Matt Gurney: Pay attention to the PPC

Bernier's empty vessel of a party might be the perfect outlet for millions of very, very angry Canadians fed up with pandemic restrictions.

By: Matt Gurney

To riff off the old song, there's something happening here, though what it is ain't exactly clear. Like it or not, we're going to have to start paying attention to the People's Party of Canada and its leader, Maxime Bernier. If polls are to be believed, they're having a great election.

The PPC hasn't warranted much attention before. It has largely served as a vanity vehicle for Bernier, who probably can't believe he's been able to keep himself out of an ordinary job this long. The party is a mixture of populist outreach and pie-in-the-sky pseudo-libertarianism. It has proposed a smattering of policies, but none of them are much more than a talking point or meme. They are often summed up as a “far-right” party — or at least further right than the Conservative Party of Canada — but it feels overly generous to place them firmly anywhere in particular on the political spectrum. Their organizing principle has seemed to be anger with the status quo, and a feeling of alienation from the majority consensus on most political views.

The PPC took just under 300,000 votes in the 2019 election, or 1.6 per cent of ballots cast. It was a rounding error on a fringe, and seemed set to stay that way. This, combined with a history of dogwhistle racism, is why journalists and political analysts paid it little attention (and that includes yours truly).

Something seems to be happening, though. The party has climbed in the polls, with some showing they’ve climbed by a lot. There are important caveats: Some of this can be written off as within-the-margins-of-error blips in the numbers. Perhaps there is some methodological quirk that is causing polling companies to overestimate the PPC's standing. Maybe frustrated people are parking their vote there for a time but will come back to one of the traditional parties when actually making their x on a ballot.

So yeah. There's all kinds of ways to rationalize this into a nothingburger, if you’re so inclined, but the fact remains there is a trend, consistent across different polls, from different companies, and over an extended period of time. It really does seem as though the party is set to double, triple or maybe even quadruple its support, relative to the last election. The latest Ekos poll has them at nine per cent. That's an outlier on the high side, but if they came even close to that, the PPC would eclipse the Green Party of Canada's best-ever showing. By a lot.

My friend John Wright is a pollster with decades of experience, and the executive vice president at Maru Public Opinion. He called me this weekend to tell me that something was up with the PPC's numbers — I'd already realized the same, at least on an intuitive level, but he had the numbers to back it up. His numbers are broadly similar to what's showing up in other polls. I asked him what he could tell me about the typical PPC voter, and he said there isn't a ton of information about them, but pulled what data he could find.

The typical PPC supporter, based on polls as recent as last month, is ... pretty normal, actually, at least demographically. They are fairly evenly distributed across every segment of Canadian society. No province has a wildly high or low number of PPC supporters (Alberta was a bit higher than the others, but only a very small bit, and with an overall small sample size). They are found fairly consistently across all age groups and economic and educational classes. The only really notable divergence in Wright's numbers was on gender lines — men are twice as likely to support the PPC as women.

In every instance, the support level was small — low-to-mid single digits. But it was surprisingly uniform across the whole of Canadian society. They may be a minority, but calling them a fringe doesn't seem quite right.

More polling is needed to firm up the profile of the PPC voter. Stay tuned for more on that from The Line soon. This issue is really only breaking through into widespread recognition now — as in quite literally in the last 48 hours. No one was talking about the PPC last week. After Wright called me on the weekend, I told him I wanted to get this out this week … and as I’m writing this column, I’m seeing more and more pollsters and pundits having the same, “Huh!” reaction I did.

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While we wait for the polls, though, it's not hard to make an educated guess as to what's happening: millions of Canadians are frustrated and angry — furious, even — about the public-safety measures taken to combat COVID-19. There is widespread consensus (with modest variation) for those policies across almost every mainstream party and leader in the land, leaving these millions of people with nowhere to go. The spike in the PPC's polling numbers almost certainly do not reflect any kind of organizational coherence from the party; and they probably are not the result of any newfound public opposition to immigration or corporate subsidies — nor any kind of Max Mania!

Rather, it is likely the inevitable consequence of a large number of people needing to park their anger about things like vaccine mandates, passports, and lockdowns somewhere. The PPC is an almost perfect vessel to absorb the support of millions of furious people.

This fits with something else that Wright's polls, and all others, are showing — the PPC's polling support doesn't seem to be coming at the expense of any particular party. Despite the lazy caricature of the PPC being some kookier adjunct of the Conservatives, the numbers don't quite bear that out — relative to 2019, the major parties aren't shedding enough votes to explain the PPC's apparent rise. The Conservatives are near their 2019 support level, or slightly beating it. The NDP is either matching or slightly beating their 2019 showing. The Liberals might be down a little, but just a little. The Greens are hurtin' something fierce, but there frankly weren't that many Green voters to begin with.

