Dept. of peripherally campaign-related things we've been talking about -

Dept. of peripherally campaign-related things we’ve been talking about


From a long column on Barack Obama, which for our purposes you can mostly ignore:

“He had drawn 175,000 people to two events in Missouri that day, larger crowds than I’d ever seen at a campaign event.”

We were talking about this thing only this morning at the sprawling Maclean’s Ottawa bureau nerve centre: Why are there never big rallies in Canadian campaigns?

This question was actually put to me by a German diplomat a few weeks ago, while we were having lunch and chatting about the super-top-secret Canada-EU trade negotiations that nobody ever writes about. Buddy said to me, “Why are there no big rallies in Canadian campaigns?” I have to admit the thought hadn’t occurred, but it’s an obvious question once it’s raised. Almost every day this month, McCain and Obama and Biden and sometimes Palin are in different cities, addressing crowds of 10,000 or 15,000 on a slow day, and 75,000 or more on big days. In Paris, it was common to see handbills posted around town inviting everyone to see Sarkozy or Royal or one of the lesser presidential candidates on a few days’ notice, in venues that would look culpably empty if 5,000 people didn’t turn out. Germany, apparently the same thing.

Of course, Canadian politics isn’t utterly devoid of large rallies. There was one at Place du Canada before the 1995 referendum, which you may have heard about. There were a few thunderstick affairs during the recent unpleasantness that featured Dion or Harper addressing perhaps 1,000 people. But by the standards of some countries whose politics is in other respects quite similar to Canada’s, 1,000 people at a rally is a joke.

I’ve heard a few possible explanations for the decline of the big rally in Canadian politics. In the 1997 campaign, an old Liberal hand told me these sorts of big rallies were no longer useful to Canadian campaigns, for two reasons. One, they’re essentially parlour tricks: any half-decent organizer, given two weeks to get his act together, can get 40 busloads of supporters into any hall anywhere. They don’t show real support. Two, these rallies usually happen in the evening, at the end of a day’s news cycle, and so they don’t do much to advance a party’s message-of-the-day. Not worth the hassle.

But surely all that would be true in Little Rock or Nashua or wherever Barack Obama will meet his next 40,000 supporters/ spectators tomorrow, as well as in Lyon and Munich and Leeds and any number of other places where mass demonstrations of support for a leader are still, today, seen as a basic element of election campaigning. So why there, but not here? One of life’s little mysteries.


Dept. of peripherally campaign-related things we’ve been talking about

  1. I am trying to picture Stephen Harper at a public or even semi-public ‘rally’…

  2. They’re expensive, and risky. Hence, they don’t happen in Canada.

  3. And yet we play hockey. Well, I don’t, but you probably do.

  4. Rallies are expensive? How much does it cost to rent some buses and a PA system?

  5. Rallies are expensive? How much does it cost to rent some buses and a PA system?

    And rent a facility, and pay for advertising, and pay for staff, and pay for print materials, and pay for security, and pay transport costs, and pay for lodging, and pay for catering, and pay for thundersticks, etc…

    You can’t just get up on a milk-crate and shout and call it a rally. These things have to look professional, or you risk being labelled the NDP. lol.

  6. I kinda like the fact that we don’t have large rallies, they freak me out, because I associate them with fascism/communism movements.

    However, I think Canadians are not encouraged to participate in politics. It seems to me that most of our laws regarding elections discourage our involvement. The pooh bahs will take care of everything and the hoi polloi are supposed to bow and scrape. Elite accommodation is very strong in Canada and discourages regular people from participating.

  7. I think Canadians are very much encouraged to participate in politics; every campaign needs far more volunteers than they get. I’m in Vancouver-East, and spent probably 60 hours working on the Libby Davies campaign, and even in a riding where we got 52% of the vote we didn’t have enough people to staff election day.

    Why people feel so jaded is beyond my understanding, though.

    I will say this about rallies: even if there was to be a gathering of supporters, it’s not really encouraged, and I’m not sure why. Harper had dinner at someone’s house. Layton came to town and had breakfast at a diner, but it was at 7:30am on a Monday, when I had to work (and–let’s be honest–it’s Vancouver, it’s the NDP, how many of the supporters are getting out of bed before noon?)

  8. When did we stop having big rallies in Canada? In the old days they were quite common, no? I mean Sir John A., even King’s times.

  9. jwl,

    Are you implying that the Harper Conservatives aren’t a fascist movement? :)

    Also, to no one in particular, the fact that rallies are expensive, risky, and necessitate the purchasing of costly thundersticks, is one that would assumedly apply elsewhere as well (except those socialist European countries, where thundersticks are free for all). Of course, I don’t really have any better explanation as to why big rallies are uncommon here, other than the fact that our party leaders are, by and large, dolts.

  10. Cow: Local campaigns might kind of like it if more people participated, but on a national level, it might well be an open question.

