Could It Happen Here? What it Would Take for a Trump-Like Candidate to Win in Canada

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has raised important question for Canadians about whether such a candidate could be successful here. Neither Trump’s policy positions, nor his rhetoric, are unique to the United States, far-right parties now exist and are relatively successful in most European democracies. The Conservative leadership race has also seen the emergence of two anti-multicultural candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. In light of the rise of far-right parties across Europe and North American, it is important to ask to what extent Canada is different from these countries and what the warning signs might be for a rise in a Canadian far-right party. Canada’s political institutions and demographics make the success of far-right candidate or party less likely, but not impossible.

A Party or A Candidate?

One of the notable things about Trump’s success in the United States is that, unlike most of the European far-right movements, Trump did not form his own party. Rather, he co-opted the existing Republican party. This raises questions as to whether a Canadian far-right challenge would likely to manifest itself in the form of a new party or an attempt to take over an existing one. Canada certainly has seen the emergence new parties, particularly of protest parties. In the 1990s the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois gave voice to concerns that the interests of the West and of Quebec were being ignored by existing political parties. Similar sentiment regarding the exclusion of Western interests served as the basis for the emergence of the Progressive Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It is certainly possible for new parties to emerge in Canadian politics.

To be successful, however, a new party has to have a strong base of regionally concentrated voters. Canada’s first past the post electoral system severely punishes parties that have a small number of geographically dispersed voters. This has been a problem for emerging parties, such as the Green party, that do not have a strong regional base. Notably, lack of geographic concentration has been a problem for far-right parties in both Australia (which uses an alternative vote system) and the United Kingdom (which uses a first past the post system). Australia’s One Nation Party managed to win 8% of the vote in 1998, but did not win a single seat and subsequently saw their share of the vote decline substantially. The UK Independence Party was has also been hurt by that country’s electoral system. The first time it won a seat in a general election was in 2015, and in that election over 10% of the vote got the party just one seat. Provided Canada continues to use a first past the post (or even if it changes to an alternative vote) system, a far-right party would likely face similar difficulties in Canada. Unless it could find a strong regional base, and a comparison to Australia and the UK suggests that is unlikely, a far-right party would have great difficulty converting votes into seats.

The other option for a far-right movement would be to take over an existing party’s leadership and try to use that party’s resources and brand to win office. In my last post I wrote about how this contributed to Trump’s victory in the United States. It is possible that this could happen, but such a movement would face greater difficulty in Canada than in the US. The most likely target of a far-right take-over would be the Conservatives. Unlike the Republicans, however, the Conservative party uses a ranked ballot to decide its leader. This poses a problem for a far-right candidate. It means that a candidate such as Leitch or Blaney would have to win an absolute majority of leadership votes. This is a higher threshold than Trump needed to win the leadership. It is important to note, that with 45% of the vote (even counting votes that were cast after many candidates dropped out), it is not clear that Trump would have been able to win the nomination under such a system. A ranked ballot allows any coalition of anti-far-right voters to keep a far-right candidate from the leadership provided they make up a majority of the voters in the leadership contest and all rank the far-right candidates lower than any other candidates. Unlike in the Republican party, anti-far-right Conservatives do not need to agree on an anti-far-right candidate, they just need to agree not to rank the far-right candidate highly. It is not impossible for a far-right candidate to win a majority of votes (or to pick up a majority of second choice votes) but it is harder than winning the plurality needed for the Republican nomination.

Ridings and the Election

Even if a far-right candidate won control of the Conservative party, they would still need to win a general election. This would be more difficult than in the United States because the way that electoral institutions combine with demographics to give immigrants a great deal of voting power. Canada has a large immigrant population with a foreign born population of around 20%. Further, immigrants in Canada tend to be geographically concentrated in electoral districts, largely in urban and suburban areas. Many of the seats with large immigrant populations, particularly those in suburban Toronto and Vancouver, are swing seats that the Conservatives need to win in order to win government. One of the reasons that the Liberal party was able to hold on to majority governments through the 1990s was their ability to win large numbers of immigrant votes in these battleground ridings. Under Harper, the Conservatives realized this and made a concerted effort to win over ethnic minority and immigrant voters. It is not an accident that the Conservative majority in 2011 coincided with them reducing the gap between themselves and the Liberals amongst ethnic minorities voters. A Conservative party led by a far-right candidate would have difficulty winning key swing ridings, and therefore would have difficulty winning elections.

