Quebec Politics – Federal Voting Choice in Quebec_Part 3

Federal Vote Choice in Quebec 

It’s Sovereignty Stupid!

by M.Arnot, M.Campbell, E.Hjertaas, D.Moore & B.Nolan

Agential Factors: The short-term determinants of choice

Having established what structures determine the existence of a relevant choice, we are now able to address what factors influence how this choice is actually made during an election.  This section is premised on the idea that elections should not be thought of solely as “neutral” processes “through which citizens simply register pre-identities and political understandings” (Cairns, 219: 1994), that in fact campaigns can have a significant effect, having the power to convince people to vote counter to, or in a more nuanced way, than would be suggested by simply compiling their social background characteristics.  In support of this, in the 2000 election one in three Canadian voters changed their vote choice during the campaign (Blais et al.: 2002: 76).  In Quebec there is reason to believe that while the dynamics of this variability are different, they still exist in some form.  Howe deduces that this is the case because of the elasticity of opinion on each of the determinants of sovereignty support (1998: 32).

Mirroring and corresponding to the effects of partisanship on vote choice in Quebec (Clarke, et al.: 1996; Blais et al., 2002: 118), data suggests that the strong sovereignists (with a powerful identification to Quebec) and strong federalists (with a powerful identification to Canada) form two relatively unmovable[1] voting blocks (Howe, 1998: 53).  For these individuals, sovereignty opinion translates directly into their vote choice; aligning with the corresponding sovereignists party (the BQ) or the traditionally federalist parties (the Liberals or Conservatives).  As Howe puts it, “to the extent any movement is possible… it is only a section of the Quebec population that is likely to be affected.  Those with strong Quebecois identities are apt to prove implacable” (59).  Those with flexible opinions possess an identity somewhere in between that of the two extremes.  As such, the extent to which a campaign can be effective is the extent to which it succeeds in affecting the opinions of these crucial voters.

What is the distribution of the voting population across these three blocks – (1) unmovable federalist, (2) unmovable sovereignist, and (3) those whose positions can be changed during a campaign)?  Although independence is not the same as sovereignty, a recent poll on the flexibility of opinions on independence provides an approximation.  In 2005, 36% of Quebecers stated that they could still change their mind in a vote on independence, including 34% of self-identified independentists, and 37% of federalists.  This group of movable voters consisted mainly of Francophones and Allophones, with a smaller but still significant group of English speakers (Léger Marketing: 5) roughly illustrating the number of movable voters. 

We have termed the factors being discussed in the following section “agential” in that they depend on the political agency of key actors within the system who have the power to affect the perceptions and opinions of the electorate.  They attempt to do so in their own best interests. They are the “z factors” mentioned, but not elaborated on in the model developed by Pinard and Hamilton (1986: 226).  The media, politicians, and voters all adopt different roles and operate within different political environments as Election Day approaches than what is typical (Mendelsohn & Nadeau, 1999: 64).

Looking at such short-term determinants of choice it is important to reconsider sovereignty as not a broad movement or ideological preference as was the case in the previous section, but as a campaign issue relative to which political actors (parties, party leaders, and voters) situate themselves.  As an issue, sovereignty is not dichotomous: political actors are able to situate themselves on a gradient from identifying with a strong association with Canada on one end, to complete independence on the other, with any number of positions in between.

We will begin this section of our discussion by looking at the effect of party leaders and the parties themselves, and then turn to the media – which to a large extent acts as a filter between these agents and the voters they are targeting.  Finally we will discuss the voters themselves, and the nature of their agency in federal elections in Quebec.

Leaders and their Parties

André Turcotte has said that every election is about leadership (2001: 281) as it is during the general elections when leaders attempt to persuade the Canadian voter that they have the qualifications to lead this country.  Because Quebec is so dominated by the sovereignty issue this is far less the case.  While a leader certainly needs to prove a base level of competence, his or her ability to lead the country is far less salient than their ability to advocate for a particular position on sovereignty.  They are thus still highly important still possessing significant power to change voter opinions during elections, as they do in Canada in general (Brown, 1988: 729). This power stems from their access to voters through the media and through their party’s infrastructure, to advocate for themselves and their agendas; their power to do this is bolstered or crippled by their social background characteristics and regional affiliation with which key constituencies of voters will either identify or not.

