Don't Blame the PPC for Conservative Failure
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
The People's Party of Canada (PPC) is one of the few notable storylines coming out of the dejavu that is the 2021 election. By tripling their vote share they have put themselves on a trajectory that is comparable to the Reform Party back in the late 80s. To most, these band of political misfits led by Maxime Bernier are a side show to the main political event between the four major parties. Except now, at 5% of the vote, the PPC is not quite so cute and has the potential to impact ridings across the country. In 2019, it was reported that the Conservatives spent more resources attacking the PPC than the Liberals, due to the potential threat of splitting the right-wing vote in future elections. At the current growth rate the PPC has the potential to become a real factor in the next two elections.
While the most recent election is still fresh in our minds, how can we measure the impact of the PPC in 2021? There were a few articles, including myself, that measured the PPC’s impact by taking all the close ridings that the Conservatives lost and calculating which ones would flip if you added the PPC and Conservative votes together. In 2019, five ridings fit that criteria. I have done the same process for 2021 and there are twenty four ridings that would turn Conservative if you added the PPC vote to theirs. If one simply extrapolated that logic in an alternative universe where the PPC never existed and Maxime Bernier was a happy cog in the mainstream party machine, then a 24 seat swing is enough to turn a Liberal minority into a Conservative one.
I personally believe that his narrative does not really hold weight when looking at all the factors that earned the PPC 5%. First of all, the simple fact is that not even a majority of PPC voters are ex-Conservatives. Using the 2019 Canadian Election Study I took the PPC vote in 2019 and cross referenced it with 2015 vote choice. While a plurality of PPC voters came from the Conservatives (36%) the Liberals are not far behind (28%). Only 11% were either no vote or declined to answer and another 20% came from the NDP/Green Party. While this may be surprising, considering the libertarian and right-wing position of the party, this is not uncommon for populist parties. For example, the United Kingdom Independence Party (the political party responsible for Brexit) also received a plurality of voters from the Conservatives in 2014, but the majority of their support came from a combination of Lib-Dems, Labour, Non-voting, and “other”. It was even estimated that 20% of Bernie Sanders supporters went directly to Trump.
The reality is that populist parties are far more complex than a simple left to right spectrum. Their policies can be centrist, right-wing, even alt-right, but their appeal transcends the content of their platform. Populists gain support because of the relationship they build with their followers. They begin to represent anti-establishment, breaking of the status quo, and being virtuous oppositions to a malevolent elite. Despite what you might think of the policies and ideas that come out of Bernier’s mouth, he comes across as genuine and deeply convicted in his message. Most people distrust politicians and political parties and we also as humans have an innate ability to detect and be disgusted by dishonest and disingenuous people. So when a politician emerges that has a fresh delivery and a unique conviction towards their message, their appeal will sometimes transcend traditional left-right political spectrums.
Previous party allegiance is not the only factor in debunking the “PPC is splitting Conservative votes” narrative. The initial estimate is that voter turnout for the 2021 election is down to around 60%, a 7% drop from previous elections. Low voter turnout benefits fringe and populist parties because they often garner a more devout following than the larger “catch all” parties like the Conservatives and Liberals. Trump benefited highly from a low voter turnout for example. Hillary Clinton was unable to excite the Democratic support base while Trump was able to bring in a wave of disenfranchised voters in addition to the typical Republican base. In strategic terms, it is equally valuable to convert two non-voters into voters as it is to convert a Democrat into a Republican. Likewise, a Democratic voter who is unimpressed and decides not to vote essentially is giving half a vote to the Republicans. Those who excite, like Bernier, benefit most from elections where the morale is low and voter turnout decreases. A good description of the 2021 election.
Lastly, if we were to take the left-right political spectrum to be a logical apparatus in which voters made their choices (which it is not). The PPC would be placed farthest right of all political parties. Normally the Conservatives range between right-wing and center-right, but in 2021 they made a clear appeal towards centrist voters and fiscally-conservative progressives. As the Conservatives move towards the center of the spectrum it opens up the distance between themselves and the PPC. If voters were capable of placing themselves on this spectrum, as the Conservatives move towards the center more voters become aligned closer with the PPC than the Conservatives. Knowing the PPC existed, it is unfair to claim that the PPC is “stealing votes” considering the Conservatives chose to move towards the center and left themselves vulnerable to a right-wing flank (assuming one believes that the left-right spectrum is a useful tool in explaining vote choice).
In summary, the PPC is more than just a right-wing libertarian party. It is a populist response to a political system where all the major parties continue to clump closer and closer together on all major policy topics. COVID response is a good example of this, and might be the largest reason for the surge in PPC support. Bernier is gaining support from all over the political spectrum and across the country he is not simply siphoning Conservatives.
So how did the PPC impact the 2021 election? The simple vote transfer narrative I discussed earlier is very unlikely to have affected as many as 24 seats. Considering that 36% of the 2019 PPC vote came from Conservative voters I think that is a justifiable benchmark for the “vote splitting” argument (until the 2021 Canadian Election Study is released). When returning to all the ridings where the Conservatives narrowly lost there were only six that were below the 36% threshold. Meaning that only 36% of the PPC vote in that riding had to be transferred to the Conservatives in order to flip the riding Blue. If we transfer those seats it still leaves the Liberals with a 29 seat lead. When the Conservatives go and review the election performance they should be looking more internally not externally.