IN-DEPTH: Courting country voters ahead of election 2019
Armed with a sign that reads “Have Your Say Café,” Liberal candidate Allan Thompson pops into coffee shops that dot the nearly 6,000 square kilometres of the Huron-Bruce riding to hear from voters.
“I think we do need to do a better job of being present, being out in the community, listening to people — battle this sort of a stereotype that somehow rural communities are more conservative, because I just don’t think that’s true,” the former political reporter told Global News.
But Thompson knows better than anyone that past election results have painted a different picture: this is his second shot to steal the seat from third-term Conservative MP Ben Lobb. And the southwestern Ontario Huron-Bruce riding, and all those that surround it, have been blue for at least a decade.
WATCH: Longtime Conservative MP Larry Miller on whether there’s a secret to winning rural votes.
Thompson also knows a lot about the mindset of those rural voters, and not just because he grew up on a farm in the riding.
In 2015, the Liberals won a sweeping majority across the country in large part due to their success in urban centres. But they didn’t fare well in more traditional Conservative territory: small-town, rural Canada.
Thompson wanted to learn why, and spearheaded a task force that produced an internal party report on how the Liberals could do better in Southwestern Ontario and beyond.
WATCH: Courting the country voter: what the urban/rural divide means at the polls
“One of the things we suggested was we should be more present. People should see their prime minister and cabinet ministers in rural settings, and we’ve seen a lot of that,” he said. (Thompson said Justin Trudeau’s visit to the International Plowing Match in 2017 was the first by a prime minister since Louis St. Laurent.)
In January, Trudeau created a new ministry with rural voters in mind, naming Nova Scotia MP Bernadette Jordan Minister for Rural Economic Development. That was another recommendation from Thompson’s report.
WATCH: PM Justin Trudeau put on his farmer hat at the International Plowing Match in Walton, Ont. (2017)
“It’s my campaign slogan but it’s also my motto — I really do think our political leadership needs to be reminded over and over and over that a quarter of Canadians live in a rural setting.”
“And every time we’re making any decision, somebody has to be at the table to say, ‘OK that’s great, but what will that mean for people who live in a rural community?’” Thompson said.
The difference between rural and urban voters
Some of Thompson’s potential electors say they do feel forgotten by the Liberal government, and most told Global News they’ve long voted Conservative.
“I find that the Liberals just seem to focus more on the big city,” said Sarah Fagan in Goderich, Ont.,’s downtown.
“A lot of the issues that they deal with are Toronto issues and it’s not helpful to us. Any of the high-speed transportation systems, none of the stations ever get up here,” Fagan said.
One riding away to the north, longtime and popular Conservative MP Larry Miller said there’s no magic to winning the rural vote, but there are differences between urban and rural voters.
WATCH: New rural development minister is first female Nova Scotia MP named to federal cabinet
And transit is a good example.
“I totally get why transit is important, especially in larger cities, but not only is it not expected up in rural parts like Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. … It’s just not practical,” Miller told Global News at his home just outside Wiarton.
“There’s no way that transit is going to work for me out here, and I don’t want it anyway, you know. So there’s a lot of those issues that, you know, we just don’t expect them. Ambulance, police — we know it’s going to take longer for them to get to our place and we’re OK with that.”
Miller said country voters are drawn to his party in part because of the Conservative focus on fiscal responsibility.
“We know government has to provide some services for us and that’s normal but outside of that, get out of our face and let us live our lives,” Miller said.
Very popular among voters and in his Conservative caucus, this will be Miller’s last term — he’s decided to retire after nearly 30 years in politics.
But he’s not worried about his riding swinging red. (He stole it from a Liberal back in 2004.)
“Not a chance,” Miller said.
“I can thank Justin Trudeau for that, because if there was any kind of doubt or chance in some people’s minds to vote Liberal, everything that he did here in the past couple months has totally taken that away.”
(Several of the people Global News stopped to chat politics with across Southwestern Ontario raised the handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal as a concern, without being asked about it specifically.)
Allan Thompson hopes to land a seat for the first time by telling voters Conservatives aren’t actually in step with rural voters.