The PPC is either poaching a few votes here and there from every party, or they're finding their support from the between 30 and 40 per cent of Canadians who don't reliably vote. This was Wright's hunch — some skimming from all the parties, but mostly a mobilization of millions of typically non-voting Canadians who have had enough of lockdowns and economic pain and masking, but can't find an outlet for their anger in a traditional party. Some polling by Abacus seems to back this up. It shows a small shedding of support by all the parties to the PPC, but a full five per cent of Canadians who didn't vote last time saying they'll vote PPC this time.

That's not a huge number as a percentage, but five per cent of a third of eligible voters ain't nothing. Nine million Canadians were eligible to vote in 2019 but didn't. If five per cent of that nine million turn out for Bernier this time, that's 450,000 new PPC votes — and that's itself 150 per cent more votes than he received in total last time. 

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These kinds of numbers aren't enough to win seats — Bernier is a long shot even in his own Quebec riding. But this is a sizeable portion of Canadians, and if the PPC is indeed drawing in those with no real prior interest in politics but who are tired of COVID-19 measures, that's a pool of literally millions of available voters.

Bruce Anderson of Abacus wrote in Maclean's in July that just over two million Canadians were "vaccine hesitant" while another two million were hardcore anti-vaxers. Wright told The Line in an interview that his own numbers show that roughly 14 per cent of Canadians are strongly opposed to being vaccinated, and 16 per cent strongly oppose any system to prove or verify one's vaccination status (Wright stressed that being opposed to any kind of vaccine certificate or ID is not the same thing as being anti-vax, but noted the two groups were roughly the same size). Wright further noted that the PPC's rise in the polls began in mid-August. Months of prior polls by all the major companies either hadn’t tracked the PPC, or found them with support in the two-per-cent range — sometimes a bit higher, but not much. But after Aug. 15, the numbers rise — the party is now routinely above five per cent, a level it hadn’t reached before in this year’s polling. Sometimes it’s higher.

If you’re wondering what was that happening around then, that was when Quebec’s decision to roll out a provincial vaccine certificate was announced, and when the Liberals pre-empted the official start of the campaign by announcing their federal mandate and mandate for travel on federally regulated planes, ships and trains.

For those who are outright refusing to be vaccinated, mandates and certificates are inarguably a threat to mobility, employment and lifestyle. This isn't taking their side — I am fully vaccinated and encourage everyone to get their jabs. Seriously: get your jabs. But it doesn't require a great imaginative leap to conclude that the people subject to "the sticks" of mandates and passports on might not particularly enjoy getting whacked with said sticks. You can support a policy without denying the risk of blowback.

And that's what we might be starting to see evidence of: blowback. Anderson and Wright's polls asked different questions, but came out with roughly similar figures: there are somewhere around four million adult Canadians who are somewhat or very opposed to vaccination, and they are now feeling the walls closing in. Indeed, they are now being actively campaigned against by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who tried empathy for about 24 hours before some Liberal strategists concluded that being very angry at this cohort would be better for Trudeau's election effort. Right as this is happening, we started seeing a sharp rise in PPC polling support, and furious, increasingly aggressive, and now outright violent protests at Trudeau's campaign events.

There's a lot we still don't know, and we need much more polling. But a general picture is starting to emerge: the empty vessel of the PPC, combined with millions of very angry voters, and a Liberal leader actively campaigning against them, is producing something that wasn't apparent even a month ago. The Liberal campaign and increasingly assertive vaccine mandates might be having the unintended consequence of handing Maxime Bernier a spontaneously organized and furious popular movement.

Bernier is clearly aware of this and is actively trying to bring these people in with campaign ads that talk of defending freedom, opposing tyranny and even "revolution." There's been a lot of talk about the far-right in Canada in recent years, and there is indeed a far-right element in Canada ... but this isn't quite it. This is millions of Canadians from across the country and all demo groups getting angry, and needing some way to express that anger. These people aren't necessarily far-right, indeed, Anderson found that the typical anti-vaxer is a middle-aged Ontario woman who votes Liberal. But angry people make weird decisions, and for the actual far-right in this country, these people and their anger could be a godsend. 

Populism has been on the rise across the West for years. And now our well-intentioned policies to fight a deadly disease may be giving it more energy and recruits than we could have imagined. Only time will tell where this goes, but this bears watching. And there's no reason to think this will fizzle out after the election. 


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