J.J. and Doug on Andrew Scheer and the Conservative leadership race results

ERMap_42 ERMap_42 scheerJJ: So Doug, the Conservative Party now has a new leader, and despite the rapid solidification of  conventional wisdom over the last couple of weeks, it didn’t wind up being Maxime Bernier. I know you were following the race very closely — what are your immediate reactions? Do you think this counts as a dramatic upset?

DOUG: I would say it’s an upset, but not an earth-shattering one. I had been telling friends I thought Scheer had a 20-25% chance to pull it off and so he did — by the narrowest of margins on the 13th ballot! It wouldn’t  have been a strong mandate either way, since Bernier would have presumably won the same way. Remember, Scheer only had 21.82% of the points after the first round, so it’s clear he has some reaching out to do to keep everyone in the fold. Luckily he’s quite congenial and does have appeal to the base at large. Plus, he’ll be running against Trudeau which should further ease the task.

So far I haven’t heard too many genuinely angered people. A few Bernier supporters are obviously very upset as they came so close only to be denied by a margin of less than 2%. I think a lot of that sort of chatter comes from under-30 types who haven’t seen uber-free market conservatives taken behind the woodshed electorally (e.g. Hudak). Conversely, I don’t see too many over-the-moon people either. I think it’s mostly an “alright, this is OK” reaction from the membership.

There were a couple other surprises down the field.

First off, Kevin O’Leary finishing ahead of three other candidates even though he’d dropped out of the race says something about the campaigns of Peterson, Obraih and Saxton. I actually quite liked Saxton (in his speech he mentioned how badly disconnected the party was from its base) so I’m not trashing these guys out of hand. But let’s be honest here: getting around 0.5% of the vote is REALLY bad, and these candidates should have been out of the race a lot earlier. They ate up time at the debates, crowded the ballot, and clogged up email inboxes for no reason.

I expected Alexander, Blaney, and Raitt to have done better. I have a feeling many members just skipped them over for more plausible winners from their “lanes” — e.g. Blaney sympathizers went straight for Scheer or Leitch, Raitt voters went straight to O’Toole and/or Scheer. It’s probably most  disappointing for Raitt who had been portrayed by the media and party as on the fringes of the mainstream contenders, only to finish awkwardly — better than the complete also-rans, but still quite behind Leitch/Lemieux in the second tier.

Trost’s result was much higher than I expected. Maybe I was too regionally biased for Lemieux, who did well in rural Ontario, yet Trost made up for it with strong showings in heavily East Asian ridings all across Canada. I thought Lemieux ran a much better campaign than Trost, and he delivered possibly the best speech of the night at the convention opening. There wasn’t that much space between them — about a 1% margin till Lemieux was knocked out. Coincidentally, this is when we saw the first major “shift” of the balloting, when Trost and Scheer benefitted from Lemieux dropping. Up until then, the fringe candidates and Raitt saw their supporters scatter totally. It’s quite shocking to look at it in chart form — everyone essentially stagnates as the fringe players drop one-by-one — the only exception was Bernier getting a tiny boost when “O’Leary” dropped. In hindsight, I’m surprised we didn’t see more formal deals with the fringe players.

Leitch also finished lower than I’d expected — I’d figured she’d at least stall in the top five. I’m struck again by how her campaign was sort of “half pregnant;” she ran as an immigration populist and proposed the values test, yet never spoke about immigration numbers or any other specific tangent that could have furthered her message. She was always halfway where she needed to be, and thus appealed neither to immigration hawks nor the party establishment. Though interestingly, of the two ridings she did win (not counting her own), two were in Surrey, B.C. — one of the most immigrant-heavy cities in Canada. Is this a sign of how integration is going there?

In a weird way Trost was left flying the banner for the furthest-right wing of the party. Despite the media whining about “abortion” as his single issue, Trost had a comprehensive platform where he came out as the most conservative  (bar possibly Blaney) on a whole host of issues. I mean, Trost basically supported a Muslim immigration ban at one point which is way further than Leitch went.

