Emotions Rule in the Voting Booth

“When will you release a fully-costed platform?”

“How will this new campaign promise affect Ontario’s debt-to-GDP ratio?”

“Why doesn’t that campaign ad comply with campaign finance regulation sub-section B-point-6 et cetera et cetera?”

Questions like these come up every election. As well they should; Ontario deserves a premier and governing party who are competent at managing the business of government.

Analysts pour over party platforms seeking mathematical errors—like the one identified in the Ontario NDP’s platform that produced a $1.4 billion mistake. Finding that error produced a fine “gotcha moment” and a tempting attack line for the NDP’s opponents. But when making their decisions about who they’ll vote for, do voters really care?

We like to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers. But much of social psychology and behavioural economics as a discipline have been focused on how emotions—along with other factors we would consider less than rational—have a dominant impact on decision-making.

Emotional storytelling is a core component of any strategic communications program. A message with emotional resonance will always be more persuasive than a chart or graph.

And that’s especially true in politics.

In our first survey this provincial election, Hill+Knowlton Strategies asked voters about the emotions they were experiencing this election to dig deeper into what is motivating voter behaviour.

The question we asked:

“When I think of this Ontario provincial election, I feel…”

The two predominant emotions voters feel this election are frustration (26%) and optimism (18%). They’re powerful emotions and, like the electorate itself, polarized.

These same two emotions were predominant in our 2014 Ontario provincial election survey that asked the same question, though we have seen frustration grow from 21% in 2014 to 26% in 2018.

Given the tone of the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) campaign, it might surprise you to learn that the party with the most “frustrated” supporters is the Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP); we also observed this in 2014. With the NDP now polling in majority territory in some of the newest public opinion polls, we can imagine their frustration may turn to optimism, and we’ll report back when our next round of polling is completed next week. With NDP supporters currently feeling predominantly frustrated, scared, and pessimistic, we should expect their spirits to get a lift from those rising poll numbers.

In 2014, the Ontario Liberal Party (OLP)’s supporters were the most optimistic—at 30%. This was true even though, at the outset of that election, the party was behind in the polls and the election appeared unwinnable. Sound familiar…?

Today, only 16% of OLP supporters are optimistic. And the new party of sunny ways? That would be the Progressive Conservative supporters at 32%. With the continued rise of the NDP in the polls, we might expect that number to dip.

Even though 32% are optimistic, 26% of PC supporters tell us they are frustrated—a potent mix of emotions that suggests a base of motivated potential voters.

For the Liberals, the mix of emotions their supporters tell us they’re feeling is not nearly as potent: 19% are scared; 18% are frustrated; 18% are pessimistic; and, as mentioned above, 16% are optimistic.

But what about those voters who are simply indifferent?

Going into the 2014 election, 14% of voters told us they felt indifferent. It happened to be the most dominant emotion among PC supporters at the time.

In 2018, that number is down to only 9% of voters.

The largest increase of any emotion? Fear, which has risen 10 points since 2014—from 5% to 15% today.

Fear is felt most strongly by Liberal and NDP supporters, surely an emotional motivator for the “Anybody but Ford” groundswell that seems to be lifting the NDP’s fortunes with each passing day in this campaign as voters turn to the more popular non-Ford candidate in Andrea Horwath.

In campaigns, however, things change. And emotions—both in politics and in life—are anything but stable. As we conduct additional research through our Perspectives+ panel in the days ahead, we will continue to probe how voters’ emotional response to the campaigns and to the elections are likely to impact their decision-making and ultimately their voting behaviour.