In one of the 905’s most coveted ridings, the Liberal Party of Canada is hoping one star candidate can unseat another.
Their man is Adam van Koeverden, a four-time Olympic medal-winning kayaker running in his first campaign. His opponent is Lisa Raitt, whose political credentials may be as impressive as his athletic ones: deputy leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, longtime cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, three-time election winner.
Few GTA races have the star power of Milton, where the Liberals are keen to finally overtake the incumbent after improving their vote share in every election since polling below 25 per cent in 2011, when Raitt easily defended her seat in the now defunct riding of Halton, which included Milton.
It could easily seem like the only people who matter in a federal campaign are the major party leaders, but few Canadians get the chance to actually vote for Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh or Elizabeth May. In every other riding, voters will choose a different name.
Still, how much can a local hopeful, even a star like van Koeverden or Raitt, actually impact the vote?
The answer may be more than even they themselves might think.
Between now and election day on Oct. 21, the Star is looking at how local issues are shaping the campaign, and how your federal vote may influence what matters in your neighbourhood. This piece is the first in a series on the races and names to watch in the GTA.
“If local candidates knew how much they mattered, they’d be more powerful in Ottawa,” said University of Toronto political science professor Peter Loewen, co-author of a massive recent study of how local candidates moved the last federal election.
Loewen and a team from U of T, Ryerson and the University of Manitoba surveyed close to 40,000 Canadians in the 2015 campaign to build a novel database of public opinion called the Local Parliament Project. The researchers had the goal of giving MPs objective data to help them better know their constituents, but the work also offered a chance to measure the impact specific local candidates had in races across the country.
Their finding: Most local candidates don’t have much impact on any given race, but those that do can decisively swing a local vote.
According to the study, published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science earlier this year, just 4 per cent of 2015 voters were swayed to change their vote by one of their local candidates, but that swing had a decisive impact in about 10 per cent of all ridings.
That’s no small thing, Loewen said. “Any factor that’s responsible for 1 in 10 outcomes is a pretty big factor,” he said.
(Loewen said the study supports earlier research that found around 5 per cent of voters make up their minds based on their local candidate, though the Local Parliament Project survey is much larger than most election studies.)
All across the GTA, the four major parties are running candidates they hope will outperform the averages and steal otherwise out-of-reach seats.
In Milton, the polling website 338canada estimates van Koeverden has about a one-in-four chance of unseating Raitt.
If he’s going to pull that victory off, van Koeverden says in a brief interview after a lunch meeting in Toronto on Tuesday, it will come from hard work door-knocking and a focus on local issues, like advocating for all-day, both-way GO train service for the town’s large population of 30-something commuters.
Train service is a top priority even though it’s not solely federal jurisdiction, he says, because it takes local advocates to get multiple levels of government aligned.
He estimates he has knocked on more than 100,000 doors canvassing Milton since he won a contested nomination in January — every walkable home in town, many more than once, he says.
He says he can’t count on a vote from anyone he hasn’t met. “Ultimately, it’s my name on the ballot.”
For her part, Raitt says her campaign priorities align with the Conservatives’ national positions because, much like in a lot of the other communities in the 905, people are “worried about how life is becoming unaffordable for them.”
Specific to Milton and aside from national issues like the carbon tax, she points to a controversial proposed Canadian National rail hub immediately south of town and a plan for a new quarry in nearby Campbellville. In a phone interview Wednesday, she says she hears “near unanimity” from residents that those projects will cause traffic chaos for commuters.
As for hard work? Raitt says she hit every door in town last election and plans to do so again this time.
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Running against van Koeverden and Raitt, the NDP have put forward activist Farina Hassan, who last year ran provincially in Mississauga—Erin Mills; the Green party nominee is Eleanor Hayward, who also ran provincially, in Milton.
Political scientists in Canada largely agree that federal elections turn broadly on the national campaign, the party and perceptions of the party leaders, said Erin Tolley, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto political science department who was not involved in the paper on the 2015 election.
“Where local candidates matter, they matter a lot,” she said, adding that any given candidate can have a “symbolic” impact on races outside their ridings if they prove particularly controversial or admirable. But, she said, local candidates are generally “not what’s turning the election on average.”
(Raitt says the fact she served as shadow cabinet minister for justice during the SNC-Lavalin affair helps keep Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s popularity top of mind among Milton voters.)
And, of course, even the most impressive candidates can’t be a decisive factor in a race their party was going to win easily anyway.
According to Loewen’s research, local candidates had a measurable effect on voters in 51 of 106 Ontario ridings in the 2015 election, with the data showing Conservative candidates — the incumbents in most races — had overall somewhat less of an effect than Liberal and NDP hopefuls.
Despite that, the survey found just 11 Ontario contests were decided by the local candidate effect; only four swung in the GTA. (The research said Liberal candidates Ruby Sahota, Celina Caesar-Chavannes and Judy Sgro decided races in Brampton North, Whitby and Humber River—Black Creek respectively, and Conservative Bob Saroya proved decisive in Markham—Unionville.)
Voters with strong party preferences are unlikely to be moved even by an impressive local candidate, said Jason Roy, an associate professor in the political science department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. (Roy was also not part of Lowen’s research but has studied voter decision making.)
Some of the most significant factors in the last election were the leaders’ performances and how voters strategically aligned around Trudeau as the best bet to unseat then-prime minister Stephen Harper, Roy said.
Can a strong local candidate change the mind of a partisan voter, he asks rhetorically — “That would be difficult.”
In the GTA, some other candidates trying to be among the 10 per cent who might swing a race: Conservatives Teresa Kruze, a former sportscaster running in Vaughan—Woodbridge, and entrepreneur Arpan Khanna, who’s trying to unseat Sahota in Brampton North; Liberals Alan Ho, a city councillor up against Saroya in Markham—Unionville, and former Newmarket mayor Tony Van Bynen, running for the open seat in Newmarket—Aurora; NDP candidates Min Sook Lee, a filmmaker running in Jack Layton’s old riding of Toronto—Danforth, and longtime Toronto city councillor Maria Augimeri, who’s challenging Sgro in Humber River—Black Creek; for the Greens, there’s Annamie Paul, a lawyer and advocate running in Toronto Centre, and Tim Grant, the longtime chair of the Harbord Village Residents Association, running in University—Rosedale.
As to how any of them might swing a race, Loewen said the formula is relatively simple.
The good candidates, he said, are able to both defend and explain their party’s positions and also stand apart when needed to articulate what’s special about their constituency. Being able to do that well takes constant effort and, at its most basic, the job is “nothing more complicated than working hard,” he said.
As for star power, it can’t hurt, but it’s not the main thing. After all, he said, Canadians elect a lot of normal people who return to Parliament election after election.