The myth of the ‘protest vote’

Wednesday, 21 March 2007 

The classic ‘protest vote’ election showed what a myth the concept is.

A basic assumption of this blog is that electoral behaviour is reasonably straight forward. Voters have a fair idea of what they are voting for and tend to vote for what they want. At a federal/state election people realise they are voting for a federal/state government and vote for which party they want to run it. At a by-election, generally governments are not being chosen and people will vote for the local member they want but may be influenced by their view of the current government.

Over the last few years, however, this fairly straight forward view of electoral behaviour appears to be challenged by some commentators in Australia. Now there appears to be a new type of voting, a tactical or ‘protest’ vote at a government election, where people really want one government but are so sure they will win that they ‘protest’ with a vote to the opposition. The possibility of this has been a feature of media discussion in the current NSW election and last year’s one in Queensland. This is despite no such vote emerging in Queensland and little evidence that it will in NSW on Saturday.

This blog suggests that it is less that voter behaviour has become this convoluted and tortured but that commentators’ interpretation of it has become confused. The clearest example of this was the election that was supposed to be a classic protest vote election – Kennett’s defeat in Victoria in 1999.

Despite the opinion polls pointing to it, Kennett’s defeat was so unexpected by commentators that they assumed the voters did not mean it. They were apparently protesting against Kennett without actually wanting him out. Ironically, this classic ‘protest’ election was one of the few that was immediately followed by by-elections that were decisive in the make-up of the government and so could disprove that voters did not mean what they did. The Liberal government’s further defeats in Frankston East and Burwood by even larger pro-ALP swings should have laid to rest the idea that voters were not really voting for Labor (see a thorough paper on this here). Despite the evidence of the Victorian election, however, there are features of the political landscape that are keeping the idea of ‘tactical protest voting’ alive in current commentary

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 21 March 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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