Last week produced the election outcome that most expected and many progressives feared. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won a large majority in Ontario, taking almost 41% of the vote and 76 out of 124 seats. There is strong temptation for many to compare Doug Ford to Donald Trump. Ford is a populist politician, claiming to represent “the people” against a supposed class of political elites. Such a comparison is valuable in that it can highlight some of the ways that right-wing populists take power. Like Trump, Ford benefited from running against an unpopular incumbent and for an established party that is usually seen as the alternative to that incumbent. Unlike Trump, Ford did not run an anti-immigrant campaign. Indeed, success in the diverse ridings in suburban Toronto were key to his victory. This suggests that populism can succeed in Canada under circumstances very similar to the conditions its succeeds under in the United States, but not with the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that American right-wing populism often has.
It is notable that both Trump and Ford won elections that a generic opposition party candidate was either favoured to win or very close to being favoured to win. In the United States, election forecasting models that focus largely on economic conditions and incumbency (and which ignore the characteristics of the candidates running for office) showed a very close election in which a Trump win was reasonably likely. These models ended up being very close to the actual result. In Ontario, Ford was running against a highly unpopular Liberal government that had been in power since 2003. A 15 year old government with a Premier that has an approval rating going into the election of 19% is not one that is likely to win re-election.
Both Trump and Ford won elections that any opposition party should have. It is very rare to see either the Democrats or the Republicans win three consecutive Presidential terms, as it is to see parties govern provinces for over 15 years. The take-away here should not necessarily be that Trump or Ford benefited from a populist surge. Rather, they won elections that most opposition leaders and parties would have. Progressives should not take too much comfort in this. One would hope that choosing leaders that ignore democratic norms, like Trump and Ford, would cost opposition parties elections they should otherwise be able to win. The Ontario election suggests that this is not necessarily the case.
It is important that both Trump and Ford ran for mainstream parties. This is one of the things that sets the two apart from European populists. Most European populists run for explicitly populist parties instead of co-opting mainstream ones. This is the case for Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France, Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage and the UK Independence Party in Britain. As a result, they have to develop their own election organizations and establish their own groups of party loyalists. Trump and Ford took over existing parties with deep roots in their respective jurisdictions. Neither had to build their own organization, and both benefited from voters’ loyalty to established parties, be it to the Republicans in the United States or to the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario.
There are two lessons that come from this. The first is that keeping populist parties out of politics does not necessarily keep populist politicians out of power. Indeed, institutions that force populist politicians into mainstream parties may make them more powerful. This is something to consider when debating institutional reforms such as changes to electoral systems. Designing institutions that make it harder for right win populists parties to emerge may just drive right-wing populists into mainstream parties. Once in those parties, being able to take advantage of the mainstream parties’ electoral organization and partisan loyalty may make it easier, not harder, for right wing populists to win.
The second lesson is that progressives should not count on partisans to defect in order to defeat a candidate who violates key democratic norms. There were certainly large numbers of Republicans and Ontario Progressive Conservatives that campaigned against Trump and Ford when they were running in primaries or leadership contests. Once Trump and Ford had won the leadership of their respective parties, however, supporters of their parties fell in line. Partisan loyalty ended up being stronger than any commitment to democratic norms.
All of this being said, it is important to remember that Doug Ford is not Donald Trump and that the demographics of Ontario are different from the demographics of the United States. Unlike Trump, Ford did not make anti-immigrant rhetoric a central part of his campaign. Rather, he focused on opposing carbon pricing, reducing hydro-electricity rates, and cutting taxes. Ford did make a rather odd comment about Ontario “taking care of [its] own” in response to a question about encouraging immigrants to move to Northern Ontario. In responding to criticism though, he emphasized his ties to immigrants and highlighted the importance of recognizing immigrants’ education credentials. This is far cry from the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign or of many European far-right populists.
Ford also did well in ridings with large shares of immigrants. The first graph below shows little relationship between the size of the immigrant population in a riding and Progressive Conservative vote share. The second and third show the average PC vote in ridings with an immigrant population of at least 30% and at least 40% respectively. Ford did only slightly worse in ridings with an immigrant population of at least 30% than he did in Ontario as a whole. He actually did slightly better in ridings with immigrant populations above 40% than he did in the rest of the province.
The lack of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Ford’s campaign is a reflection of Canada’s demographics. Canada has a very large immigrant population (1/5 of Canadians were born outside the country). Immigrants also tend to be concentrated in swing ridings that determine who wins elections. This is particularly the case in Ontario with respect to the suburbs around Toronto (often referred to as the GTA). Running on an anti-immigrant platform in such an electoral environment is bound to lead to failure. As such, Ford had to modify his populist appeals in a way that appealed to the Ontario’s diverse electorate.
There is value in comparing Trump and Ford’s electoral success. There are similarities between the two. Both took advantage of circumstances that were favourable to opposition parties, and both successfully co-opted mainstream parties with strong election organizations and loyal followers. At the same time, Trump and Ford are not the same kind of populists. Ford’s efforts to, not only avoid anti-immigrant rhetoric, but to win over immigrants highlights the way that Canadian right-wing populism had to be very different from American right-wing populism. The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign cannot win in a country where immigrants make up a large portion of the electorate and are concentrated in the key swing districts parties need in order to be successful.