Pierre Poilievre is making waves. Virtually all of the buzz in the federal Conservative leadership race revolves around him. He’s pulling in crowds, generating headlines and tossing out ideas that intrigue some and unnerve others.
Excitement isn’t a word normally associated with Canadian conservatism. But, for better or worse, Poilievre stirs it up. And some of the interest is apparently coming from people you wouldn’t normally associate with conservatism.
It’s still early days and the leadership electorate won’t be solidified until the June 3 cut-off for signing up new members. Still, most indications suggest that Poilievre got off to a flying start. If the contest were held with the membership as it existed when the job became vacant, he’d likely ease home without breaking much of a sweat.
There’s also a conventional wisdom rapidly congealing: While Poilievre may win the leadership, he’d be doomed in a general election.
And indeed, this could be true. Conventional wisdom may be sometimes risible but it isn’t always wrong.
The knocks against Poilievre are several.
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Many of his views are supposedly extreme; his rhetorical style is deemed too abrasive; his personal enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies is weird; and so on.
All in all, he’s not the kind of person Canadians would accept as prime minister. Then again, the same was said of Stephen Harper.
And I’m old enough to remember early 1980 when most commentators averred that Ronald Reagan winning the U.S. Republican nomination would be a gift for the Democrats. Reagan was purportedly too old, too extreme and too weird. He’d be easy to beat.
Now, Canada isn’t the United States, and 1980 was a long time ago. Further, Poilievre has none of the affable charm that made Reagan such an elusive target for his detractors.
But – as with Reagan – when voters are materially exposed to the real person rather than just a cartoon image, they’ll sometimes surprise you. Poilievre has managed to win seven consecutive elections in his Ottawa-area riding.
There’s another factor to be considered. Poilievre has enemies with powerful megaphones. Pollster Frank Graves, founder and president of EKOS Research Associates, is one of them.
Graves had this to say on Twitter: “Pierre Poilievre is an acolyte of authoritarian populism. This is never healthy. You are on notice. Going to make sure you are never going to lead my country. I don’t make idle threats.”
And Graves is a man with influence.
His company, EKOS, is one of Canada’s most prominent pollsters; its work is widely disseminated in the media and his analysis often appears on television and in the press. He has a significant voice in the public square.
Graves insists that he’d never torque the data gathered for his polls. And that’s undoubtedly true. Because election polling is subject to validation on Election Day, deliberate torquing would be professional suicide.
Nonetheless, he’s a longtime Liberal donor whose antipathy to the modern Conservatives is hardly a secret. In the seven elections since the party’s 2003 founding, Graves has underestimated the Conservative vote four times. On three of these occasions, his miss was outside his own margin of error.
The most egregious was in 2011, the year Harper won his majority and scored 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. In his final pre-election poll, Graves pegged the Conservative vote at 33.9 per cent with a plus or minus 1.8 points margin of error.
Twitter serves a useful public purpose by allowing people to show us a part of who they really are. Because of the platform’s immediacy, we get to see them with the mask off. Subsequently deleting the tweet doesn’t change that.
While Graves may never intentionally torque his data, his public role is much bigger than producing mere numbers. He gets to be interviewed presenting insights about the meaning of the numbers, how we should interpret them, what weight we should assign to various things, and so forth.
It is, of course, quite possible that Graves is able to rigorously segregate his personal ideology from his public role as a commentator. Maybe his analysis is that of a dispassionate expert offering insights shorn of any material bias. But looking at the passion and vitriol of his tweets, you might wonder.
As for Poilievre, he has self-confidence, sharp elbows, an acid tongue and an instinct for the jugular. He’s going to need them.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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