I wish we had access to the raw numbers instead of just the riding-by-riding “points,” as I suspect that Michael Chong was boosted by the “rotten boroughs.” He seems to have run strongest in downtown ridings that are likely to never vote CPC, even under his leadership. Small turnouts in these ridings almost certainly let him collect way more points than raw votes should have. It would not surprise me at all if he was behind Lemieux and Leitch in overall vote totals.

That leaves O’Toole, who, as I suspected, performed in middling fashion. Despite all the resources poured into his campaign — the endorsements, the money, the positive coverage — he only managed a distant third. His “lane” was too clogged up I think; he had to compete with Raitt, Peterson, Saxton, Obraih, Alexander (even Chong possibly), jamming up the party establishment/moderate-yet-still-centre-right vote. He might have done better in a five person field rather than a 14 person one.

I’ll just conclude by adding that this whole election format was really a mess and the party ran the race as a dog’s breakfast. There were too many candidates, it was too long, the ballot was a mess, and the mail-in portion of the system a nightmare, with some members (like you) not receiving ballots at all while others couldn’t figure out how to fill them out. The in-person voting stations seem to have been selected by dice games — some provinces didn’t have any, others had several within an hour’s drive of one another. With all the donation money this party gets surely they can run a leadership election with some competence. Where does all that donation money go? I almost wonder whether the length of the race was just a quid-pro-quo to get all the party’s consultants and communications people a year of steady work.

What were your impressions of the results, J.J.?

JJ: Well, I have to start by saying it is just flatly unacceptable that the party has not released hard vote totals and expects us to be satisfied with mere vote “percentages” for all the ridings — which are so obviously just a weaselly way to conceal some embarrassingly low turnouts — particularly in those “rotten boroughs” you mentioned. There’s something very Canadian about it all, in the worst sense, because it’s such a brazenly blatant way to conceal from the public deep structural deficiencies about an important part of this country’s democracy — this is how we pick one of two candidates for the extraordinarily powerful office of prime minister, after all — yet I’m sure there will be no real fuss or outrage. The fact that the system produces any result at all is supposed to be sufficient proof that it works, and only crackpots like me ask for closer scrutiny.

On the personal front, yes, you’re right — I never did get a ballot. I guess the onus was on me to keep closer tabs on the party’s timeline for when I was officially supposed to get worried and ask for them to re-mail me a new one, but I also feel it wasn’t excessively naive for me to assume the party would have at least one in-person voting station in British Columbia, the country’s third-largest province. But I guess in some ways not voting was nice, because it gave me a bit of emotional detachment.

Talking of B.C., the results reminded me a bit of our most recent election, in the sense the winner was, for all intents and purposes, in a statistical tie with the runner-up. It’s thus very hard, and probably wrong to, attempt any great narrative from Scheer’s surprise victory, other than, I guess, that Bernier was not able to decisively close the deal.

Where I would push back against you a bit is the idea that Bernier, Scheer, and O’Toole were in different lanes. I think by the end Bernier had been heavily normalized by the press through mostly favorable media coverage, including a narrative that he, as a libertarian French-Canadian, was actually a sort of progressive choice for the party. “Frontrunner” stories and sympathetic columns made him seem unthreatening and establishment-friendly, and there was certainly no high-strung “anyone but Bernier” movement or rhetoric emanating from anywhere. So I think it’s possible Scheer, O’Toole, and Bernier may have been seen as fairly interchangeable safe picks in the eyes of voters who don’t quite follow these things with as much hyper-scrutiny as say, you or I. That would presumably account for at least some of the lack of real movement between ballots.

Leitch definitely comes off as a big loser. Maybe the endless negative press took its toll, maybe she was just never seen as a particularly genuine figure by anyone in the party to begin with. But you’re right that Trost’s strong showing should certainly undermine any tendentious media talking points about how Leitch’s showing “proves” such-and-such sort of politics don’t work in the modern Tory Party/Canada.

Trost was an almost cartoonishly right-wing figure, like Ted Cruz if Ted Cruz stopped trying to be likable. To dismiss him as just “oh, socons” only makes sense if you believe socons are these one-dimensional creatures who will blindly vote for any platform so long as there’s an anti-abortion plank in it somewhere. The fact that the pleasant and likable Lemieux was not more competitive, and that Trost was successful in some non-stereotypically so-con parts of the country — like the entire greater Vancouver area — suggests to me that there’s still an appetite for his watch-me-say-whatever-I-want style. He was the “dissident” candidate who basically rejected the party’s entire Harperite consensus — certainly more so than Leitch and especially more than Bernier — and he remained in stubborn fourth for the entire vote count. He was only ever covered by the press as a sort of clownish villain, and his “surprisingly strong showing” should foster more curiosity about his faction of the base than I expect it will.

