Politics

Five Things I Learned from the Conservative Leadership Race (that all Canadians should take note of)

Yesterday generic conservative Andrew Scheer was crowned leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in a nail-biting 14 ballot process. His margin of victory over the libertarian Maxime Bernier was less than 2%.

Reuters managed to get pretty much everything about this story subtly wrong, from the number of votes political observers expected – by the final week, most of us remembered that there were so many low support candidates that it would probably go to the very final ballot – to Scheer’s position in the party. Reuters has Scheer pegged as a social conservative, whereas people watching the race were much more likely to describe him as the compromise candidate.

The Conservative Leadership race was one of the high points of my engagement in Canadian politics. I haven’t been this engaged since the 2011 election (I was out of country for the 2015 election which limited my involvement to mailing in a ballot). Focusing so closely on this leadership race, I’ve was surprised (although I probably shouldn’t have been) by just how much politics goes on under the surface and just how little actually filters up through the media.

Sometimes the things that don’t filter up are silly. The media never really mentioned that Steven Blaney sent out an email with the subject line: “Should Allah kill all the Jews?”. This is understandable; Blaney never was a serious contender for the leadership and his ridiculous emails would have been a distraction. Many in the media also underestimated the number of votes for Erin O’Toole that would transfer to Andrew Scheer once O’Toole was eliminated. This was a harder mistake to make when you were getting emails from every candidate; from the emails that O’Toole and Scheer were sending me, it was obvious that their internal polling had picked up on this correlation. Paying attention to things like this are what let me correctly predict Andrew Scheer would win.

With this in mind, I’d like to report some the things I learned watching this race and this convention. These are things that may or may not be reported, but I think they are deeply important for understanding Canadian politics going forward.

1. No one knows what to do with ranked ballots

In my last post on the leadership, I guessed that the race would last a few ballots. This was a very silly prediction to make, because it was obvious who the first six candidates to be eliminated would be. It was also obvious that together they had less than 5% of the total support. For the convention to be over after that few ballots, the front runner would have to have more than 45% support. Polling clearly showed Bernier (the front-runner for most of the race) at only 30%, so there was no way that the thing could have been decided that quickly.

I wasn’t the only one who made this error. The Conservative Party forecasted we’d have final results around 6:00PM. Final results weren’t available until around 8:15PM. Some of this was attributable to a forty-five-minute delay caused by technical issues, but most of this was because the thing went to the very last ballot.

The intuition that the leadership race should be decided in a few rounds comes from party conventions that use delegates. The last two contested Canadian conventions with delegates both went to four ballots. But a mail in instant run-off system is very different from delegate convention. There is little opportunity to gather momentum and no opportunity for politicians to blink. In a delegate convention, Scheer could have panicked in the 11th round and conceded to Bernier in exchange for some cabinet position. The mail in ranked ballots gave him no such option.

Ranked ballots differ even more significantly from the American system of sequential primary elections. Primaries suffer from the standard problem of first past the post systems; you often only need a plurality to win. This benefits the front runner, especially when “the establishment” can’t coalesce around a single candidate. Ranked ballots give the establishment no choice but to eventually coalesce. If the Republican primary had been decided by mail-in ranked ballots, it seems very likely that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz would have won instead of Trump.

In addition to talking heads used to other systems, ranked ballots also present a challenge to pollsters, who are used to asking people merely for the name of the candidate they most support. Even the polls that asked for multiple preferences rarely asked for preferences beyond third place. This can fall apart at the end of the convention when votes may have been transferred four or five times (e.g. from Raitt, to Chong, to O’Toole, to Scheer) or have skipped over some of the preferences (e.g. votes from Chong supporters who put Raitt second, O’Toole third, and Scheer fourth and saw their votes ultimately transferred to Scheer).

Kevin O’Leary claimed in the live convention coverage that he and Bernier had polled all the way down to the 10th choice (at ruinous expense). If this is true (and with Kevin, who knows), it’s likely that some of the other top fundraisers did this as well. That’s why I highlighted candidate’s emails as a vital tool for understanding the race. From their exhortations, I could often get an idea of the information they were going on.

If public polling can’t adapt to ranked ballots, then it will probably become necessary (for anyone who wants to correctly predict an election outcome) to spend more time reading the messages campaigns send to supporters to try and indirectly get high quality proprietary polling numbers. Unfortunately, reading emails and trying to figure out the information that went into them is much more of a black art than polling and it’s much harder to justify the information that comes out of it.

2. Canadian Conservatives aren’t Republicans

In Rona Ambrose’s farewell speech, she presented a narrative of Conservatives as defenders of the rights of women and girls. She pointed out that that first woman to serve in a cabinet was a member of the Conservative Party. She pointed out that the first (and only) female prime minister of Canada was a Conservative. She also talked about her work at the UN pushing for an International Day of the Girl and her work pressuring the government to admit Yazidi refugees fleeing religious persecution and sexual slavery at the hands of ISIL. When she mentioned that she’d forced the government to admit more refugees, she was given a rousing round of applause.

The stigma that sexual assault survivors face and the disgustingly high rate of sexual assault cases that are labelled unfounded were the focus of one section of one of the campaign debates. Luckily, there was basically no debate among the candidates on this issue. All of them pledged to improve police education and work to reduce the “unfounded rate”.

If you follow American politics, you might be surprised by things like this from a conservative party.

Canada and America are geographically and culturally proximate. It’s easy to pretend that the differences between the two countries are largely cosmetic. But when you do, you’re liable to get bitten in the ass by the iceberg of hidden differences.

Canadian conservatism is different than American conservatism. In the Conservative Party of Canada, you’ll get more votes calling for a carbon tax than you will if you call for increased screening of immigrants. Can you imagine that being true in America?