Before further exploring this it is important to understand that leaders draw much of their influence from their being used as a shortcut in opinion formation for voters who do not have the time or the capacity to digest all campaign and political information that is relevant to making an informed choice, but still intend to vote (Cutler 2002: 469). It is critical to understand exactly what it is about leaders that cue such voters in a way that informs their ultimate vote choice (Brown, 1988: 73). Employing a series of open-ended questions, Steven Brown and his colleagues found that there are four grouped categories on which the electorate judge leaders: (1) politically relevant personality traits such as competence, dynamism, and integrity; (2) non-political traits (for example, personality, sociability etc.); (3) social background and political positions (e.g., “he is French Canadian”); and (4) their political skills and demonstrated good judgments, particularly in prominent past episodes.  They match these traits to a prototypical conception of an ideal profile for a leader, and are on that basis affected in their vote choice (Brown, 1988: 753).  A leader who very closely matches their ideal will be trusted to accurately reflect their opinions on the issues (or in Quebec, the determinants) and will thus attract votes.  Therefore, in a campaign it is the prerogative of a leader to identify what possessed traits the flexible voters will most and least relate to, and project or play down those traits accordingly.

A highly salient trait in federal elections, and especially in Quebec, is regional affiliation.  Fred Cutler asserted generally that “geographic distance between a voter and party leader has a strong effect on electoral choice,” (2002: 478). He points out that Canadians have traditionally been hyper-sensitive to the regional affiliation of party leaders, “particularly on distributive issues — which neighbourhood to tear up for a highway, where to put the toxic-waste dump, where to build a prison, an airport, or a park, whether to allow offshore drilling, where to disburse patronage.”  He argues that localism may be an effective orientation for the voter in trying to predict a legislator’s preferences.’ Whether or not this is correct, the empirical findings can be viewed as confirmation, and a generalization, of the well-trodden “friends and neighbours” effect (Cutler, 2002: 480).  This applies very poignantly to Quebec as its citizens are regionally united as “friends and neighbours,” in a manner of speaking, by their nationalist feelings.  In fact, in 1993 André Blais and Richard Nadeau advanced a model with a high degree of explanatory power regarding federal election outcomes focusing on (1) the rate of unemployment and (2) whether or not a leader is from Quebec (787).  They found specifically that the Liberals get on average 13 percentage points more votes in Quebec when their leader comes from Quebec, a strong enough boost to, with the bandwagon effect, typically push the party into office (780).

We have seen to a degree that vote choice is influenced by voters’ ability to identify with a leader regionally, but this can be applied to broader characteristics. Women are more likely than men to vote for female candidates, and in the United States it has been proven that black voters are more likely to vote for black candidates (Cutler, 2002: 468).  More significantly, it follows that Francophones will be more likely to vote for a Francophone candidate, and since the Anglophone block of voters is generally set in their vote choice for the Federal party, it also follows that a party benefits Quebec by putting forward a Francophone leader.

Turning now to the leadership debates, evidence drawn from data collected over the last 30 years suggests that they have been a major factor in influencing vote choice. David Lanoue asked whether the 1984 debates translated into increased vote share for Mulroney (1991: 62). He found that public opinion polls showed a 10-point swing in favour of Mulroney in Quebec in the aftermath of the French Debate (54). The fact that there are separate debates in French and English is important to note as it seems fair to assume that the French debates are primarily viewed by French Quebecers – the group, as mentioned repeatedly, most important in defining election outcomes in Quebec.  Leaders can tailor messages directly to this audience and express them through these debates.  Furthermore, they put on display a leader’s ability in French which, as just discussed, will be salient for those who vote on the basis their ability to identify a leader as “like me.” That said, we must not give too much value to debates in determining which party will win the election. In both the 1988 and 1997 Canadian elections we saw that a leader may win the debates, but lose the election (Gidengil, Blais, Nadeau, & Nevitte, 2000: 4).

Considering this influence, how do leaders specifically affect vote choice through the sovereignty prism?  A charismatic leader can play up or play down perceptions of unequal treatment of Quebec from the rest of the province.  It is informative to consider the effect of Preston Manning in the early and mid-90s.  Emerging in 1993 as the leader of the Reform party and advocating a resistance to substantive accommodation with Quebec (Jenkins, 2002: 219).  In so doing he galvanized support for the new nationalist party of Quebec, contributing to the catapulting of the BQ into prominence on Quebec’s federal political scene.  In essence, their policy positions on the issue of the status of Quebec within the federal system fed off of one another.  This is a perfect example of leaders’ actions manipulating perceptions of unequal treatment in Quebec and consequently affecting their vote choice.  Examples of leaders attempting to affect perceptions of the economic consequences of sovereignty abound from the national debate surrounding the 1995 referendum.  Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin (the Finance Minster at the time) employed scare tactics, warning that a separate Quebec could not necessarily count on close economic union with Canada, and would have an “arduous” time being incorporated into NAFTA (Department of Finance, 1995).  Finally, looking to identity, while it is not so dynamic as the other factors, Howe argues that the sizeable portion of Quebecers with a relatively weak national identity can be persuaded to place a higher priority on negative economic factors (1998: 54), following from the above discussion of prospect theory.  Leaders are uniquely positioned, as was just established, to be so persuasive.

