Will Pierre Poilievre Bring Out Non-Voters or Alienate Existing Ones?
Poilievre is trying to expand his base of supporters. Will this strategy lead to a majority government or another loss for the Conservatives?
Well, it finally happened. After leading the polls for months and dominating the media space, Pierre Poilievre was crowned leader of the federal Conservative party. By tapping into a number of key issues like the rising cost of living and resonating with conservative voters, Poilievre was able to garner full support from the base of the party, turned out thousands of people at his campaign events, and got a majority of the vote (67%).
But it is not just typical Conservatives that support Poilievre, part of his victory can be explained by his large coalition of supporters including more than 300,000 party members who signed up behind his cause.
This is not something Poilievre lucked into, but the result of a months-long campaign done primarily through social media to build support among people disengaged with the voting process and political system at large. Poilievre has courted the support of anti-vaxxers by supporting the Freedom Convoy truckers who held Ottawa hostage; conspiracy theorists by claiming that the World Economic Forum was to blame for Canada’s economic turmoil; and crypto-bros by telling people to invest in Bitcoin as a hedge against inflation just before the price of bitcoin crashed spectacularly.
While Poilievre has taken a lot of criticism from mainstream news organizations and on Twitter, he hopes that he will be able to mobilize enough new supporters to take down Justin Trudeau.
In an era of intensifying partisanship among many lines (like age polarization, urban/rural polarization and racial polarization), it may seem like a good strategy to turn out new voters rather than persuade the existing ones to vote for you. However, this is a mistake that populist political candidates commonly make.
It’s simple math: getting the support of a new voter gives you one more vote, but convincing an active voter to vote for you instead is more effective because it is one more vote for you and one less vote for your opponent.
While there is a large block of non-voters out there, most studies say they fall in the middle of the ideological spectrum and have strong ideological preferences on most political outcomes, mainly because, if they did, then they would already be voting. According to StatsCan, among eligible Canadians who did not vote in 2021, the most common reason for not voting “was not being interested in politics” (32%). Convincing these people to come to the polls is harder than expected.
By railing against vaccine mandates, attacking Canada’s welfare state, and threatening to fire the Governor of the Bank of Canada, Poilievre hopes that enough disillusioned non-voters will be drawn into his campaign and engage in the political process. But this strategy also underestimates the risk of alienating swing voters in key ridings that you have to win if you want to form government.
I think something similar happened in the two previous elections. Both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole played to the base during the Conservative leadership race, and when they tried to moderate their positions in a general election, they were rejected in the GTA and Quebec.
It appears that Poilievre is following right down that same path. A poll from Ledger last month found that more than one in four people polled said a Poilievre victory would make them less likely to vote Conservative, compared with one in five who said that about his more moderate opponent Jean Charest. In the key battleground of Ontario, the poll found that Poilievre’s victory would make 28 per cent of those polled less likely to vote Conservative, compared with 16 per cent of those polled who said that of Charest.
It is also possible that Poilievre’s extreme positions will motivate moderates, liberals, and leftists to vote against him, especially if Trudeau can successfully cast him as a Canadian version of Donald Trump which does not seem hard to accomplish. One study found that some populist candidates with extreme positions were more likely to lose in general elections after narrowly winning the primary against a moderate candidate because they tend to do an unusually good job of motivating their opponents to come to the polls to vote.
Now, it’s probably a little obvious that I personally do not have a favourable view of Poilievre or his politics. But, before you accuse me of being biased, let me say that I’m not trying to underestimate the chance the Poilievre becoming Prime Minister, it's just that I’ve seen a much better politician than Poilievre tries this strategy and lose, twice.
In the past two Democratic party primaries, I was a big-time Bernie Sanders supporter and saw him connect with voters, draw out large crowds of new supporters, most of whom were under 40, and thought that he would be able to carry that energy to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. Bernie’s campaign promoted it's messaging around the tenants of democratic socialism (reminder: the man said he was a Democratic Socialist during a national debate) which mobilized many younger voters. However, he also alienated key constituencies within the democratic party like Hispanic voters, Black voters, and elderly voters who do not have a positive view of socialism and vote at a high rate.
For more ideologically rigid people like myself and Bernie, it is easy (and honestly comforting) to imagine that more people actually agree with you. That’s why populists on both sides of the political spectrum, from Bernie to Trump and now Poilievre, have sought to mobilize their base and turn out more non-voters, rather than do the difficult work of connecting with voters who do not agree with you or not as ideologically rigid. But if there is one thing that I’ve learned from those crushing losses, it is that if you want to win an election, persuading voters is more impactful and easier than convincing non-voters to come to the polls for you.
While Trump’s victory in 2016 may seem to vindicate that theory as a winning strategy, a study from the Center for Study of American Politics says that voter conversion was much more impactful than voter composition. The biggest pro-GOP conversion from Obama voters in 2012 to Trump voters in 2016 were in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania which flipped the electoral college in Trump’s favour.
If Poilievre wants to be Prime Minister, then he is going to need to follow down a similar path of converting people who voted for the Liberals in the last election that they should vote for the Conservatives instead, especially in key ridings in Ontario and Quebec. But recalling how Scheer and O’Toole were rejected in those ridings, I don’t think it is likely that Poilievre will be able to break through, especially when considering how much further to the right he has gone than his predecessors.
It is way too early to start the horserace on the next federal election, but for a guy who seemingly has spent his entire life trying to become Prime Minister, I expected a more sound strategy. Then again, it is Pierre Poilievre. I can’t say I’m surprised.