Revenge of the niqab

When Steven Harper and members of his Conservative party in Canada look back on the 2015 Federal election, they may rue the day they made the niqab an issue. That decision is probably costing them the election.

I am living in Montreal for a few months. When I arrived in Canada in early August, the federal election was tight race between three parties: the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Conservative Party, and the Liberal Party. Polling averages showed the NDP ahead, with roughly 32% of the vote, but the Conservatives (30%) and Liberals (27%) were close behind. The three parties were so close pundits discussed whether the NDP and Liberals might form a coalition government. The race continue to tighten into September. Strong debate performances by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau helped convince people he was a credible candidate.

On September 18th, the dynamic started to change. The Bloc Quebecois ran an advertisement critcizing the NDP for its position protecting the right of Muslim women to wear a veil during citizenship ceremonies: the niqab. This issue was not new. The Conservatives have been trying to prevent women from wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies for some time, but hadn’t talked about it much in the early part of the campaign. The Bloc’s add rekindled the matter in provocative fashion.

The initial results were dramatic. The Conservatives and NDP swapped places. As Frank Graves of EKOS Research Associates explained about the niqab controversy, “It’s a huge issue. It’s sorting the electorate right now. It has really invigorated the Conservatives and moved them into a clear lead.” Sensing advantage, the Conservatives started running their own niqab ad.

Missed, though, in the reporting about the election was an important shift in the structure of the race. What started as a three way race quickly became a two-way contest as the niqab controversy ate into the NDP’s support in Quebec. Initially, this looked like it would help the Conservatives. Instead, it put the Liberals in position to win.

When the race was essentially tied, neither Liberal nor NDP supporters had a reason to support the other party. Each party could reasonably claim to be in position to win the election. Once the NDP fell to a distant third, though, NDP supporters — most of whom prefer a Liberal government to a Conservative one — were free to switch their votes. With their preferred party out of the running, NDP voters could try to get their second choice by teaming up with the Liberals to knock Harper out of office.

This positional view of the election is not just useful for understanding what is likely to happen when the election takes place. It also helps understand why the Liberals and NDP spent much of the campaign sniping at each other rather than the Conservatives. Both parties recognized that luring each other’s voters away gave them the best chance to win. Neither the Liberals nor the NDP, though, had an argument capable of undermining the other. The Bloc and the Conservatives did. Call it revenge of the niqab.

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