The agential powers of leaders, as we have seen, are very closely related to the larger structure to which they belong: their political parties.   Parties themselves have agenda setting power deriving from (1) their communications infrastructure connecting them, and especially their leaders, to voters (as was discussed above), and (2) their permanence, allowing voters to form long term political identities in association with or against them.  This long term identity derivatively affects perceptions of leaders who come to signify it.  Without association with parties, leaders’ depth rarely extend below the current campaign, affecting voter confidence in them, and consequently causing their support to be much more fickle (Campbell, 1985: 30).

The long term identities of Quebec’s major parties, when considered in conjunction with the long term determinants that were discussed above, have profound implications to voter preference in federal elections.  The BQ gains support that is predominantly French-speaking not because these voters are concerned about language, but because the Francophones are more likely to be primarily attached to Quebec and to feel unequal recognition from English-speakers in Canada, and thus to be in favour of independence.   They also gain consistent support from the most intense Quebec nationalists (Howe 1998:59). The two main federalist parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, are supported by some Francophones and a vast majority of Anglophones because of the attachment these segments feel to Canada. Francophone support of federalism will also increase if their perception of unequal recognition decreases. Further, voting in Quebec is strongly influenced by voters’ perceptions of the consequences of independence to economics.  Fluctuations in sovereignty support are most likely to occur as a result of altering expectations of the economic results of independence, and/or changing the view that Francophones receive unequal treatment.  Attempts to alter national identification will likely be ineffective, as this is a long term, often permanent disposition (31).

Currently, the three parties mentioned are positioned distinctly on the issue of sovereignty, with the Conservatives filling the void between the liberals on the stronger federalist side, and the BQ on the sovereignist side.


The power of the media to affect vote choice derives from their unparalleled access to voters and their role, especially in the case of televised media, as the primary transmitters of political information to them.  What is important to note is that it is not passive in this role (Fournier, 2002: 65), and has its own agenda in how it presents political information, especially during a campaign period (Blais et al., 2002: 35), and through the tone of its coverage, has significant power to affect public opinion (Mendelsohn & Nadeau, 1999: 72).  Voters make their political evaluations of leaders and their parties based on “media-reported individual performance” (Turcotte, 2001: 288): editorial discussions, political columns, nightly news and newspaper coverage.

Media is unique in Quebec for the existence of two parallel systems differentiated by the language of their coverage and their viewers.  Considering that, as we established above, variability in vote choice exists primarily in the Francophone community, the French-language media is central to defining federal election outcomes in the province. 


Voters have a distinct status within this framework of analysis.  Voters form the electorate who ultimately decides who wins and who loses elections, and this voter choice is the central theme of the paper. They are the intended recipients of the manipulative efforts of the other political agents. The agency of the voters themselves must be emphasized.  Their choice is not always so simple as to be based purely on their first order preferences, relatively easily identified and targeted by the other political agents above discussed. Voters can exercise their agency in a different manner through strategic voting.  A strategic vote is “for a party [or candidate] that is not the preferred one, motivated by the intention to affect the outcome of the election… [It is] based on preferences and expectations about the outcome of the election and on the belief that one’s vote may be decisive” (Blais et al., 2001: 344). A strategic vote requires two conditions: (1) the vote must be cast for a party that was not the first choice party, and (2) it must be motivated by expectations about the likely election outcome (344). Strategic votes in a plurality system are generally made on the basis of the closeness of races in the voter’s riding, but could also include considerations about the party’s chance of becoming either the government or the official opposition (345).

