Recent political scandals can influence how we vote, says Laurier professor

Three high-profile Canadian politicians have stepped down following allegations of sexual misconduct. But could these scandals influence how people vote in the provincial election? Wilfrid Laurier University professor Jason Roy says yes.

Jason Roy has spent most of his career researching how people form political preferences

A sea gull flies over Parliament Hill as clouds sail past, Wednesday July 22, 2015 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Political leaders across the country are in the midst of tackling sexual harassment in their parties after three senior politicians stepped down last week following allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Jamie Baillie, who was Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative leader, stepped down on Jan. 24 after an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

The next day, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Patrick Brown resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct brought forward by two women.

And then Kent Hehr, federal sports minister, stepped down and now faces an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

But could these scandals influence how people will vote in the provincial election?

CBC K-W's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris spoke with Jason Roy, a professor in Wilfrid Laurier's department of political science who is currently researching how people form their political preferences.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jamie Baillie has been forced out as leader of Nova Scotia's Progressive Conservative Party following an investigation into "allegations of inappropriate behaviour." (Craig Paisley/CBC)

What factors influence a person's political preference or who they chose to vote for?

Not everybody follows the same process when they are deciding how they are going to vote or how they form their preferences. But what we can do is identify key characteristics.

One thing we all agree on is that the assumption that people consider all of the issues, consider their preferences, their issue values, look at all the candidates, look at all the parties and then decide which one best represents their interest for each election, doesn't typically happen.

In fact it happens very rarely. Most people don't take the time, and in many cases, most people don't need that much time to do so.

What people do instead is fall back often times on heuristics. These are shortcut cues they receive whether it be something like a partisanship.

For example, "I don't have to think of much, I simply vote for the party my family has always voted for and will continue to vote for." Or, they look for endorsements from community leaders. Or, in some cases, and this is what applies directly to what we are talking about, they look at current salient issues in the media. 

In a situation like this, where you have a fairly serious scandal taking place and seems to still be evolving, this could certainly lead some people to reconsider their assessments and options.

Patrick Brown speaks at a news conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Wednesday. He stepped down as Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader hours later. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Why is that? Is part of it the disarray and the uncertainty? Is part of it the moral question?

The initial instance, when it was just the leader of the party that was facing these accusations, it's something I think at that point could have probably have done very little in terms of change.

It's still five months away from the election, this is a single individual, it's his indiscretions and nothing to do with the party itself. It doesn't necessarily have people thinking, "Hey maybe there's something deeper going on here."

But then when you start getting other stories that pick up on this media cycle, you start getting other things with the party president stepping down, questions on whether or not there is a computer system attacks. It starts to become this repeated story that leads people to perhaps question is this party capable? Are they competent enough? Can I trust them to govern?

Do we make a distinction morally between a sex scandal or a money scandal?

The short answer is no.

In a recent study that I've done with a colleague of mine, Chris Alcantara at Western University [in London, Ont.], we set up a series of experiments we had individual come in a control group. They had candidates they could seek out information on, they could read about this candidate and then decide who to vote for.

In the experiment, certain people were assigned to groups where in one case we had an economic scandal, where the individual was accused of taking money from his constituency office.

In a second case, it was taking money from a family member and then had two moral scandals. One of them was having an extramarital affair with another MP and the final case it was an affair with a neighbour.

What we were interested in seeing is how varied by party, we assumed the candidate would be less penalized in situations where it was a private affair and in particular in a moral affair.

We do see some evidence of it but not to the extent we expected. It seemed that any scandal led to people spend less time considering this candidate and certainly decreased the vote share the candidate received. But I should point out that in all of these cases, the candidate was still running. That's where I think Patrick Brown, when this first came out, had no choice.

Sport and Disabilities Minister Kent Hehr is out of the federal cabinet — at least for now — after being accused of making inappropriate sexual remarks while in provincial politics a decade ago. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Does it matter or does it change if that candidate keeps running?

In this case I think it would, assuming the investigation is still on going, simply because it keeps the story salient. It keeps it in the media, it keeps people talking about it.

Part of people, when they are deciding how to vote and what other preferences, it's what they are hearing, it's what they are considering whether they are updating their preferences or new preferences. If you keep this story alive, if this runs the next five months for example, I think it's going to be very prominent in the minds of voters come June. 

Is this a dangerous thing to use politically, overtly?

There's certainly some discussion in: is this something that was planned? If it was, the timing is off.

This is something that would have really hurt two months, four weeks before the actual election. At this point, one of the things that Patrick Brown didn't have was name recognition up until ironically this past week.

There's an opportunity, where the PC Party can have an exciting friendly leadership competition. They might generate some excitement within the party membership.

What we're seeing, however, in the past 24 hours suggests that there's some contradictions, there's some in fighting happening and that's not something that they want to be showing as people are now watching how they deal with this.


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