It is difficult to see how a far-right led Conservative party would off-set these losses. There are less diverse ridings in rural Atlantic Canada and Quebec outside of Montreal. However, these are not ridings where the Conservatives have been traditionally strong. It is not clear that campaigning against multiculturalism would change Conservative fortunes in these regions either. Notably the Parti Quebecois attempted to mobilize voters along multiculturalism and identity issues when they introduced the Charter of Values (which would limit the ability of public servants to wear religious symbols such as hijabs or kipahs) in 2014. The PQ lost that election with their vote share falling by 6.5 percentage points and their seat share falling by 24 seats. There is some evidence to suggest that the Charter of Values did the Parti Quebecois more harm than good. One could imagine that under the right circumstances it might be possible for a far-right led Conservative party to pick up enough non-diverse seats to off-set losses in more diverse areas of the country. It is not clear, though, that taking positions against multiculturalism would help them do so. A far-right led Conservative party would have a very difficult path to victory.

In Parliament

The Canadian parliamentary system would present two hurdles to a far-right led Conservative party. First, the party would have to win a majority government. While coalition governments are rare in Canada, a far-right led Conservative campaign may be enough to force the Liberals and New Democrats to work together to keep such a party for governing in a minority situation. In Ontario the Liberals and NDP cooperated after the 1985 election to replace a Progressive Conservative party that had won a minority government. Coalitions have their perils, as was demonstrated during the 2008 federal government coalition crisis, but it is hard to believe that the Liberals and NDP would not cooperate to keep a far-right led Conservative party espousing Trump-like or European far-right views from power.

Even in a majority situation, a far-right led Conservative party would have to keep control of its caucus. Unlike the American President, Prime Ministers can only remain in power if they have the support of the legislature, and in a majority situation that means having the support of their parties’ MPs. While backbench revolts in Canada are extremely rare, they are serious problems for party leadership when they happen. The emergence of the Democratic Representative Caucus as a break-away group from the Canadian Alliance in 2001 ended up playing a significant role in forcing Stockwell Day to resign as party leader. A far-right leader would have to ensure that their MPs, even the moderate ones highly skeptical of anti-multicultural ideas, fell in line with the party. If the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the Canadian Conservatives would be willing to forgo the cabinet and committee positions a leaders uses to keep her party in line, they could cause significant problems for a far-right Conservative leader trying to hold on to the leadership of the party.

Could it Happen Here?

The path to a far-right Prime Minister in Canada is a very difficult one. The far-right candidate would first have to win control of the Conservative party on a ranked ballot- requiring the candidate to win at least 50% of the leadership vote. The candidate would then have to find a way to win in Canada’s diverse electorate and in an electoral system that strengthens the voting power of immigrant and minorities. Such a candidate would have to find some way to off-set her inability to win in diverse suburban ridings around Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This candidate would also have to win a majority government and would have to maintain control of their party, finding some way to stave off caucus revolts from moderate backbenchers unwilling to accept anti-multicultural or anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is not a impossible that a far-right candidate could win power in Canada. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American election certainly suggest that it is a mistake to underestimate far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization movements. At the same time, the institutions and demography of Canada would make far-right success here very unlikely.


A Trojan Elephant: The Election of Trump Demonstrates the Dangers of Allowing the Far-Right to Take Over a Mainstream Party

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has shocked Americans and people around the world. Many question how a candidate who was so far beyond was thought to be acceptable in American politics could end up winning an election. Two things are important to remember when reflecting on Trump’s victory. The first is that he is not unique. Far-right parties are present in almost every European democracy and they take substantial numbers of votes. Second, is that partisan loyalty can be a powerful force, it is often the case that when voters find out they disagree with their party that they change their views instead of changing the party that they support. The election of Trump offers an important lesson to Brits and to Canadians about the dangers of allowing a mainstream conservative party to be co-opted by far-right leadership.

During the American primary I wrote about how Trump’s candidacy was not particularly original. The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cult of personality are all things that are strikingly common amongst Europe’s far-right parties. The opposition to globalization (for the European parties this comes in the form of opposition to European Union integration, while for Trump this ends up being opposition to trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) nor the anti-elitism set Trump apart either. While there are certainly some differences between Trump and the European far-right, Trump is more socially conservative than a number of European far-right parties, his campaign looked very much like an Americanized version of a European far-right one.

