Last week, as he blitzed battleground states, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama drew crowds tens of thousands strong. In the bellwether state of Missouri he spoke to over 175,000, by some reckonings. “All I can say is—Wow!” he told the throng, as though such events merely happen, the product of good weather and enthusiasm.
Canada must not have much of either. The biggest crowd during our election was probably for Stephen Harper, and it weighed in at less than 2,000. Which raises the question: if massive rallies work in the U.S.—why don’t we have them here?
Tory MP Jason Kenney says the main reason is because crowd-manufacturing takes work, and our political types have decided it’s not worth the hassle. “I think they’re of limited utility,” he says. “A lot of parties in Canada concluded they don’t get much bang for the buck in terms of allocating scarce resources.” Nor does the landscape encourage American-style rah-rah-rah. “Where would you go other than an arena in Canada—and if it’s winter, where do you go unless it’s a covered arena?” asks Liberal MP Joe Volpe. “You can count those on one hand and they’re thousands of kilometres apart.”
Elections are shorter in Canada, too, so events must be planned just days in advance. And while Volpe argues that large turnouts in the U.S. indicate a certain je ne sais quoi quality to Obama, others attribute them to massive election budgets. Our campaign finance laws discourage monster events, one Tory says, adding his party couldn’t afford the $200,000 price tag attached to big rallies, given a budget of $18 million and a travel itinerary that costs $5 million. “Obama has an unlimited budget, so they can finance the advertising and venues and mailings it takes to organize something like that—these things don’t happen spontaneously,” says Kenney.
Friction between local candidates and the national parties in Canada can also rule out big crowds. Simple door-knocking is more likely to win an MP’s seat than an appearance on TV with Steve or Stéphane. “In the U.S., you’re not commanding all the people organizing the congressional campaigns to turn people out—they’re different operations,” says Liberal organizer Mark Marissen. “The people you call [here] are all in the riding campaigns—and they groan.”
It was not always thus. Liberal Senator David Smith recalls seeing Lester B. Pearson, no electric presence, pack Maple Leaf Gardens. Trudeau commanded Obama-esque crowds, and years later, Reform shindigs did too. “People didn’t have as busy schedules as they do now,” says Smith a little wistfully, “and the media didn’t cover things on TV the same way.”
That’s certainly true in B.C., where the demands of Toronto news deadlines means rallies don’t work. “You can’t do anything after lunch in Vancouver,” says Marissen. “It won’t go on the news. So what’s the point?”