What to Make of “Mad” Max Part 4: Where to Watch

In three previous posts I looked at three points of comparison for Maxime Bernier’s new Conservative party, UKIP, the Reform party, and former MP André Arthur.  In this post I look at where Bernier’s party is likely to be most competitive.  Watching how his party does in these areas of the country will be important to gauging his chances of success.  I find that Bernier’s highest chances of success lie in Alberta, particularly in rural Alberta.  In Quebec, Bernier is likely to have mixed results, with most of his support coming in Quebec City.

To estimate the areas in which Bernier is likely to be successful I looked at two things.  First, I considered the level of support the Conservatives had in a particular riding.  Bernier is likely to draw most of his support from the Conservatives so it stands to reason that he will do better in ridings where the Conservatives did well.  Second, I looked at the share of support for Bernier in the Conservative leadership race following the 2015 election.  Defections to Bernier are not likely to be evenly spread across Conservative ridings, but rather should be higher in ridings where Bernier is more popular.  Bernier’s leadership vote totals provide a sense of which ridings those might be.  To calculate what I refer to as a Bernier score, I multiply the percentage of the vote Bernier won in the leadership race (divided by 100) by the percentage points that the Conservatives won in 2015.  I do this for both Bernier’s vote share on the first leadership ballot and his vote share on the final ballot to create two different scores.  In this post I will discuss the averages for different provinces and regions in the country.  Bernier scores by riding can be found in the spreadsheet linked to below.

Bernier Support

It is important to note that the Bernier scores are not estimates of how many votes Bernier will win in 2019.  The Conservative party’s vote share is likely to change for the 2019 election, and Bernier is not likely to take all of voters that supported him in the leadership race into his new party.  I intend these scores to measure the relative strength of Bernier’s support across different ridings, not his absolute support as compared to other parties.  They should give observers hints as to where to look to see if Bernier successful.

The graph below shows the average Bernier score for both calculations using first and final ballot support across the different provinces.  In this graph Alberta stands out as the province in which Bernier has the most amount support.  First ballot Bernier scores for Alberta are double the next closest province, Manitoba.  Final ballot scores between the two provinces are a little closer, but still show a significant gap.  Scores in the other large and medium sized provinces are all pretty close, though Bernier scores slightly higher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (on the first ballot) than the other provinces.  A gap of just over 3 points on the first ballot between Manitoba is reasonably small, especially when compared to the difference between Manitoba and Alberta.  Finally, Bernier’s support appears to be particularly weak in the Atlantic provinces, with the four lowest Bernier scores coming in that part of the country.

Bernier Score by Province

Some of what is driving the high Bernier scores in Alberta is the higher percentage of the vote that the Conservatives win in Alberta.  This does not diminish the usefulness of the score.  Because there are more Conservatives in Alberta, there are more people who would be receptive to Bernier’s message than in the other provinces.  The sheer number of conservative voters in the province means that it should be central to the success of any conservative party.  It is notable, however, that Saskatchewan (another one of Canada’s most Conservative provinces) has Bernier scores that are pretty close to the rest of the non-Atlantic provinces.

Looking at Bernier scores for smaller regions within the country shows some interesting findings.  The two graphs below show Bernier scores for the first ballot in the Conservative leadership and the final ballot respectively.  As suggested by the provincial break downs, ridings in Calgary and rural Alberta have higher scores than anywhere else in the country.  Edmonton’s scores are substantially lower than the rest of Alberta’s, but still high relative to the rest of the country.  Interestingly, Quebec City joins the three Alberta regions as having ridings with high Bernier scores.  This suggests that the region is another area in which Bernier’s party might be competitive.