Trump’s primary win also fits with success of far-right parties across Europe. Trump won about 45% of the vote in a Republican party which between 40% and 45% of Americans identity with. That’s the equivalent of winning somewhere between 18% and 20% of the vote, not a stretch at all for a European far-right party. Indeed, when I wrote my earlier post on Trump’s likeness to the European far-right I noted that his poll numbers were right where one expect them to be, given the rise of other European far-right parties over the last 20 years. Up until the end of the American primaries there was little that was unique about Trump. He was running the same kind anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-globalization campaign that is common in Europe and was winning about the same percentage of the vote with that campaign.

The crucial difference between Trump and the European far-right, however, is that Trump was not leading his own party, he was running as a candidate for leadership in an already established party. This gave Trump two major advantages over most far-right candidates. The first is that he could use the resources of the Republican party when running in the general election. Even though he did not have the support of the entire Republican establishment he could count on many of established Republican campaigners to help him to run his campaign. This gave him a level of election expertise that most far-right parties simply do not have. As my colleague, Adam Coombs, points out in his piece on voter turnout, Trump was able to benefit both from the Republican party’s get out the vote efforts and from voter suppression laws that Republican governors put in place to provide an advantage to Republican candidates. Unlike most far-right parties, Trump was able to take advantage of all of the work that mainstream conservatives had done to try to give their party an advantage in elections.

Second, and more importantly, Trump was able to use the Republican brand. There is an extensive literature in American political science that shows that Americans have a high level of partisan loyalty. There is also a great deal of work, summarized in Achen and Bartels’ recent book, Democracy for Realists*, that shows that when voters find out they disagree with their candidate on an issue, they change their views on the issue not on the candidate that they are supporting. The confluence of American partisan loyalty and voters’ tendency to adopt the views of their candidate meant that as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee he had access to voters that no European far-right party does. Because voters tend to fall in line with their candidates, many of the Republicans who remained loyal to their party were likely to adopt the kinds of far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization views that Trump campaigned on. The fact that Trump ran as a Republican and not as third party candidate meant that he could reach loyal Republican voters who are willing to accept the views and arguments of a Republican candidate, but who may be reluctant to consider those same views and arguments when offered by someone running under a different party banner. No European far-right party has been able to take advantage of mainstream conservative party loyalties in the same way.

This is not to suggest that Trump did not win the support of some Democrats and independents, or that some Republicans did not vote against Trump. Far-right parties in Europe have demonstrated an ability to win the support of traditionally left leaning working class voters who oppose immigration and are fearful of globalization. There were also certainly some Republicans who voted against Trump, not all voters are blindly loyal to their parties. Trump was able, however, to build a coalition of far-right anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters (Republican or otherwise) and loyal Republicans unwilling to desert their party. Most European parties cannot build the same coalition because they are only able to win the first group voters- those who hold anti-immigrant or anti-globalization views strong enough to lead them to desert one of the mainstream parties. To get the support that Trump needed to win the American election he needed both strongly anti-immigrant and anti-globalization voters and loyal Republicans.

Trump’s ability to co-opt the Republican party should worry moderate conservatives and progressive in Britain and Canada. In both countries, like in the United States, a first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for the kind of far-right party that is common in Europe to succeed. It is notable that while the UK Independence Party now holds a single seat in British parliament, it took them over 10% of the vote nationally to win it. It is not the emergence of far-right party that these countries have most to worry about, it is the co-opting of one of the mainstream parties by far-right movements. In the UK there are a growing number of Conservative MPs that hold views of immigration and globalization strikingly similar to UKIP. In Canada the Conservative party has two leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, who hold anti-multicultural views that are similar to the ones found in far-right parties in Europe. Leitch, in particular, has made efforts to associate herself with Trump’s success.  There is a serious danger that the far-right may become significant to British and Canadian politics not through the emergence of a far-right party, but rather through the take over of a mainstream conservative party.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States shows that far-right candidates can be particularly powerful if they can co-opt a mainstream party. Like in most of Europe, there is a constituency in Britain, Canada, and the United States that will support candidates opposed to immigration and globalization. British and Canadian conservatives should take careful notice of what happened in the United States. There is a real danger that their parties can be turned into vehicles to put prejudiced and once thought unacceptable candidates in power.

*Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why American Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.