FRIDAY, APRIL 20: I don’t want to insult swing voters, whom I dearly love, but I’m beginning to suspect they really aren’t that important.
It’s widely assumed that elections are decided by these fine folks in the middle.
Of course, that might mean our future is determined by the wishy-washy. The truly indecisive and unprincipled citizens end up calling the shots.
But, more assuringly, it might mean we are placing our trust in the hands of the thoughtful moderates. These people don’t follow political parties like mindless lemmings. They carefully weigh issues and candidates and make intelligent choices.
But is this really the way it works?
Bermuda elections have almost always been very close, with only a few percentage points in the popular vote separating the winner from the loser.
So while elections mean the majority rules, it is clear that the outcome is actually determined by a handful of voters in a handful of constituencies.
The losing party always consoles itself with mathematical might-have-beens: If a ridiculously small number of voters had swung in the opposite direction in a few specific constituencies, defeat would have turned into victory.
But what if the decisive swing group is not in the middle, but at the extremes of the spectrum?
What if the key swing group isn’t swinging between political parties, but swinging between voting for their favourite party and not bothering to vote at all?
Of course, a vote is a vote, no matter where it comes. It makes no difference who those swing voters are, when it comes to adding up the totals.
But it does make a huge difference to how political parties go about attracting and keeping that swing vote. Because how you go about making sure how the extreme PLP supporter, or extreme PLP opponent, turns up at the polls on election day is very different from the way you attract a middle-of-the roader.
Your election promises, your election rhetoric and election strategies will be different. And, as a consequence, the way the election winner subsequently governs is going to be different as well.
To a large extent, I think this already happens.
The One Bermuda Alliance, and other critics of the Government, have taken to accusing the Progressive Labour Party government of “flip-flopping”.
(If “flip-flopping” is a political offence, incidentally, so is stealing this kind of American political slang and applying it in Bermuda.)
But maybe what we are really seeing is the long, drawn-out consequences of election strategies, aimed at getting high turn-out from the grumpy extremes of the PLP base, rather than winning over uncertain moderates.
The moderate middle provides the best, and sometimes the only, practical approaches to many of Bermuda’s problems.
A political party on the campaign trail might feel compelled to reject the creation of a non-Government tourism board, for example, advocate a xenophobic approach to non-Bermudian workers, and promise a host of free benefits for seniors regardless of expense.
But once elected and forced to deal with the real-life challenges of running Bermuda, the same political party will start to take into consideration such practicalities as the need to make international business happy, to keep politics out of tourism management, and to keep Government spending under some kind of control.
In a way, I’m beginning to realize, Bermuda suffers from the same kind of dilemma we are seeing US Republican candidates experience as they endure their long-winded presidential primaries. They don’t think they can win by appealing to the moderate middle: They feel obliged to appeal to their own grumpy Republican extremes. They cannot win if these voters stay away from the polls out of boredom or protest.
The big difference is that US presidential candidates have the chance to back-peddle in the months between the primaries and the general election.
In Bermuda the process happens all at once, and rash promises and inflammatory rhetoric designed to guarantee support from the party’s base turn into Government positions literally overnight.
Many countries, such as Australia and Brazil, make voting compulsory. One of the side-effects is that it frees political parties to appeal to the moderate middle. The base is legally obligated to show up at the polls anyway, so they don’t need to be pandered to.
Bermuda already has a fairly high participation rate in elections. But as we all know, in Bermuda it only takes a few votes here and there to change the result.
Would mandatory voting help? I don’t know. But as an election nears, it seems tragic that political parties are so willing to compromise good judgment to attract people who are already their supporters.
And even more tragic is the notion that the moderate middle — the people I like and trust — have far less influence than they deserve.