Bernier Score by Region on First Ballot

Bernier Score by Region on Final Ballot

On the other end of the graph, the Atlantic provinces (which I consider single regions because of their small size) maintain some of the lowest Bernier scores in the country.  Depending on which Bernier score one looks at, they are joined by South-West Quebec, Northern Quebec, Western Quebec, Regina, Gaspesie, and Montreal.  The divide between the different Quebec regions is particularly stark.  Bernier looks like he has a fair amount of potential to be competitive in Quebec City, but little potential to do well outside of it.  This makes sense when one considers that Bernier’s opposition to supply management will hurt him in rural Quebec, while the smaller numbers of conservative voters will hurt him in Gatineau, Montreal, and Northern Quebec.  It is also worth noting that Bernier does quite poorly in the region that his riding is in, Gaspesie.  While Beauce has a reasonably high Bernier score none of the surrounding ridings do.  This makes for some interesting intra-regional dynamics in the Gaspesie region.

It is finally worth noting that Bernier’s potential for success is relatively low in Canada’s major cities.  The three largest cities in the country, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver all have fairly low Bernier scores.  Ottawa’s, Saskatoon’s, and the 905 region’s are all middling, but each of those regions contains substantial numbers rural or suburban ridings.  When looking to see where Bernier might be competitive one should look to the rural parts of the country as opposed to the major cities.  Winnipeg and the two Albertan cities are the outliers, with relatively high Bernier scores.

Maxime Bernier has a long road ahead of him if he is going to build a competitive party.  In addition to building national and local organizations, he will need to identify ridings in which he can be competitive.  He will need to find ways of focusing his campaign on such ridings.  Observers looking at whether Bernier can be successful in 2019 should pay particular attention to how he is doing in ridings in Alberta and Quebec City.  If he is struggling in those regions, it is unlikely he will be able to do well in the rest of the country.


What to Make of “Mad” Max Part 3: An Independent, Far-Right MP?

In the wake of Maxime Bernier’s departure from the Conservative party, I am writing a series of pieces considering what might become of the MP and his new party.  In previous posts I drew comparisons between Bernier and UKIP and argued that he will fail to have the kind of impact that Reform did in the 1990s.  In this post I will consider what might happen if Bernier’s party cannot get off the ground.  In such a case, he would essentially become an independent MP, free to vote as he wishes but struggling to have an impact outside of his riding in Beauce.  Canada has seen this before recently.  André Arthur served as a far-right independent MP from 2006 to 2011, representing the Quebec riding of Portneuf Jacques Cartier.

While Canada has not had a far-right party of the type seen in much of Europe, it has had a far-right MP in Arthur.  Before being elected to parliament, Arthur made a career as a radio jockey on what is referred to in Quebec as “trash radio.”  His actions on the radio highlight the extent to which his politics were far-right.  Racist comments against Haitian and Arab in Montrealers landed him in the Supreme Court in 1998.  He returned to the radio after losing his seat in 2011 and got into trouble with the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council for suggesting drivers should hit cyclists that ride in the winter.  He was fired from his broadcast job earlier this year for homophobic comments.  Arthur’s approach to public discourse parallels some of what is seen in far-right parties in Europe.  Unfortunately, racism towards immigrants and other offensive attacks are significant parts of the way that both approach politics.

For all of his extremism, Arthur’s impact as an MP was relatively limited.  As an independent MP, he had little ability to get bills passed.  The fact that he was only one person running in one riding meant that he posed little threat to any party, and so no party had much of an incentive to try to co-opt his views or pay much attention to any issues that he raised.  For the most part he voted with the Conservatives.  Though he never joined their party or caucus, the Conservatives were confident enough that they would get his support on important votes that they did not bother to run a candidate against him in either the 2008 or 2011 elections.  As an MP, Arthur was probably most notable for taking a job as a private bus driver and for his absences from parliament.

It is entirely possible that this is what Bernier could end up as.  Building a party to the point where it can be competitive in an election is a difficult task.  Bernier needs to find organizers and members across the country so that he can run campaigns in most of Canada’s 338 ridings.  He needs to raise enough money to run a large scale national campaign.  He needs to find candidates for 338 ridings, and he needs to find a way to vet such candidates to try to avoid nominating those that will embarrass the party (the Reform party was hurt by a few embarrassing candidates in the early 1990s).  The Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP have experienced organizations capable of doing all of this.  Bernier has himself and whoever he has managed to take with him from his leadership campaign.  He also has about a year to do this, while each of the other major parties has had four.