“Their definition of rural is somehow different. It’s got a slight anti-immigrant tinge and not as much focus on socially progressive issues,” Thompson said.
Helping others in need is a “core rural value,” Thompson said. “Somebody can show up at your door in a snowstorm and get a meal or a coffee or stay the night. That’s a core value that came from the pioneer and that corresponds pretty well with a lot of what the Liberal party advocates about looking out for people who are in need,” Thompson said.
In his campaign, he wants to counter stereotypes of the idyllic country lifestyle, and he thinks voters are ready to talk about that.
“There’s a lot of poverty in rural communities. It’s very striking when you knock on doors,” Thompson said. “Seniors in need, people who are homeless or live in substandard housing conditions, people who are dealing with addiction with mental health issues — those things can all be even more difficult to deal with when you’re in a rural setting.”
WATCH: How much does gun control factor for rural Ontario voters?
A question of relevance
Since the Liberals were able to win a majority in 2015 without winning rural voters, is their vote really necessary in 2019?
“Rural areas aren’t going to be as important as say, the 905 [vote-rich, battleground suburban area surrounding Toronto] or Toronto, and I think that’s just a function of the population shifting from rural communities to urban ones, and I think that’s just a demographic challenge,” said Earnscliffe strategist Rob Leone.
Leone understands the challenge well. He’s a former Conservative member of provincial parliament for the riding of Cambridge, which includes that city but also a wide rural area, such as Ayr, where he calls home.
“It’s a whole electoral map,” said Leone, speaking of the federal election. “And I think there is a lot of strategy that goes into who’s going to win where and where are your strengths and where are your weaknesses.”
On the flipside, for Conservatives looking to fare better in big cities, Leone said they need to tackle both policy and demographic issues.
“Certainly, younger people, more educated people, tend to live in urban areas, and right now it seems the Liberals are doing a better job of attracting those kinds of voters to their fold.”
“The Liberals are making a big play on multiculturalism and diversity. Those are the kinds of ideas that are resonating among urban voters right now, and if the Conservatives want to tie into that, they certainly have to look at how they’re going to address those policy concerns for voters,” Leone said.
Back in the countryside, Allan Thompson said thinking about the rural vote means thinking beyond the polls.
“Yes, you’re trying to win. But I think you’re also trying to make sure that you properly represent Canadians across the board. And I don’t think a government can effectively do its job if it is not hearing from the 25 per cent of Canadians who live in rural communities.”
Rural campaigning is more costly and time-consuming, with no high-rise buildings where hundreds of doors and voters can be reached much faster, for example.
“Where are most of the votes in this country? They are in big urban centres. It’s actually a lot of work and it’s a bit more expensive to get off the 401 and get out to rural communities and hear what people have to say,” Thompson said.
WATCH: Ontario does not want cities to get infrastructure funding, Trudeau says
As a result, rural concerns are not always heard “in the corridors of power,” Thompson said.
It’s an area where he and Conservative Larry Miller agree.
“Rural voters, if they’re not aware of that or not ticked off about it, they should be,” Miller said.
“They basically just take us for granted — ‘We’re not gonna win it anyways, so why would we pour money in there?’”
“And that’s another thing that divides or pounds a wedge between [rural and urban voters] — ‘So you’re not even going to give me infrastructure for highway projects or whatever, but you’re going to take my tax dollars and spend it in foreign countries and in other crazy ways that rural Canada gets absolutely no benefit from?’ — And that one there really sticks in the craw of rural people,” Miller said.
As he reflects back on nearly 30 years in politics, Miller attributes his own success to staying true to his roots.
“I’ve made a very conscious effort to make sure I never forgot where I came from. … I know that people appreciate that. You know, I love hockey, I love to hunt, I love all sports, love the outdoors. … I know lots of politicians, that if they hunted, they wouldn’t say a word about it because it may be unpolitically correct or politically unpopular or whatever. I don’t care about that.”
“What you see with me is what you get. And I’m very proud of my rural roots and what I do,” Miller said.
And that’s his outgoing advice for all politicians, of any political stripe, and whether aiming to woo voters in cities or towns: don’t forget where you came from.
© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.