I do think it’s worth noting that as much as Scheer is being portrayed as the Harperite continuity choice, his election does represent a shift to the right for the party on some issues, in an election that saw a fair bit of competition in that direction — even as the press exaggerated the clout of moderates like Chong and Raitt.

Scheer has said he supports abolishing the CBC’s news division, he backed Brexit, he’s called for withholding funds from universities that engage in anti-free speech behavior, he wants to amend the constitution to include property rights. He is quite outwardly religious, and whatever moderate position he is taking on abortion now, he was happy to build his brand as a comfortable pro-lifer during the Harper years. He’s taken uniformly socially conservative stands on other moral issues, including opposing the Liberals’ recent legislation on transgender rights and euthanasia. He’s got no love for Trudeau’s carbon tax whatsoever — he says that’s going on day one if he’s prime minister. Basically, pick any issue you want and Scheer’s opinion will run the gamut from centre-right to pragmatically centre-right. That’s significant for a race in which there was so much chatter about the need to “reimagine” conservatism for the Trudeau era.

Of course, all that said, we are again talking about a 13th ballot 50.9% victory based on third, fourth, fifth preferences coming from an unknown numbers of votes from eliminated candidates that have been weighted and biased in all these crazy geographic ways.

DOUG: I feel a bit detached from the results as well. Number one, I felt we were primarily electing the leader of the opposition, and number two, I had Scheer and Bernier ranked 6th and 7th on my ballot, respectively. My main reason for placing Scheer ahead of Bernier was the voter registration scandal back in March, and Bernier’s association with some dubious Patrick Brown confidantes. By the way, this is another big issue I had with the race — while I was glad to hear obviously fraudulent names were spotted and pulled off the voters’ list (the ones that had been ripped straight from the Ontario PC party list, for instance) I felt we didn’t get as much closure on the larger scandal as we should have. It seemed like the party wanted to just push the whole thing under the rug ASAP before it could damage any of the leading contenders. I suspect we’ll get no further inquiries into any of this as the party shamelessly ducks accountability yet again.

In another odd moment, I actually found myself in the Trost camp for a couple of ballots. I’d placed him about halfway down my ballot and yet he wound up finishing much stronger than I suspected, while some of the candidates I liked more were eliminated quickly. I’d honestly only ranked him as high as I did as a way to troll the party establishment and offend what I call the “fainting couch” wing of the party. That said, I was happy with a number of things he did during the campaign. I liked it when he came out in support of the people who attended that rally in Alberta — the infamous “lock her up” one. Some of the other candidates acted like complete hysterical ninnies denouncing a few people obviously having a lark — I found it quite grotesque how quickly the party was willing to throw its own supporters under the bus in order to appease media hack-types. Trost also took a few shots at individuals in the conservative movement I’ve always loathed (e.g. Patrick Brown), and defended the other candidates when they threw out controversial ideas. I guess you could say giving Trost a reasonably high position on my ballot was kind of a guilty pleasure… which is the first and last time I expect the words “guilty pleasure” to be associated with Brad Trost.

I do think Bernier would have been a riskier leader than many in the media and party seemed to think. Maybe I’ve just been too traumatized by the 2014 Tim Hudak defeat in Ontario, but I’ve long suspected that fiscal conservatism is nowhere near as popular as the media and movement portray it as being. I think a lot of Canadians just say they are “fiscally conservative” as a kind of signaling, when in reality they’re drowning in personal debt and routinely vote for parties that burn through cash like crazy. I mean, Trudeau and the Liberals actually went up in the polls after he called for larger deficits than the NDP. It’s for that reason I suspect some of Bernier’s more libertarian economic ideas would have gone down like a lead balloon, particularly given how low interests are right now.

