Advance Poll Turnout: A Closer Look

By Jared Wesley on Oct 10, 2008

Elections Canada has released its preliminary advance poll figures.  The bottom line:  Turnout in these early polls is down 6.5% relative to the last election (see table above).  Between the lines, there are a lot of interesting stories.

First, the Conservative campaign team has made a lot of its ability to get-out-the-vote (GOTV), particularly to advance polls.  Doing so helps the party put votes "in the bank" before people have a chance to change their minds in the final weeks of the campaign.  This year, as with each of the past three elections, the Tories could have used a few more "banked votes" to cushion their last-minute fall in the polls.

In a lecture in one of my classes last term, Tom Flanagan estimated that, in some swing ridings in 2006, the Conservatives led the Liberals by as much as 15 percentage points in these pre-vote contests.  That is a huge advantage.  This year's low numbers (at least, across the board) suggest the Tories have been less successful in pulling out the vote.  This could be a sign of things to come on Election Day. 

Second, the date of this year's election -- a day after Thanksgiving, and on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot -- has made turnout at the advance polls even more crucial to the Liberals' success (see my earlier discussion for the many reasons why).  A close examination of one key riding -- Winnipeg South-Centre -- reveals no huge jump in advance poll turnout.  If the Liberals are looking to keep close seats like this one, they had better hope their supporters don't eat too much turkey, or are willing to break religious traditions in order to vote on Tuesday.  

Third, looking at the provincial breakdowns, advance poll numbers were down in two key "battleground" provinces: Ontario (-11.7%) and BC (-13.7%), but UP by 16.2% in Quebec (see table above).  Again, if the Tories' GOTV strategy involved a heavy front-loading emphasis, it appears to have fallen flat in Ontario and BC.  (I'd invite people to scour the riding-by-riding breakdowns to see whether turnout was higher in individual, swing constituencies.)  But what's going on in Quebec?  Without knowing which party won the advance-poll-war, it's difficult to say whether the increased turnout is the product of a better Tory groundgame in the province.  If it is, these "banked votes" may prove important insurance for the Conservatives, whose popularity plummeted soon after these polls were closed.  On the other hand, these advance voters may have led the stampede to the Bloc.  Either way, we'll have to wait even longer to find out who won many Quebec ridings, as the counting of advance ballots will be crucial to the outcome in many close contests.

Lastly, if advance polls are any indication, we have little reason to expect turnout to rise significantly on October 14th.  It's unlikely to drop much, either, but the election doesn't appear to have engaged the public any more than the Christmas campaign of 2005/2006.  (In Alberta, incidently, turnout at advance polls was down 24.3%.)

Turnout at Advance Polls Province/Territory 2006 (final figures) 2008 (preliminary) % change Newfoundland and Labrador 11,465 10,178 -11.2% Prince Edward Island 11,287 10,402 -7.8% Nova Scotia 52,049 37,715 -27.5% New Brunswick 49,944 49,684 -0.5% Quebec 376,724 437,891 16.2% Ontario 651,697 575,605 -11.7% Manitoba 43,433 35,607 -18.0% Saskatchewan 41,644 37,754 -9.3% Alberta 135,951 102,885 -24.3% British Columbia 183,861 158,713 -13.7% Yukon 1,241 1,492 20.2% Northwest Territories 1,205 1,118 -7.2% Nunavut 538 209 -61.1% Total 1,561,039 1,459,253 -6.5% calculated from:

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