Canada election: Did the PPC split the Conservative vote? Maybe — but it’s not that simple

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The margin of loss for Erin O’Toole‘s Conservatives was smaller than the size of the vote for the far-right People’s Party of Canada in just over 20 ridings in the Canadian federal election.

But amid questions over O’Toole’s future as leader, political science experts caution that explaining those numbers is not as simple as assuming the PPC split the vote and cost Conservatives all of those ridings.

“If you add up the Conservative and the PPC, it finishes ahead of the Liberals. That’s assuming that every PPC voter was a Conservative voter and that’s not the case,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“Now, the majority were, but not all of them. Some of them are nonvoters, they were coming out solely on anti-vax. You can’t use the simple math of one plus one equals two.”

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The PPC failed to win any seats in the Sept. 20 election, but gathered 5.1 per cent of the popular vote — up from 1.6 per cent in the 2019 federal election.

In 21 ridings across the country, the size of the PPC vote was greater than the number of votes by which the Conservative candidate lost that riding: 12 in Ontario, five in B.C., two in Alberta, one in Quebec and one in Newfoundland.

Fourteen of those losses were to Liberals, while six went to the NDP and one to the Bloc Quebecois.

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However, there’s little indication that all of those PPC votes were from people who would have otherwise voted for the Conservatives, barring opposition to some aspect of the Tory campaign or platform.

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“The more we’re learning about who those voters are, we’re realizing that it’s actually a coalition of different groups,” said Stéphanie Chouinard, associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College.

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Some appear to be frustrated Conservatives, yes — folks who Chouinard described as “unhappy with the the campaign pulling further to the centre than what they would have wished.”

“But there’s other things going on there.”

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Among those voting PPC appear to be a number of people who don’t usually turn out to vote at all, let alone vote for the Conservatives, specifically.

“There’s a bit of an anti-system, anti-institutional vote going on there,” Chouinard explained, adding that the other factor to consider is that some PPC voters likely came from the Green Party.

Indeed, a Conservative Party war room source indicated that the party’s internal polling was showing that as many as 25 per cent of likely PPC voters had voted for the Greens in 2019.

“The Greens obviously tend to run on a campaign that’s a little bit further to the left than the PPC, for sure, but the Green vote is also a protest vote towards the big parties,” Chouinard said.

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“This protest vote has gone in a certain respect to the PPC this time around, particularly with all of the issues that the Greens have been going through as a party in the last few months. So it’s really an odd coalition of different types of voters, not all of whom would have ended up voting Conservative.”

The federal Greens spent the months leading up to the election engulfed in turmoil, with internal fighting and defections that have put Annamie Paul’s leadership squarely in the crosshairs.

Paul failed in her third attempt to win the Toronto Centre riding, and presided over a collapse in the Green Party’s share of the national vote that has been largely attributed to the internal party chaos — the party received just two per cent of the vote in this election compared to 6.5 per cent in 2019.

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The PPC, in contrast, won 5.1 per cent but failed to win a single seat, while the Greens won two.

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That’s because unlike with the Greens in several ridings, PPC voters are not concentrated in any particular ridings in a large enough number to outpace the other main parties — and there’s no indication that will change any time soon, said Ipsos Public Affairs CEO Darrell Bricker.

“I’ve heard a lot of people try and compare them to the Reform Party before and what they represented of the Conservatives. They’re very, very, very different,” Bricker said.

“They’re just basically a collection of all of these different motivations that found a single place to go this time.”

Much of that has been focused around opposition to public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, like masking or requiring proof of vaccinations in some high-risk settings.

If the pandemic ends — and if the Greens either opt to replace Paul with a new leader or sort out the internal issues that have plagued them most acutely for months — the question then becomes, how many of those voters will stick with the PPC?

“It really is reflective of the current environment that we find ourselves in,” said Bricker.

“If you can tell me how long the pandemic lasts and how long these public health rules last, then I can give you some sense of how long this political phenomenon is likely to last,” he added.

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“But I expect when it goes away — unless they can find something that’s as strong and as galvanizing — it will go back to the way that it previously was, which is really not much of an enduring political force or a decisive political force in Canadian politics.”

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