Election studies suggest that in recent years strategic voting was not very important. In 1997, strategic voting was about 3% of the vote both inside and outside Quebec (347). In the 2000 election, 3% of those outside Quebec voted strategically, while there was no discernible effect in Quebec (187).  However, the lack of success of the NDP in Quebec may suggest that the indicators being used for strategic voting are misleading in that province.  The NDP is a solidly federalist party in regards to a stance on Quebec sovereignty, and is ideologically similar to the BQ.  It is highly plausible to suppose that there are many in Quebec who would naturally gravitate to the NDP for its marriage of those two traits.  However, because a strategic vote is based on expectations about the outcome of the election, even those who might consider the NDP otherwise would face an overwhelming incentive to vote for the Liberal party if they were against Quebec sovereignty or for the BQ if they were primarily concerned about ideology.  The highly polarized environment of Quebec seems thus to provide for a large degree of strategic voting potentially masked by the sheer improbability of NDP success in the province.  In essence, though they may be a voter’s naturally preferred party for their marriage of a left leaning ideology and support for federalism, it would not even occur to the average Quebec voter to identify them as such. Further research required to establish this conclusively, matching voters with certain value priorities to their first order party of preference.  This would allow a researcher to test the degree to which these voters must compromise on what might be their natural choice in order to protect a basic value (in this case federalism or a left leaning ideology) considering likely election outcomes.

Federal Election Choice in Quebec: A Recapitulation

What has now been constructed is a full causal model of federal vote choice in Quebec.  This model has been diagrammed in Figure 1 (next page).  To summarize, vote choice in Quebec is a two staged mechanism with two distinct sets of independent variables.  The structural determinants (perceptions of unequal respect and recognition, national identity, and perception of the economic consequences of sovereignty) define a voter’s natural preferences on the issue of sovereignty.  During an election period party leaders, the parties themselves and the media attempt to affect the voter’s natural preference and translate it into a vote choice that accords with their respective agendas.

The Refusal of Choice

A lack of political participation by any significant group has a strong inertial effect, doing nothing to challenge the status quo, and thus implicitly supporting it (Martin & Nadeau, 2002: 149).  Political apathy is a lack of motivation to make political choices, and Putnam argues, is a consequence of low civic engagement (participation in collectivities and other social networks) (2000: 184).  Civic engagement in the US changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century, increasing dramatically in its first two thirds, peaking in the mid-60s, and then declining through the rest of the century, plummeting in the 80s and 90s (185).  While the US is not a perfect analogy for Quebec there is no reason to suspect substantial deviations beyond the following:  Instead of civic-engagement increasing gradually through the first half of the 20th century, it would have remained at a low and constant level due to its undeveloped society/economy.  The evidence that we have been discussing suggests that it shot up violently with the economic and social changes following the Second World War, peaking with the culmination of the Quiet Revolution, also in the mid-60s.  From that point there is reason to believe that Quebec followed a similar pattern to the American experience as the factors that have caused the social isolation that is the root of especially political disengagement (263) (the decline of the presence of the Church in society, the increase in the presence of the television and other technologies that take people out of their local communities, etc. (Schneider & Stevenson, 1999: 192)) have been equally if not more relevant.  They are potentially more relevant because symptoms of social isolation, such as higher rates of depression and suicide (Putnam, 2000: 262), are even more evident in Quebec than in the US.  Quebec has the highest rate of teen suicide of all the Canadian provinces, as well as one of the highest in the world (Shaver, 1990).  Causes that are cited for this include the Quiet Revolution and family breakdown, both major social upheavals that have occurred in Quebec since the 1960s which have drastically reduced the stability of the environments in which individuals are socialized (Ibid.).

While this low civic/political-engagement of younger people is partially explained by life-cycle, marriage and children exerting pressures to increase engagement, a review of studies in the US over time has proven that the level of engagement across different cohorts at the same stage of life has fallen very significantly (Putnam, 2000: 249) suggesting generation contributes as well.  Looking at Canada and Quebec, since 1988 turnout has not declined in the electorate at large, but is confined to, and incredibly dramatic in, Canadians born after 1970 (Blais et al., 2002: 46).  This decline across age demographics was more prominent in Quebec than in any other province (47).   Statistical analysis proves that this can be attributed predominantly to generation (49), and ultimately to the fact that the youngest generations are “just less interested in politics than older generations” (61).  If this explanation is proven to be correct for Quebec, the implications are dramatic.  Conservatively, the progressively increasing political-disengagement of post-boomers has, and will continue to have a magnifying effect on the boomers’ and pre-boomers’ political voices.  A more extreme interpretation would have it that the consequence of this political disengagement could be the breakdown of the sovereignist collectivity.

Ultimately it is difficult to say whether the sovereignists or the federalists would benefit more from the political activation of the young.  Some deductions could be made from the state of the economy over the past 20 years, but there is little information immediately available on national identification and feelings of grievances within that age group.  Especially considering the unknown quantities of how being socialized in a globalizing economy, or with the internet relates to opinions on sovereignty, any strong conclusions on this topic will depend on further research.


