoral contest in ideological and partisan terms.  Both ideology and party labels are known to be significant drivers of political behavior, but in this officially non-partisan race, it is uncertain whether voters associated candidates with ideologies or parties.  Toronto Election Study data reveal that, despite the non-partisan nature of the race, voters saw clear ideological differences between the candidates, and most associated the candidates with the major federal or provincial parties.

The Theory

It is well established that parties have a significant impact upon the way that citizens view and participate in the political process.  According to Dalton (2002), political parties “define the choices available to voters” and “shape the content of election campaigns.”  Indeed, how voters relate to parties is a central component of our understanding of voting behavior.  Many voters form a long-standing, psychological attachment to parties, known as ‘partisanship.’ For partisans, their attachment to a party can act as an anchor, providing a default preference over candidates, issues and policy positions.  Not surprisingly, the majority of research on voting behaviour considers voter predispositions toward parties when attempting to explain the way they behave politically. 

For the most part, however, political parties do not contest municipal elections in Canada, and such is the case in Toronto.  Without parties, do voters understand municipal contests in ideological terms, simply without party labels and “teams?”  Even in the absence of formal party labels, do voters associate candidates with parties?  The logic of the spatial voting model (Downs 1957) predicts that, when ideological positions are known, voters will prefer parties or candidates that are closer to them in ideological space.  If voters do not view candidates in ideological terms, however, it makes little sense to expect them to be drawn to candidates closest to them on a traditional left-right ideological scale.  Similarly, the Michigan Model of vote choice, with its emphasis on long-standing partisan loyalties, assumes that voters use party labels as a heuristic, or shortcut, when making their vote choices.  If candidates are not associated with a party, however, such a cue cannot be employed.

The Data

To begin our analysis, we start with assessing the degree to which voters differentiate the candidates in terms of their ideological positions. We draw on a question from the TES which asks respondents to position the three major candidates on a scale from 0 (left) to 10 (right).  For comparison, we perform the same analysis using data from recent federal and provincial elections.  We can therefore compare the perceived ideological positions of the candidates to those of the three major parties from recent partisan elections.  Federal estimates are based upon Canadian Election Study data from 2011. For provincial estimates we draw on data from the 2011 Ontario election collected by the Making Electoral Democracy Work project.  The following table includes the results of this analysis, and shows the mean and standard deviation values for the perceived ideology of the Toronto mayoral candidates and the federal and provincial parties.

Table 1:  Perceived Candidate and Party Ideology




Mean

Std. Dev.


Toronto
N = 2033

Chow

2.96

2.58

Tory

6.53

2.17

Ford

7.38

2.72


Ontario
N = 1337

NDP

3.41

2.06

Liberal

5.02

1.98

Progressive Conservative

7.19

2.52


Canada
N = 1025

NDP

3.06

2.22

Liberal

4.60

2.18

Conservative

7.03

2.39

The above table shows clearly that Torontonians differentiated between the mayoral candidates in terms of ideology.  Chow was perceived as being on the left, while both Tory and Ford were both placed on the right.  Importantly, Ford was seen to be to the right of Tory.  Interestingly, the ideological placements of two of the mayoral candidates were, in fact, quite similar to those of two of the parties at the federal and provincial levels.  Estimates of Ford’s ideology were similar to those of the provincial Progressive Conservative and federal Conservative parties – all had values above 7.  On the other side of the spectrum, Chow was clearly closest to the NDP, both provincially and federally.  John Tory was the sole outlier.  Respondents placed him at 6.53 on the scale, closer to the federal Conservative and provincial PC parties than the centrist Liberals, but further from the right-wing parties than Ford. 

Did these ideological perceptions translate into partisan associations?  Although the election was officially non-partisan, some of the candidates had party ties and many voters associated the candidates with parties.  The following table shows the responses to the following TES question: Which political party, if any, would you associate with (Doug Ford/Olivia Chow/John Tory)?  Note that N = 2850.

Table 2:  Perceived Candidate Party Ties




Olivia Chow

Doug Ford

John Tory

None

5.6%

14.7%

6.8%

Conservative

2.4%

46.2%

55.8%

Liberal

4.8%

10.1%

15.5%

NDP

68.5%

2.0%

1.2%

Green

3.2%

1.8%

1.7%

Other

0.6%

1.9%

0.9%

Don't know

14.9%

23.3%

18.2%

The results of our second table reveal an intriguing association with the ideological observations from the first.  Most voters (68.5%) associated Chow with the NDP, which is unsurprising given her past ties with the party, but also because she had a similar ideological placement to both the provincial and federal parties in Table 1.  The Conservative Party was the modal response for both of the other candidates, though fewer people (46.2%) associated Ford with the Party than Tory (55.5%) (likely due to Tory’s former affiliation with the provincial PCs).  Few voters associated any of the candidates with the Liberal party, though Tory was perceived as a Liberal by more respondents than Ford. 

On the whole, therefore, ideological placements line up well with partisan perceptions.  It appears that many voters understood the 2014 Toronto Election in much the same way as any other partisan contest.  The left wing candidate was associated with the leftist NDP, and the right-wing candidates were associated with the right-leaning Conservatives.  What seemingly makes this election different from those at the federal and provincial level, however, is that partisan perceptions were far from uniform in Toronto.  Only a minority of respondents associated Ford with the Conservative Party, and almost a quarter of voters did not associate him with any party.  Even Olivia Chow, who resigned as an NDP MP in early 2014 in order to run in the mayoral contest, was only associated with the NDP by fewer than 70% of voters.  While there were clear patterns to partisan perceptions, party information was uneven, and in some cases, nonexistent.

Unfortunately, we were unable to carry out the same type of analysis for the hundreds of council candidates that ran in the election. Given the significant lack of information about council candidates and campaigns relative to the high profile mayoral race, it’s likely that party information for candidates would be even more uneven, or entirely absent, except for high profile candidates, especially those with former ties to parties at the provincial and federal levels, and incumbents.