If one looks at the last two MPs to split from their party and form their own, Jean-François Fortin and Jean-François Larose, the outcome is not encouraging.  Their Forces et Démocratie party managed to run just 17 candidates in 2015.  Their strongest candidate, Fortin, won less than 12% of the vote and finished 4th in his riding.  Bernier is likely in better shape that Fortin and Larose.  He is a higher profile MP than either were and has some experience running national campaigns because of his run for Conservative leadership.  At the same time, the difficulty of setting up a party and winning a large number of votes in a short period of time should not be understated.

If Bernier’s attempt to set up his party fails, he could very well end up an independent MP.  Bernier is popular in his riding.  He has never won less than 50% of the vote and won over 60% in 2006 and 2008.  As such, it is not impossible that Bernier could fail at establishing a competitive party but still win re-election to parliament as either the sole member of his party elected or as an independent.*  In this case, his opposition to multiculturalism and support of free trade would put him on the same side of the political spectrum as Arthur, though it is important to note that Bernier’s views are not as extreme as Arthur’s.

As an independent, Bernier would probably be a more competent MP than Arthur.  That being said, his impact would probably still be very limited.  Like Arthur, it is hard to imagine Bernier voting against the Conservatives on important votes.  On the issues that Bernier disagrees with the Conservatives, multiculturalism and supply management, he is unlikely to get enough support from other parties to have a meaningful impact on policy or parliament.  As an independent Bernier would be no threat to the Conservatives either.  He could keep them from winning Beauce, but without a party he would be unable to challenge them in any other parts of the country.  Without being able to threaten to take votes from the Conservatives outside his own riding, Bernier would lose his ability to influence Conservative policy.  If he is no threat, there is no incentive for the Conservatives to take on some of his policy positions in order to prevent voters from defecting to him.

Maxime Bernier is not André Arthur.  Bernier’s views, while on the far-right of the political spectrum, are not as extreme as Arthur’s.  Bernier’s Conservative leadership bid also gives him much more of an organization than Arthur had.  It is reasonably likely that Bernier will be able to build up his party enough that it could be competitive in the 2019 election.  In such a case, the comparison to UKIP that I did in part 1 of this series is more useful than one with Arthur.  However, if Bernier fails to establish his own party, the case of Arthur demonstrates how weak Bernier’s influence as an independent MP would be.

*Bernier being elected as an independent would only occur if his attempt to start a new party falls apart before the 2019 election.  He may end up serving as an independent, however, if his party falls apart after the election.


What to Make of “Mad Max” Part 2: This Will Not Be the Return of Reform

Recently, Maxime Bernier shook up conservative politics by leaving the Conservative party to set up his own.  In the wake of the departure there is a healthy amount of speculation over what will become of this new party.  In my last post, I used the UK Independence party as a point of comparison to speculate on how the new party might affect Canadian politics.  I argued that UKIP’s experience suggests that Bernier’s new party will struggle to win seats, but could still cause problems for the Conservatives.  In this post I will compare Bernier’s new party to Canada’s most recent conservative splinter party, the Reform party.  It is unlikely that Bernier will be able to replicate Reform’s success.

The temptation to draw comparisons between Bernier and Reform is reasonably strong.  Like Reform, Bernier’s party will be positioned to the right of the Conservatives and will attempt to give voice to conservatives who feel abandoned by the way the existing party has moderated.  Also, like Reform, Bernier will try to take positions critical of multiculturalism, though Bernier is likely to make such opposition a larger part of his party’s platform than Reform ever did.  Finally, Bernier’s party is likely to echo a lot of Reform’s pro-free market politics.  One of Bernier’s signature policies is opposition to supply management, a policy that restricts dairy production and imports in order to increase dairy prices for Canadian farmers.