I don’t mean to claim that xenophobia and racism don’t exist in the Conservative Party of Canada. Kellie Leitch did get 9% of the vote. But for now, the xenophobic wing of the party is perhaps the least powerful part of the Canadian conservative coalition.

3. Social Conservatism is (kind of) alive and well

Unlike the xenophobic candidates, who did much worse than anyone feared, the social conservative candidates ran significantly ahead of expectations. Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost had combined polling numbers of 9.5% right before the election. In the first round of voting, many of us were surprised to see that their actual support was a combined 15.7%. When Trost was eliminated in the 11th ballot, he had 14.3% of the remaining support (evidence that almost all of Lemieux’s voters went to him).

A year ago, the Conservatives voted to remove any policy on the definition of marriage from their platform. Social conservatives were outraged but impotent. Their higher than expected support for Trost and Lemieux was their way of reminding the party that they exist.

Unfortunately for those members, social conservative policies are a delicate topic in Canadian politics. The Harper doctrine was to avoid the risky issues (like gay marriage and abortion) that risked undermining his chances of winning elections, while cautiously advancing policies that supported two-parent nuclear families (even the gay ones).

At the start of this leadership race, when Andrew Scheer was asked about his views on gay marriage, his answer was all pragmatism. While he is personally against gay marriage, he said “I don’t think you’d find any legitimate Conservative leadership aspirant who would revisit that issue”. His position on abortion is similar.

In his victory speech, Scheer obliquely referenced these views. “There’s… some issues that will divide our caucus and divide our movement and that [don’t] enjoy widespread support in the general public, but there are other areas… that the entire conservative movement can get behind.”

Taken together, all of this signals that the Harper doctrine is alive and well. Social conservatives won’t be getting action on abortion or gay marriage but they can expect Scheer to do his best to strengthen what they consider a traditional family structure. If Scheer is prime minister, expect to see policies like income splitting that blatantly favour married couples, especially couples where one parents stays home with children.

Bernier wasn’t willing to provide even this, which is probably why social conservatives broke for Scheer in the end, giving him the victory. Social conservatives ultimately didn’t get everything they wanted, but it seems like they managed to get the best of their realistic options.

4. Caucus Support

Had Bernier won, I think his leadership would have looked a lot like Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party. Both men have excessive amounts of ideological purity and a limited amount of support among the MPs of their party. This has made trying to control his party difficult for Corbyn and I see no reason why Bernier would have had an easier time of it.

Andrew Scheer is much more in the mold of Teresa May or Steven Harper. He has very strong support in the caucus; he was second only to Erin O’Toole in endorsements and is so similar to O’Toole on most issues that he should have no problem picking up O’Toole’s support.

The line “there’s been a rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment in recent elections” has become cliché. Everyone has heard a dozen times about how Brexit, Trump, and the French election prove that people are fed up with the political establishment.

Well, just as Canada was supposedly immune to the “rising tide of illiberalism”, we appear to be immune (for now) to the “rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment”. Andrew Scheer was very much of the political establishment. None of his policies represent a break with the policies of the Harper years.

This bodes well for Scheer’s ability to actually get shit done (and therefore poorly for the Liberals). Scheer understands how parliament works. He understands how the conservative caucus thinks. He’s young and energetic. He will hit the ground running and won’t complain to the media in six months that the job was much harder than he thought it would be.

Some of the above would have been true for Leitch or Bernier. None of it would have been true for O’Leary. Only time will tell if is better to be effective at managing a political party than it is to be “not a politician” or to have a clear ideology.

5. The Conservative Party of Canada is still Harper’s party

Steven Harper has been almost entirely absent from Canadian politics since his election defeat in 2015. It’s a startling change for the man who was the Conservative Party of Canada. For all of his flaws (and he has many), Harper was an ambitious and driven leader who decided on a goal and then moved heaven and earth to make it happen. He engineered the merger between the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Reform Party, won control of the resulting party, and then led it into five elections. In four of those elections, the party came out better than it went in.

In the Harper years, even cabinet seemed to be a mere extension of the Prime Minister’s will. The discipline with which cabinet ministers stuck to their script was occasionally farcical, like when Paul Calandra answered a question about Iraq with prepared remarks about an NDP fundraiser’s statements about Israel.

Maxime Bernier would have represented a break with the Harper legacy. He’s a committed libertarian with many policy proposals that differ from the sort of thing Harper would endorse, chief among them his pledge to scrap the Canada Health Act and end transfer payments to the provinces for healthcare.

Ideologically, Harper probably agrees with scrapping the CHA. But Harper was ever the ruthless pragmatist, always subordinating his personal ideology to the demands of getting elected. He wouldn’t have touched the widely popular CHA with a ten-foot poll.

Based on Scheer’s responses to questions about abortion and gay marriage, I can’t see him governing substantially differently than Harper. The Conservative party will continue Harper’s legacy of slowly and incrementally dismantling the Canadian welfare state, while avoiding nearly all contentious topics. With Scheer, Harper is effectively controlling the party from beyond the political grave.

I think I narrowly prefer Scheer to Bernier. Bernier seems unelectable, but if he were to win it would be an absolute disaster for the Canadians and provinces who rely on the Federal government for assistance. Scheer is probably more electable, but much more incrementalist. He represents a creeping threat to the welfare state, rather than an immediately existential threat.

I joined the Conservative Party to influence their leadership race away from high variance candidates, even those candidates who I thought would be safely defeated in the general election. Last year’s election in America taught me I couldn’t put my faith in certain candidates being “doomed outside the primaries”.

I’d have preferred Chong. But I think I can live with Harper era policies repackaged with a smile.

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