  Quebec often plays a key role in the final outcome of federal elections, and so a major element of the election strategy of a party with realistic governmental ambitions is that dealing with the province’s sovereignty. The electorate remains divided – in April 2006, 43% of Quebecers supported sovereignty, and 57% opposed it.  Election strategies in Quebec must focus on sovereignty.  The electorate remains divided – in April 2006, 43% of Quebecers supported sovereignty, and 57% opposed it (Léger Marketing: 2006).  The success of the BQ depends on convincing voters to support sovereignty, while the Liberals and Conservatives must do the opposite.  Our model establishes three structural determinants of sovereignty support for these agents to address, however the population of Quebec is not homogenous in its decision-making.  There is a core group of voters with strong identities, either Canadian or Quebecois, who are not likely to change their minds.  For the BQ in the 2000 federal election, 40% of its supporters expressed no second choice, indicating that they are probably a part of this group.  For the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, such individuals constituted 38% and 41% of their voters (respectively).  Movable voters, with weaker identities, are the true battleground in elections.  The federalist parties each had only approximately 20% of their supporters who had the BQ as their second choice; a full 57% of BQ voters expressed a federalist party as their second choice (Blais et al., 2002: 77).  Although this is not a perfect indicator of actually movable support for sovereignty, it provides an approximation.

As was discussed previously, these movable voters are heavily influenced by their perceptions of unequal respect and recognition, and of the economic consequences of sovereignty.  A successful BQ strategy in the next election will inflame the grievances of Francophone and Allophone Quebecers, by portraying the Conservative government as dominated by Western Canadian ideology, particularly on the environment and Afghanistan.  The French debates, where Stephen Harper is at a disadvantage and the focus is on Quebec, is an ideal venue for this.  It also must overcome the natural risk-averseness of many Quebecers, and present a persuasive case that sovereignty will carry positive economic consequences.  The BQ must remember that movable voters evaluate the consequences of sovereignty differently and more critically than the truly devoted members of the movement (Howe 1998: 40), and so require a specially-tailored strategy.

The Conservative government faces a difficult challenge in Quebec in the next election, if current trends continue.  Its environmental and foreign affairs policies have been very unpopular, and have been the principle reason from the Conservatives’ decline in Quebec voting intentions from 30% in May 2006 to 16% in October 2006 (Bryden, 18 October 2006: A11). The party will therefore most likely face the attacks described above in some form.  Its success in the election of 2006 likely resulted from their promises of Quebec autonomy, which would have helped to alleviate perceptions of unequal respect.  If their policies are deemed to have not continued in recognizing Quebecer’s interests, the Conservatives’ foothold in the province will be at risk.  This is a particular risk now with the Liberals’ selection of Stephane Dion as their new leader, who is not only a truly Francophone Quebecer, but is also not associated with the sponsorship scandal.  Hours after his convention victory in December 2006, 62 percent of Quebecers believed Dion was the right choice for the Liberal party, the highest of any region in the country (Clark & Laghi 4 December 2006: A1).  This may allow the Liberal base in Quebec to be re-established.  The Liberals’ Quebec strategy should use Dion’s status as a Quebecer as an advantage against Harper, and also capitalize on their far more Quebec-friendly environment policy.  A clear position on Afghanistan is also sorely required for the Liberals.  Finally, for both federalist parties a key strategy will be to portray the sovereignist option as a drastic personal economic risk, in comparison with the safety gained from the supposed economic advantages of Canadian citizenship.

To gain a general understanding of Quebec voting, sovereignty has been a useful shortcut.  It is not, however, the sole factor.  For some individuals, non-sovereignist opinions are combined with a vote for the BQ, and some Liberal and Conservative voters (approximately 20% in 2000, according to Blais et al.’s 2002 study) are willing to vote for the BQ as their second choice, particularly in the Conservative case.  Although sovereignty is the main factor in general, it does appear that many voters may support the BQ because of its advocacy for Quebec.  In 2005, even though only 43% of Quebecers supported sovereignty, approximately half expressed voting intentions for the BQ.  Certainly, the BQ’s choice in the 2006 election to prime other issues more than it had in the past capitalized on this trend.  More research is required, however, to fully explore this phenomenon in Quebec voting.  For all parties in Quebec, understanding the motivations and behaviour of this enigmatic subset of the population represents a significant opportunity to break the electoral deadlock on sovereignty and gain critical marginal votes.



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[1] “Unmovable” here describes the variability of opinion on sovereignty based on the strength of a person’s feelings towards it as will be discussed in the following.