Where Bernier’s party will differ from Reform is in its regional support.  Bernier himself is a Quebec MP, popular in his riding of Beauce.  On the surface, this, along with his anti-multicultural rhetoric, suggests that he may be able to win over some of the more conservative Quebecois nationalists.  Bernier will be able to draw parallels between his ideas and policies such as the niqab ban that many conservative Quebecois nationalists favour.  His position on supply management, however, will make it hard for him to build a regional base in Quebec.  The main beneficiaries of supply management are Quebec farmers, and thus they are the strongest advocates of the policy’s continuation.  Indeed, there was substantial organization against Bernier in Quebec ridings outside of Beauce because of his opposition to the policy.  Despite the fact that Bernier was the strongest Quebec candidate he averaged just 39% of the vote on the first round in Quebec ridings and just 56% on the final ballot (compared to Scheer’s 44%).  While Bernier did reasonably well in the province he was far from dominant.

In Western Canada, Bernier may also struggle to build a strong regional base.  Unlike Preston Manning’s Reform party, Bernier is competing against a Western Conservative leader (Scheer is from Saskatchewan) with a decent record of responding to issues important to Western Canadian conservatives.  The Conservative party has also worked hard to demonstrate to Western Canadian conservatives that it cares about their interests.  In government, they ended the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly (a policy important to Western conservatives) and passed few environmental regulations likely to harm prairie resource production.  In opposition, they have made opposition to a carbon tax and support for pipelines a key parts of their criticism of the Liberals.  When Reform emerged in the late 1980s, Preston Manning was able to point to the Mulroney Conservatives’ positions on Quebec’s place in the constitution, bilingualism, and a CF-18 contract granted to a Montreal-based company instead of a Winnipeg one as evidence the Conservatives had abandoned the interests of Western Canadians.  Bernier cannot make the same arguments with respect to Scheer’s Conservatives.

Bernier’s anti-immigrant and anti-multicultural positions on their own are unlikely to provide him with a regional base.  In order to build such a base, Bernier needs not only to find a geographically concentrated group of voters that agree with him, but also voters that care enough about the issue to abandon the Conservatives over it.  The experiences of UKIP in the UK (as I wrote about in my last post), Australia’s One Nation party, and the French Front National*, suggest that far-right anti-immigrant voters are not sufficiently geographically concentrated to overcome the disadvantages new parties face in first past the post systems.  All three parties struggle to win enough support in individual districts to win seats.  It is unlikely that Canada’s anti-immigrant voters are more geographically concentrated than Australian, British, or French anti-immigrant voters.  As a result, it is unlikely that Bernier will be able to use his opposition to immigration and multiculturalism to build a regional base of support.

Bernier needs to build a regional base, because it is often impossible for new parties in first past the post systems to succeed without one.  Small parties with geographically dispersed voters tend to finish 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in a lot of districts and win few to none.  This is the problem that the Green party has in federal elections.  By contrast small parties with geographically concentrated voters can be competitive in particular regions even if they are not competitive across the country.  This is what allowed the Reform party and Bloc Quebecois to be successful.  Even though neither party was highly competitive across the country, Reform was competitive in the West while the Bloc were competitive in Quebec.  Voters in both regions knew that even if neither party was likely to win government, that a vote for Reform in the West or the Bloc in Quebec could help the party come first in a riding in the region.  This in turn meant voters could be confident that a vote for the party would help it increase its seats share.

Most third parties that have emerged in Canada have done so with substantial regional strongholds.  Reform and the Bloc Quebecois are the obvious examples, but even the CCF (forerunner to the NDP) won their first seats in parliament because they had established a reasonably solid base of support in Saskatchewan.  Without a strong regional base, Bernier’s new party will struggle to translate any vote gains into seat gains.

There is a temptation to see Bernier’s party as a reprise of the split between the Reform and Progressive Conservative party that kept both from competing for government throughout the 1990s.  That is unlikely to be the case.  Bernier does not have an issue that will create the kind of strong regional base that Reform had.  Without such a base, first past the post will limit his party’s ability to translate votes into seats and build the kind of strength that Reform had.  Bernier still may take votes from the Conservatives, and will still cause them problems, but this is not the kind of fracture that split the Canadian right in half throughout 1990s.