That said, did have his upsides. It was clear he had more appeal to the younger membership (and youth as a whole) than any other candidate. Scheer is a younger man, but comes off as being about a decade older than he actually is.

It’s quite amazing how close Bernier came at some level — the fact that a Francophone Quebecer could win so many ridings in Alberta and come within one point of winning the entire thing says something about the state of the party. Despite the hype, I’m not sure if Bernier was the type of Conservative who would be that competitive in Quebec, particularly the rural seats in the Eastern Townships and Cote Nord-Saguenay regions that the CPC should be targeting. But hopefully if the Conservative’s clear lack of hostility to Quebec filters through to rural Francophone voters perhaps there’s a potential to target maybe 20-25 Quebec seats down the line.

I’m comfortable with the Scheer win. Anyone who read our pre-results dialogue saw our somewhat backhanded endorsements of him as a safe choice to lead us for the next three years, at least. I think he has the potential to get under Trudeau’s skin in a unique way — he’s got a witty sense of humour and is hard to get mad at. He could land subtle and cheeky rhetorical blows on Trudeau without coming across as an angry jerk. It might even prompt a “bozo eruption” or two out of Trudeau, who’s been known to get petulant from time to time. The folksy charm campaign might also get some disillusioned voters back in the fold — I’m thinking of places like rural New Brunswick, parts of the country the CPC really can’t afford to lose if they want to form government.

Of course, we really have no idea what’s going to happen over the next two years. Some shocking event could happen that puts the Conservatives immediately back in the game (e.g. a housing bubble burst or a major scandal) or a good NDP leader. I think I’m going to cheer even more for Jagmeet Singh now, since a more working class Charlie Angus or Pat Stogran-type could appeal to the same types of voters as Scheer. Vote splitting on the left might be the only way Scheer wins in 2019. If I were the Conservatives, though, I’d be mostly targeting the low-hanging fruit that was lost in 2015 in the hopes of getting back to 35% of the vote/125-130 seats and then build on that in the election after.

JJ: Maybe I am just a coward or a conformist but I’m much better at rationalizing outcomes that have happened than cheering for ones that have yet to occur. So I’m able to look at Sheer in the context of him actually being leader of the party, and the binary alternative to Trudeau in the next prime ministerial election, and conclude with greater ease than I could ever muster during the leadership race that, yes, this is a good guy I can support and will feel comfortable defending.

Scheer has the potential to be a sort of Canadian Ben Sasse — the young Nebraska senator who has become one of the GOP’s rising stars by being both consistently conservative, but also a thoughtful, articulate explainer of why conservative principles and virtues are relevant and important for young middle class families in a fast-changing, modern world.

Scheer is a young man with a complicated modern life that he has nevertheless been able to manage in an admirable way. In contrast to a lot of high-level politicians these days, he’s been able to balance having a large family and stable marriage with an ambitious career. Clearly he has a few things figured out, and I hope he is not shy about preaching what he practices. His ability to effectively do so has the potential to productively reframe how we conceptualize social conservatives in this country and justify their relevance in our political debates, which currently feature a decayed-to-non-existent moral vocabulary. I’m not talking about being preachy or self-righteous, but just returning concepts like responsibility and caution and respect for tradition over fad to the way conservatives pitch what they’re selling. Because you’re absolutely right — I don’t think there’s much evidence to suggest what voters are clamoring for is a “let’s cut everything and balance the budget as a good unto itself” platform, and with Bernier out, the party has less reason than ever to head down that path.

That said, Scheer is certainly not a contrarian, critique-of-the-system man like Harper was (or at least young Harper). I get the impression Scheer’s a lot more in love with the romantic mythologies of Ottawa than Reform nostalgists like me, who would like to see critical perspectives on things like official bilingualism, Quebec exceptionalism, and the various anti-democratic deficits of the Canadian parliamentary system exist as more permanent components of the Conservative agenda. But what can you expect from a guy who’s been in the House of Commons since he was 25 and reached his lifelong “political geek” dream of becoming speaker at age 32. At a time when conservative parties around the world are reimagining what it means to be on “the right” in various ways, in Canada we have a leader who still identifies primarily as Reagan-Thatcherite. There’s a lot to like about Reagan-Thatcherism, but in the year 2017 you also want to see some creative instincts.