Politics: Why these elections matter

McCain-Obama may be a horse race. Canada’s vote may be a watershed.

In the run-up to elections both north and south of the border, liberals enjoyed enormous advantages. They have now lost those. That’s all thanks to astute manoeuvring by Stephen Harper and John McCain. So the U.S. presidential election has become a cliffhanger; victory hangs on whether the debates reveal Barack Obama a novice in foreign affairs or McCain too old to lead. But the Canadian campaign will be far more interesting. A collection of difficult-to-predict regional contests, it will likely be a watershed — changing the fundamental patterns of voting and party dominance for years to come.

Our Liberals and the American Democrats began with so many advantages. Canadian voters have long believed Liberals to be better than Conservatives at almost everything other than fighting crime. Democratic party registration has been rising so fast that Republican candidates need the support of most independent voters just to be contenders. The Democrats have had the advantage of an economy in tailspin and an unpopular GOP president who has waged an unpopular war. Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been a problem for the Conservatives, though less of one because of Harper’s skilful quest for multipartisanship.

Skill has been at the heart of what has happened until now. McCain and Harper have earned windfall profits as a result of facing opponents far less astute than themselves. Stéphane Dion overplayed the environment. He led the Liberals to compete for a hard environmental vote in a crowded marketplace — the NDP, Bloc and Greens are all vying for the same voter. That leaves the vast mass of other voters to the Conservatives alone. Moreover, Dion’s environmental agenda would inevitably cause problems for the Liberals in the West, obliging him to make gains in Central Canada instead. But Dion did little to cement relations with the Liberal premiers of Ontario and Quebec, who seemed to turn against him in the early days of the campaign.

It’s true that most Canadians are inclined to believe that humans may well be causing climate change, but few think it should be the government’s only priority. Dion’s single-minded agenda risks driving the faintly green to the Conservatives and the truly green to the real Greens.

South of the border, Obama has a different kind of green problem: his inexperience. It showed when he took too long to disown his spiritual advisor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, for describing 9/11 as “chickens coming home to roost” and for calling upon people to sing “God Damn America.” And it made him an easy victim of what former Bill Clinton strategist Dick Morris called “the biggest head fake in American political history.”

Obama was misled by the McCain camp into thinking the GOP vice-presidential candidate would be an old white guy. Not to be outdone, Obama chose his own old white guy, Senator Joe Biden. In an electoral version of shock and awe, McCain then revealed his selection of the governor of Alaska. Sarah Palin largely resonated with female journalists, who saw her as a charming, ambitious woman. As a churchgoer and mother of five, she also resonated with the Christian right, which did not fully trust McCain. And since she seemed to lack the contrived demeanour of many politicians, she resonated across Middle America. Outsmarted, the Democrats launched a two-week assault on Palin. Male-chauvinist-style attacks from Democrats in Congress and the media unwittingly gave her profile — and brought her sympathy among women voters — that money alone could not buy. Obama’s camp belittled the GOP VP nominee’s experience as a small-town mayor, making an implicit comparison with Senator Biden’s track record in Washington. In a kind of judo response, the Alaska governor compared her mayoral experience with Obama’s as a community organizer. Community organizers, she declared with a chuckle, did almost the same as mayors — but lacked the responsibilities. Poll numbers gave the GOP their first definitive lead in the campaign.

Harper and McCain have both moved more left on issues that wouldn’t offend loyalists. Harper moved left on the environment as well as on social policy, announcing the extension of parental leave for the self-employed and citing support from a slew of left-wing advocacy groups. McCain released a TV ad characterizing Palin and himself as the “original mavericks”: “He took on the drug industry. She took on big oil. He battled Republicans and reformed Washington. She battled Republicans and reformed Alaska,” intones the narrator. “McCain/Palin: real change.”

Now, it is safe to characterize the U.S. contest as a national election with one ballot question: Who is riskier — the experienced old man without good health or the healthy young man without good experience?

Canada’s campaign won’t be a national contest at all, but rather a collection of many regional ones. The election in Quebec outside Montreal is a linchpin. The Conservative government’s parliamentary resolution on Quebec as a nation set the stage for success. For an increasing number of Quebecers, Harper is the outsider they can trust. He is not Dion, the odd insider who reminds them of the Clarity Act and the sponsorship scandal. Nor is he the tiresome Gilles Duceppe. Outside Montreal, Harper has benefited from support from sovereigntist personalities (such as the mayor of Drummondville) and from the attack on the Bloc by former PQ cabinet minister Jacques Brassard. With more than a wink from Jean Charest, provincial Liberal organizers and activists are flocking to lend a helping hand, as are ADQ activists. The Conservative candidate in the only Bloc riding left in Quebec City was previously aide to an Adéquiste in the National Assembly. The Conservative candidate in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord ran for the provincial Liberals in 2003.

The three big questions are whether the rise of the Conservatives in Quebec will: 1) hurt only the Liberals, leaving the Bloc somewhat intact; 2) help bring an end to the sovereigntist movement; or 3) trigger a domino effect in neighbouring Ontario. Ontario — and several different regions within the province — will be the site of sharply different campaigns, affected in large part by the English debates. Some of the big questions: whether Dion staunches any domino effect as a result of his freefall in Quebec or accelerates Liberal losses in Ontario by his poor performance in English; whether the Liberals’ platform provides legitimacy to the Greens, whose personable leader will participate in the debates, or whether Dion will be able to hold the environmental vote to himself; how successfully Jack Layton contends with the new threat from the Green Party, whose blows to the NDP could be substantial.

Moving west, British Columbia will be home to several fascinating regional campaigns. They will all be affected by the English debates seen through the prism of voters who are more environmentally minded and more open than most to new parties, but also have some misgivings about their own provincial carbon tax as well as environmental policies that could harm the province’s natural-resource-based industries.

Because of her party, personality and novelty, Green leader Elizabeth May will draw viewers to the debates. Like the U.S. debates, the Canadian debates will matter. Because of the regional nature of the contest, their impact will take time to decipher but their effects will be great. And unlike the American debates, the Canadian debates will likely determine the future of our parties for years to come — not just the identity of the next government.

Conrad Winn is president of COMPAS Research.