*Australia and France use alternative vote and run-off systems respectively.  These systems are not the same as first past the post, but like first past the post, they require that small parties’ voters of geographically concentrated if those parties are to win seats.


What to Make of “Mad” Max Part 1: A Canadian UKIP?

This past week-end Maxime Bernier shook up Canadian politics by announcing that he would be leaving the Conservatives to start his own party.  He did this following a couple of twitter tirades against political correctness and multiculturalism.  This has led to a great deal of speculation as to what will become of Bernier and his new party.  In a series of posts, I will look at a number different comparable cases in order to provide some insight into how such a new party might do.  In this first post, I will draw comparisons with the UK Independence party.  This comparison suggests that Bernier’s new party will struggle to win seats and votes but could still have a significant impact on Canadian politics.

In my last post I looked at the way that first past the post and proportional electoral systems affect the success of far-right candidates and parties.  I argued that far-right candidates can succeed in first past the post systems, but only if they co-opt existing mainstream right parties.  When far-right candidates like Donald Trump and Doug Ford are able to take over parties like the Republicans and Ontario Conservatives they benefit from the work those parties have done to build a brand and an organization capable of mounting a strong election campaign.  They also benefit from the electorate’s expectations that the party will be competitive.  As such, voters considering the Trump Republicans or the Ford Conservatives could be fairly confident that they would not be “wasting their vote.”

By going out on his own Bernier loses all of these advantages.  His party will not have an established brand and the voter loyalties that come with it.  It will have limited to no organization outside of whoever he is able to bring with him in his leadership campaign (and early indications are that he is not bringing all of his supporters from that campaign with him).  He will need to set up riding associations and find candidates to run across the country (and who will not embarrass the party).  Finally, he will need to convince conservative voters that voting for his party is not just drawing support from the Conservatives and guaranteeing a Liberal victory.

The UK Independence party faces similar challenges to the ones that Bernier will.  The party competes against a strong Conservative party in a first past the post system.  The results for UKIP have not been encouraging.  In the 6 elections it has contested, the party has only broke 10% of the vote once, in 2015.  In that election it managed to win just one seat, despite having almost 13% of the vote.  Its next best showing was in 2010, when it won just 3%.  This is despite the fact that one of its headline policies, leaving the European Union, won a majority vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum.  In most elections UKIP struggles to convince many voters that they are a preferable option to the existing British Conservative party.  Even when they did in 2015, those voters were not geographically distributed in a way that yielded many seats.  Given that Maxime Bernier is likely to try to appeal to the same anti-immigrant voters that back UKIP, and is running against a similar Canadian Conservative party, he is likely to face the same challenges.

To make matters worse for Bernier, there are three ways in which Canada differs from Britain that will put his party at a disadvantage relative to UKIP.  First, Canada’s electorate has a significantly larger number of immigrants than Britain’s.  Canada’s foreign-born population is 20% as compared to a few percentage points over 10% in the United Kingdom.  Assuming that most immigrants will be less likely to vote for an anti-immigrant party than the rest of the population, this means that the pool of voters that Bernier can draw from is smaller than the one that UKIP can.  If one adds to this the greater to degree to which multiculturalism has become part of Canada’s national identity, it is hard to imagine that sympathy for Bernier’s new party in Canada could exceed sympathy for UKIP.

Second, unlike UKIP, Bernier is unlikely to find policies other than immigration that gain traction with the electorate.  In addition to running on opposition to immigration, UKIP was able to run on opposition to Britain being part of the European Union.  The Brexit referendum demonstrated the popularity of such a stance.  In contrast, the non-immigration issue on which Bernier differentiates himself from the Conservative party is supply management (a policy placing limits on the amount of dairy produced and imported to Canada to keep prices from falling too low).  Bernier opposes supply management while the Conservatives, along with most major parties in Canada, support it.  The problem with this policy for Bernier is that the voters that benefit from the policy (largely Quebec dairy farmers) benefit a great deal and therefore are willing to make it a top election issue.  In contrast, voters that are hurt by this policy are only marginally hurt and are therefore unlikely to make it a major voting issue.  As such, Bernier has fewer policies than UKIP that he can use to pull voters away from the Conservatives.

