The Politics of Election Issues and Promises

I freely admit that it’s been some years since I took Political Science 101 but some things never change.

Politics is a positional activity.  The greater the difference in the positions taken by candidates, the greater the polarization of the vote at election time.

Politicians try as best they can to identify the key issues that the election will be fought on and given the opportunity they will choose issues that they see as being politically advantageous to them, specifically issues that they see as strengths in terms of their candidacy.

In some instances the issues are defined for them through public opinion polls and the media.

With Winnipeg having had the dubious distinction of leading the country in various crime categories for some years now, it was not a surprise that crime emerged as one of, if not the prime issue, in the recent civic election.

Once an issue such as crime gains prominence in the media, and is accepted by the public as a legitimate election issue, politicians are put in a position of having to respond to the issue in their election platform.

When this happens candidates attempt to establish distance between their position and the position taken by their opposition and argue the superiority of their position, while discounting the merits of the position being taken by their opposition.  They attempt to differentiate themselves and convince the public that their position is superior to that of other candidates.

In the recent civic election this scenario played itself out in the mayoralty election.

Both the incumbent mayor and the main challenger agreed early on that crime was a major issue in the election.

Same old, same old

The incumbent, not surprisingly, played the same card that proved successful in the past: i.e. pledging the hiring of more police officers without apparent concern about how those additional police salaries would be funded.  Being an astute non-politician the incumbent no doubt realized that the hiring of 58 additional police officers is a long and arduous process, so there will be no significant additional cost to the city for some time (perhaps not until mid to late 2011).  And guess what, there is a provincial election slated for October 4th 2011.

Do you think there is any possibility that the funding of these additional 58 police positions could result in a bidding war between the current governing party and the official opposition as to what percentage of the salary of those 58 positions (and perhaps even more positions) they would pay for if they were to form the next government?  Perhaps the incumbent was not too worried about the cost  and how the new positions would be funded.  He was confident he was playing with house money.

Root causes and prevention

The challenger for the mayoralty position very successfully differentiated herself from the incumbent in terms of her crime platform.  Her platform centered on programming designed to deal with root causes of crime, greater community involvement and a revitalization of community policing.  I think the issue from the electorate’s perspective (many of whom probably wanted to support this position) was that there was not enough meat on the bone.

From a political perspective, once the incumbent committed to creating new police positions there was no downside to the challenger making a similar pledge but dedicating the additional police resources to specific crime prevention and neighbourhood revitalization efforts in the highest crime areas in the north and west end.  Such a commitment might well have made her approach palatable to voters, many of whom were desperately looking for a viable alternate to ‘same old, same old’.

For the challenger and citizens of Winnipeg, particularly those living in crime-ridden areas, I believe this was truly an opportunity missed.