Lessons for the GOP from Canada's Election

Canada's Conservative Party Leader Ran Hard to the Middle and Failed to Win Seats in Parliament. Why?

It is challenging to draw parallels between politics in Canada versus the United States. There are some significant differences between us. Canadians, in particular, are more trusting of their government and more compliant with diktats. But parallels exist. As with any election, there are lessons to be learned from Conservative opposition leader Erin O’Toole’s failure to win seats against the increasingly unpopular and ethically challenged Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau.

Let’s start with a few noticeable differences. Canada is a multi-party parliamentary democracy. O’Toole, Trudeau, and the other candidates were not on a national ballot, other than in their own parliamentary or legislative “ridings” (districts). Voters tend to cast ballots for the party, not the individual parliamentary candidates on their ballot (with rare exceptions). As a result, the leaders matter and run national campaigns for their candidates. Parties and their candidates, as a result, are more disciplined on everything from messages to signage.

And while we’re all about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in Canada, it’s “peace, order, and good government.” Our national symbol is the Bald Eagle; theirs, the Beaver.

It is interesting that for another election, Conservative party candidates slightly outpolled their Liberal counterparts nationally, nearly 34 percent to the Liberals roughly 32 percent. Liberals seem better at winning close elections in populous Ontario ridings, particularly in Toronto, the nation’s most populous city; Conservatives ring up higher winning margins in more western provinces, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan.

But the headline in today’s National Post (the Wall Street Journal of Canada) says it all: “The Least Popular Canadian Government Ever Elected.” At the cost of $612 million, it was a virtual replay of the 2019 election. Voters recoiled at Trudeau trying to politicize his COVID management with a “snap” election, but not enough to return Conservatives to power.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau now becomes the prime minister with the slimmest share of overall electoral support in Canadian history. On Monday, Trudeau got only 32.2 per cent of the popular vote (which means that 67.8 per cent of Canadians did not vote for him). For context, the 2006 election that first elected Stephen Harper is usually cited as one of the slimmest minority governments in Canadian history. Even in that case, Harper managed 36.3 per cent of the vote.

Why didn’t Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives do better?

O’Toole himself ran hard to the political center. On the surface, that makes sense. As former Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna once told me, the Liberals are a center-left party while the Conservatives are center-right. O’Toole is pro-choice on abortion and pro-gay marriage. He sought to portray himself as a more mature “adult on the ballot,” one who worked overtime to assure and not frighten left-leaning Canadians on social or cultural issues, and veered left on climate change, even changing his position to support a carbon tax. Some say he ran as “Liberal lite,” but it may have backfired.

No matter, Liberals still found two ways to scare enough voters. Toronto Sun columnist Warren Kinsella says these issues spooked enough Toronto urban/suburban women to cost the election: A former Conservative platform promise to reverse an “assault rifle” ban (something called the Rugar Mini involved in tragic mass shootings) and not being tough enough on vaccines and mask mandates. Canadians appear more supportive of such strict measures, not so much in the US.

When leaning backward not to “frighten” some voters, Liberals will still find a way to scare them into their corner. Perhaps sometimes, one should own their position proudly and honestly and defend it convincingly instead of backing away as O’Toole did on the gun issue. That is a big issue for many right-leaning People’s Party of Canada (PPC) voters. More on that shortly. There is no Second Amendment in Canada (or a First, for that matter) and much less support for gun rights and ownership than in the US.

Let’s face it. Fear works in elections. I saw too little evidence of O’Toole employing fear of a Liberal-NDP (New Democratic Party) far-left alliance and what it means to Canadian jobs and pocketbooks. The NDP is pushing for a “wealth tax” along the lines of what Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) want to employ in the United States. Perhaps I just missed it.

And while the conservative-libertarian People’s Party (Canada’s newest, and no, not a “far-right” party as derided) failed again to win any seats, they doubled their showing from 2019 with over 800,000 votes. Had the party not existed and all those votes gone Conservative, given a low turnout, Erin O’Toole would be four seats short of becoming Prime Minister, with 140 seats. PPC votes may have cost O’Toole up to 24 seats.

O’Toole, in fairness, has not been the party’s leader very long. He was just elected shortly before the pandemic. Travel restrictions and lockdowns prevented him from genuinely introducing himself to voters. Andrew MacDougall, the spokesman for the last Conservative Prime Minister (Stephen Harper), said as much, supporting keeping him as Opposition Leader. There’s always talk of dumping party leaders after a disappointing loss. Conservatives shouldn’t go there, but they need to make changes.

It’s easy to forget that O’Toole wasn’t afforded a chance to introduce himself to Canadians prior to the writ period, thanks to the travel restrictions wrought by COVID-19. He also had to contend with a prime minister spending billions upon billions of dollars each week in new pandemic relief. Sure, the rookie Tory leader didn’t handle some campaign speed bumps very smoothly, but that’s because he’s a rookie. It’s only with experience that you improve and any new leader would surely just repeat some, or different, errors to the ones O’Toole made this time around.

Another factor: Turnout was low. Really low. There is rarely any enthusiasm for centrist candidates (except when compared to an intensely disliked opponent, which was not the case here).

The lesson here is that turnout matters. Turnout is driven more by messages and messengers than all the tactical measures used to motivate would-be voters. Conservatives - both in Canada and the US - need to pay meticulous attention to their messages vis a vis turnout. That’s something both major party candidates for governor are paying close attention to in Virginia, with elections coming up on November 2nd (and early voting already underway).

“Conservative supporters, by contrast, face an existential question: if morphing into a lite version of the Liberals didn’t work, where do they go from here?” Rupa Subramanya, National Post

There is more data to comb through and more analyses to emerge. Conservatives did better than people think, just not well enough under challenging circumstances, especially in Ontario. The Trudeau schtick is losing its luster, and with his claims of a mandate, he learned nothing from what wasn’t a “winning” election. And another minority government will force him farther left in a partnership with the big-spending, high-taxing New Democratic Party. The next election may be the one to watch in Canada.

Meanwhile, we have an election to watch, in Virginia, on November 2nd.