Similarities and Differences: What A Comparison of Doug Ford and Donald Trump can Tell Us About Populism in Canada and the United States

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.

Immigrant Population and PC Vote Share

Each x denotes a riding.  The line shows the trend and the 95% confidence level.

Support in Ridings with Immigration Populations Over 30%

Support in Ridings with Immigration Populations Over 40%

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.

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Misreading Polls: Reporting on Ontario Election Polls is Creating More Confusion than Need Be

The Ontario provincial election has turned into quite the horse-race.  A decline in support for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives combined with sustained growth for Andrea Horwath’s NDP has made what was projected to be a PC landslide into a very close election.  With this closeness has come a flurry of news stories claiming (depending on the day and the news outlet) that the NDP has inched into the lead or that the PCs have retaken it.  These stories probably overstate the volatility in the race.  For a week now the race has been tight.  Using polls to suggest anything beyond that, particularly that any party has jumped to a 1 or 2 point lead, overstates the precision one can expect polls to have.  Those watching the Ontario election should be very wary of reporting that fails to highlight margins or error in polls and of reporting that focuses on single polls.

Margins of Error

There is a tendency when reporting on polls to focus on the single number estimate the poll gives for each party.  It is natural to focus on this because it makes for the easiest comparison between parties.  The problem with this approach is that the single number estimate is probably wrong.  Polls are random samples of a population, and the probability that a pollster has managed to come across a random sample that mimics the real population within a percentage is pretty low.  Rather, a pollster using good methods is likely to get a sample that is pretty good but not perfect.  This is why polls have margins of error.  They are an acknowledgement that one can expect a small but potentially important difference between the poll’s estimates and actual public opinion.  A poll that has a margin of error in of plus or minus 3 is essentially saying that it is reasonably likely that its estimate is off by 3 percentage points in either direction.

News articles reporting polls should highlight these margins of error more than they usually do.  Rather than emphasizing the estimated support for a party, reports should make the range the poll gives the party clear.  To do otherwise misleads readers about the level precision and confidence when can have in a poll.  For example, a report that the NDP are polling at 36% suggests that to a reader that the pollster thinks the NDP has 36% of support.  However, if this, imagined, poll has a margin of error of 3, what the pollster has actually found is that the NDP has somewhere between 33% and 39% support.  The poll simply is not precise enough to say more than that with much confidence.

Despite this uncertainty, it is reasonably common to see polls reported on as if their estimates are exact.  This Global news article reports that the NDP are 3 points up on the PCs with no reference to a margin of error.  It goes further and makes seat projections without reporting a margin of error for them (even if one’s polling data is exact, one should expect a second margin of error to exist for any attempt to model seat outcomes from polling data).  This earlier article reports the PCs taking a lead over the NDP even though the 3 point difference between the two parties is less than the 3.2 point margin of error noted at the bottom of the page.  This article should be reporting that it is unclear which party is in the lead.

This kind of reporting would make the most recent week of the Ontario election less interesting.  Instead of getting headlines about how the PCs and the NDP have been taking and re-taking the lead, there would just be a number of reports about how it is impossible to know which party is in the lead.  Reporting that it is uncertain which party is in the lead, however, would be more accurate, and likely better prepare voters for the range of possible outcomes on election night.  It is entirely possible that rather than going back and forth over the last week, the lead changes that polls are reporting are a result of polls’ slightly different samples and methods.  It is also possible that there actually have been lead changes.  Polls are not precise enough to say that either is true.

The Danger of Reporting on One Poll

Even when one takes into account margins of error, individual polls are often wrong.  Sometimes a poll ends up with a weird sample, or a pollster has an odd way of modeling turnout or weighting responses in order to get a sample that reflects the population.  This leads to outlier polls that may be very different from what is actually the case.  If there is only one poll on a particular race, there is always danger that the poll is significantly off either because of randomness that sometimes occurs when sampling is done, or because there is something odd about the pollster’s methodology.

Fortunately, in most elections (particularly federal and provincial ones), there are many different public polls done.  One can compare the results of these polls to arrive at a general trend.  This reduces the chance that an outlier poll will mislead those that read it into thinking support for any one party is different than it actually is.

When there are multiple polls, news organizations should report on polling averages, not on individual polls.  When they do not, they are ignoring information that could provide a clearer picture of what the election actually looks like.  Macleans falls into this trap in this article when it reported on May 29th that the NDP was at 43% (note that this article also leaves margins of error to a note at the very bottom of the page- it is entirely possible their poll had the NDP at 40% or at 46%).  CBC’s poll tracker (which takes a weighted average of polls) for the 29th had the NDP at just 36% (with 43% looking just outside CBC’s margin of error).  Because the CBC average includes a variety of polls, its estimates are based on more information than the Macleans poll (which itself is included in the CBC average) and are probably more acurate.  As much as possible, news reporting should focus on these averages as opposed to individual polls.

Missing the extent to which there is uncertainty in polling can often lead to mistakes when it comes to predicting elections.  In 2016, for example, many (including myself) were surprised by Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton even though polling average sites such as FiveThirtyEight had a Trump victory well within the margin of error (at 29% the site estimated that a Trump victory was more likely than a coin flip coming up heads twice in a row).  Paying careful attention to margins of error and polling averages may decrease one’s certainty about an election before it happens, but it will also decrease the likelihood that a result is surprising.

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