Finally, UKIP benefited from facing a Conservative party that was in power.  When UKIP was at its strongest in 2010 and 2015, the Conservative’s strongest competitor, Labour, was quite weak.  In 2010 Labour was coming off of a long period in office and was unpopular as a result.  In 2015 The Conservatives had just spent 5 years leading a coalition government.  In both years, the argument that voters had vote Conservative in order to keep Labour out of power was relatively weak, compared to prior elections.  By comparison, Bernier is forming a party one election after the Liberals won a striking majority.  While Trudeau has become less popular in government, it is unlikely that he is as unpopular as Labour leader Gordon Brown was in 2010.  Because of this, the argument from Canadian Conservatives that right voters will have to stick together to keep the Trudeau Liberals from winning government will be powerful relative to its strength in Britain with respect to UKIP.

While the experience of UKIP suggests that Bernier’s party will struggle to win votes and seats, it would be deeply problematic to suggest that UKIP has not had a significant influence over British politics.  The party contributed significantly to mobilization of voters around opposition to immigration, multiculturalism, and the European Union.  It put these issues on the British political agenda in a way that split the Conservative party (as well as the Labour party to a lesser extent).  Theresa May’s Conservatives are still struggling to find a balance of positions on immigration and to find a way to deal with Brexit in a way that can prevent the party from breaking apart.

Bernier’s new party could cause the Canadian Conservatives similar problems.  The Conservatives, especially through the 2000s, were careful to reach out to immigrants and ethnic minorities.  Such outreach was critical to the party’s success in swing ridings in suburban British Columbia and Ontario that have large numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities.  Without success in these ridings, the Conservatives cannot win elections.  At the same time, there are significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters within the Conservative party.  If Bernier starts to mobilize anti-immigrant voters around his new party, the Conservatives may end up caught between a rock and a hard place.  They could co-opt Bernier’s anti-immigrant/anti-multicultural rhetoric.  In doing so, they would like lose support in suburban swing districts.  Alternatively, they could ignore Bernier, but in doing so, they risk losing anti-immigrant voters to his new party.  Bernier can do a lot of damage to the Conservatives just but raising the profile of issues that split the party.

It is not clear whether Bernier will manage to build a party similar to UKIP.  It is entirely possible that he will be unable to build the kind of organization that can run effectively in elections.  If he does, the first past the post electoral system will make it difficult to translate what support he is able to win into seats.  Failure to win votes and seats, however, may not prevent Bernier’s new party from having an impact on Canadian politics.


No Easy Answers: Grappling with the Impact Electoral Reform Might have on Far-Right Parties

As the BC referendum on electoral reform approaches the impact of electoral reform on far-right parties has become an increasingly debated subject.  On one side, advocates of first past the post point to the success of far-right parties across much of Europe as evidence that proportional systems can create opportunities for such parties to succeed.  On the other, proponents of proportional representation point to the success of Donald Trump and Doug Ford as evidence that far-right populists can be successful in first past the post systems.  The relationship between electoral systems and the success of far-right parties is more complicated than both sides of this debate suggest.  There is merit to the claim that proportional representation systems make it easier for far-right parties to enter the legislature.  At the same time, there are avenues in first past the post systems through which far-right candidates can be successful.

On the face of it, the claim that far-right parties have an easier time getting into the legislature makes sense.  First past the post systems disproportionately weaken small parties whose vote is geographically dispersed.  Such parties tend to finish second, third, or even fourth in most districts they contest.  As a result, they struggle to win seats even if they win 5% or 10% of the popular vote.  As far-right parties generally are small parties with geographically dispersed vote shares, they struggle to win seats in first past the post systems.  The same dynamics that work against a party such as the Green party work against far-right parties.

