Municipal Elections Matter, Part 2: Nationalism and Party Identification

When voting, is your decision something based on a singular issue or is it about how much you identify with the party? Perhaps one issue shapes the entire party landscape? This question is fundamental to many who study political science, but until attending CMES, I had no idea that municipal politics were a field of study. In all my introductory political science courses at McGill, the topic was never touched upon. Thus, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the study of municipal politics, which has been studied in Canada for many years. In this post, I will focus on how municipal politics interact with Quebec nationalism, an issue Canada has worked with and around since the British won the Seven Years’ War.[1]

Party identification is the degree to which a voter identifies with a voter. Theoretically, a voter who strongly identifies with a party is unlikely to vote for another party and, if identification is stable over time, the voter will continue to vote for the same party every election. This phenomenon has been especially studied in the United States where partisanship is said to be strong. Studies like Clarke and McCutcheon (2009) compare how voters change the party they voted for across multiple democracies.[2] Such studies have shown that voters’ party identification is not as stable the Michigan Theory, advanced in the 1950s, proposed. Voters tend to make decisions based on policy issues, they move parties based on what matters to them at the time of the election.

One of the fundamental elements of assumptions of the study of party identification is that parties are long lasting, providing voters with an opportunity to start identifying with them not only during elections, but year-round. Such voters always identify as Republican or Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, or NDP. Thus, studying party identification at the municipal level has many obstacles. I have already covered that parties have not formed at the municipal level in many Canadian cities, in addition to that however, many of these parties exist only for an election cycle and depend on a well-known leader to exist (e.g. Équipe Coderre). All the presenters at the conference also agreed that the partisanship or party identification being discussed at the municipal level is not the same as at other levels due to the generally short lifespans of municipal parties.

Notably, in Montreal and Quebec City, many of the mayoral candidates have been involved in provincial or federal politics, meaning they are connected to other parties and party identification can be studies. Similarly, since these parties have stances on the nationalism issue, researchers can try to understand the impact the secessionist question may have on municipal voting behaviour. Voters may form opinions about a politician’s opinion of nationalism based on their provincial or federal ties, this opinion may impact how they vote.

Three papers presented at the CMES discussed how the nationalism question, ideology, and party identification affected voter choice in the 2017 Montreal and Quebec City municipal elections.[3] Jean-François Daoust (Université de Montreal) discusses the effect of nationalism on local elections. Daoust finds evidence for Quebec nationalism affecting vote choice in Montreal and evidence for a left-right ideological divide in both cities. He notes that Denis Coderre’s career with the federal Liberal party was more well known to voters, meaning they could better interpret his position on nationalism and on a left right scale leading to stronger results. Sandra Breux (Institut National de Recherche Scientifique), Jérôme Couture (Institut National de Recherche Scientifique), and Anne Mévellec (University of Ottawa) also find evidence for the left right divide which is linked to partisanship.

Cameron Anderson (Western University) and Michael McGregor (Ryerson University) discuss the use of party labels and voter choice. They find that party labels are an important tool for voters when deciding which councilors to voter for or mayors when their name in not included in the party’s name. Essentially, when little information is available about party platforms or individual candidates, parties serve as a cognitive shortcut when deciding who to vote for.

Overall, issues we many not associate with municipal politics like Quebec Sovereignty or a left-right ideological divide may influence voters at the municipal level. Understanding what impacts voters is important, it tells what issues people care about when they decide who can represent them to make policy. You can read the first part of this series here. The third piece about gender and the Montreal election will be coming soon, so make sure to come back!

[1] https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/seven-years-war/

[2] Clarke, Harold D., and Allan L. McCutcheon. “The Dynamics of Party Identification Reconsidered”. Public Opinion Quarterly 2009, 1-25.

[3] https://www.cmes-eemc.ca/conference/

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