I suspect that the UNC strategists who thought up the run-off amendment are quite pleased at the way the public discourse is going. It’s true that nearly everybody is badtalking the idea, but it is also true that everybody is badtalking it for the wrong reason. Which is exactly what a good strategist wants—for the enemy to remain unaware of his real goal until it is too late.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the only commentator who used numbers in his analysis was pollster Nigel Henry, and he argued that the run-off was more democratic. But the argument that a run-off mechanism would sideline third parties, whether true or false, is irrelevant. After all, third parties have always been sidelined in the Trinidad polity, so the criticisms boil down to the purely theoretical assertion that a run-off system will, at some time in the future, prevent a third party from winning a constituency. But politics is about practical matters, not theory.
It is true that a run-off would probably favour the United National Congress, because the People’s National Movement has a hardcore base of around 32 per cent while the UNC’s is just under 30 per cent. But, in T&T’s current political landscape, these fanatic supporters are not the voters who decide which party wins the elections.
Until the run-off appeared out of nowhere, I had thought that the politicians had not realised this. But this strategic device has been specifically tailored for the marginal constituencies. The voting record shows that, out of the 41 constituencies, there are nine which may swing either way. These seats are won by five per cent or less. Because the racial demographic in these areas is evenly split between Afros and Indos, it is those voters who have no allegiance to any particular party who determine the outcome.
The question is, do these swing voters have a profile which a politician can appeal to? I am a swing voter, but UWI lecturer Winford James says he is one too, and so does radio DJ Sir Charles: and I doubt I vote on the same basis as them. Still, it is reasonable to assume that swing voters, as a group, are influenced more by corruption than by any other single issue since, as I demonstrated in a column last February, voter tallies for both the UNC and the PNM have never reflected the public perception of corruption—i.e. both parties gained votes, or lost very few, even in the midst of serious allegations of misfeasance. If that is so, it means that the incumbent party is more likely to have the floating cohort vote against them—hence the loss of the UNC in 2001 and the PNM in 2010.
The PNM under Keith Rowley continues to employ the traditional pre-marginal strategy—which is, get the greatest number of core supporters out by appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is equivalent to using a cannon to shoot a fly, however, inasmuch as the hardcore is going to come out anyway. Even in 2010, the PNM only lost 14,000 votes compared to 2007, whereas the UNC/COP coalition got 89,000 more. That suggests that the floating voters made the difference and not, as the political commentators have claimed, the anti-Manning PNM voters.
The more effective electoral strategy, therefore, would be for political parties to push issues that would win the support of the floating voters. These are the citizens who must be targeted in a run-off, and the UNC seems to have calculated that they have a better chance than the PNM of getting those votes.
For reasons which I’ll examine in a future column, that might actually benefit the nation.