This becomes clear when one looks at far-right parties that have emerged in first past the post or similar systems.  In Britain, the UK Independence Party constantly struggles to turn the votes that it wins into seats.  Most notably, in the 2015 election the party won over 12% of the vote but just one seat out of 650.  The same holds when one looks at similar electoral systems.  In Australia, which uses a ranked ballot, the far-right One Nation party has never won a seat in the federal House of Commons (though it has done slightly better in Senate elections where a proportional system is used).  In France, which uses a (usually) top-two candidate run-off, the Front National won just 8 of 577 seats in the National Assembly.  It did so despite the fact that their Presidential candidate finished second in the Presidential race.  In all three cases, far-right candidates struggle to win pluralities or majorities of the vote in districts and thus win few seats.

Before 2016 one could have left the analysis of electoral systems’ impact on the far-right there.  Proponents of proportional representation, however, have rightly pointed to election of Donald Trump as evidence that far-right candidates, if not parties, can be successful in first past the post systems.  This does not invalidate the above argument regarding the success of far-right parties under first past the post and proportional systems.  Rather, an amendment is needed.  While first the post systems limit the success of far-right parties, they do nothing to stop far-right candidates that are able to co-opt existing mainstream parties.  It is notable that this was the case for both Donald Trump and Doug Ford.  Indeed, one can argue that the difficulty smaller new parties have under first past the post pushes candidates such as Trump and Ford into mainstream parties.  Should a far-right candidate win control of a mainstream party, they can then benefit from the mainstream party’s brand and resources, and likely have more success than they would have had they started their own party and run in a proportional system.

The barrier that winning control of a party presents to a far-right candidate should not be taken lightly.  It takes a substantial amount of support and organization to win a leadership race and opponents within the mainstream have opportunities to block such candidates.  In the case of the British Conservatives, a requirement that leadership candidates have the support of the party caucus as well as the membership has prevented Boris Johnson from mounting a serious leadership bid and kept hard core Brexiteers such as Michael Gove from winning the leadership.  In the American Republican party, Donald Trump’s primary victory was in part the result the failure of anti-Trump candidates to coordinate.  Trump only won 45% of the popular vote in the primary even though many of his competitors dropped out before the end of the contest.  Had Republicans agreed on a single moderate anti-Trump candidate it is conceivable that they could have prevented Trump from winning the nomination.  It is harder to enter politics by taking over a party in a first past the post system than it is to do so by starting one’s own party in a proportional system.

With respect to far-right parties, first past the post lives up to its winner-take-all nickname.  Because proportional systems allocate seats to parties based on their vote share, they tend to distribute seats to a wider range of parties.  This means that fringe views, even far-right ones, get represented in the legislature fairly easily.  First past the post systems tend to give an advantage to parties and candidates that win a plurality of the vote, even if they do not represent a majority of the views in a population.  This means that most of the time far-right candidates will struggle because they rarely make up a plurality of the views within the electorate or even within a party.  When there is plurality support for a far-right candidate, however, first past the post systems grant such candidates a great deal of power, often giving them full control over the legislative and executive branches of government.  Essentially, first past the post systems will weaken far-right parties and candidates when they have low levels of support, but strengthen them once they reach reasonably high levels of support.

A final question that one should grapple with when thinking about electoral reform and its impact on far-right parties is whether this should be a consideration when choosing electoral systems at all.  There is a danger in designing democratic institutions to try to exclude certain viewpoints, regardless of how odious those viewpoints are.  In democratic systems, parties should be shut out because they fail to convince voters to support them, not because those that design the institutions dislike them.  In this sense, asking how electoral reform impacts the success of far-right parties may be the wrong question.  It may, rather, be worth asking how much we want political power to be widely distributed across many parties (and the diverse viewpoints they represent) or whether we want power to be concentrated with the party the represents a plurality of voters.


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.


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.