    The answer might be that Canadian political culture seems to militate against big mass rallies, but it’s probably more that the “natural governing party” seemed to have so little interest in actually attracting honest to goodness activism that mass outpourings of support are seen as unnecessary.

    (Sure, big ticket cheque-writers are nice, and every organization needs staffers and such, but actual passion about politics smacks of the Reformers or, worse, NDP. Ick.)

  11. I don’t know, you don’t see them in the UK as far as I can think of- is it something to do with Parliamentary elections? For all that we talk of the PMO gaining presidential powers, there are 300+ separate races going on at the same time, and perhaps that atomisation has something to do with it? I don’t know why this would be so, mind.

  12. Paul, maybe Canadians generally don’t get worked up about a whole lot of stuff. I am trying hard to deliberate on why this should be a bad thing. When you have won the geographic and temporal lottery by birth or immigration, maybe you just focus mostly on going about your business.

    What draws a Canadian crowd, on a voluntary, I went out of my way to be here, basis? Grey Cup. Stanley Cup. NHL. Remembrance Day. Highway of Heroes after another of our fallen arrives at CFB Trenton. Rrroll-up-the-rrrim. 80% off something I might like to think I would one day need right there on page 2 of the Canadian Tire flyer.

    What doesn’t? Harper, Dion, Layton, et al.

    Personally, I see all that as a feature, not a bug.

  13. Rallies seem to be a larger part of republican systems where the public is voting for an actual president, and so much weights on the interplay between the personality of the candidate and the public.

    Or course I could be totally wrong. Does Britain have big rallies?

  14. Rallies suck.

    You feel like a nerd, they are uncomfortable and all the “whooping” is embarassing.

    Other countries do it because they are nowhere near as cool as us. One day, when they get it out of their heads that politicians are exciting, they too will drop rallies.

  15. 80,000 Canadians came out onto the streets of Toronto to “rally” against the Iraq invasion and thousands “rallied” in Montebello and quite a number of other venues were our politicians gathered.

    Maybe Canadians like to gather in large masses when it’s something worth leaving the house for.

  16. It’s environmental.

    Canadians arent’ as engaged in rallies because most of us don’t participate in picking the leader. In many states you can participate in primaries as an independent or even as a registered voter in the other party, whereas participants in Canada are limited to the committed few who join a party and then travel to go to a convention. Canadians are also less partisan-identified because we don’t have to register as Liberal or Conservaitve or NDP etc. we can be free to vote without identifying with a party or free to keep that to ourselves.

  17. Maybe it has something to do with population density and urban sprawl.

    We’re a very spread-out population. Many of us can’t just stroll to the nearby rallies at the “town square,” it takes plenty of time and energy for many of us.

    Who wants to come home at the end of the working day after driving 25 km in traffic, later having to drag themselves to some partisan rally at 8pm.

    Or maybe there’s the “U.S. factor” in play as well.

    Some Canadians and their politicians may think of big, partisan, energetic rallies as being conventional practice in the “bigger is always better” American elections. Therefore, we may turn the other way and embrace smaller, quieter venues simply to defy the Yanks and create something boringly Canadian.

    Maybe Canadians have become so fearful of movements and distrustful of our politicians that we wouldn’t want to be caught dead at one of their rallies in case a scandal breaks out.

  18. Maybe Canadians like to gather in large masses when it’s something worth leaving the house for.

    Or when they’re hippies. That helps.

  19. In America, party leaders are celebs and their supporters want to see them. In Canada, party leaders usually aren’t celebs, and even their supporters don’t really care to see them.

    That said, I am surprised how little real human contact there is between leaders and actual human beings during a campaign. PW’s big magazine article on the campaign documenting the opening day or so of the last campaign highlighted how little real contact took place.

    Far as I can see, Canadian leaders tours now seem to spend hours and hours safely in the air for no apparent reason other than to avoid being on the ground, where unpredictable things might happen.

    My favorite faux event of the campaign was the NDP guzzling airplane fuel over the tar sands so as tyo hand out press releases describing the environmental horror below.

    I don’t recall a single reporter publicly reporting how bizarre this was.

    – JV

  20. I think we’ve seen no big rallies in recent history because we’ve seen no engaging, charismatic leader in recent history. Give us something worth listening to, and we might come listen.

  21. I’ll settle for public access to our politicians. Harper and many candidates live in a bubble during an election, and many cabinet ministers continue to live in a bubble afterwards.

    That’s no way to run a *democratic* railroad.

  22. Jameson, Raging Ranter

    UK does not have large rallies during election campaigns but they do have massive demonstrations if there is a policy/law they don’t like.

  23. Ninety-nine percent of Canadians do not get the opportunity to vote for a party leader. Why go to one of their rallies when there is so much work to be done in the ridings? (Strictly speaking, the Germans do not elect their chancellor directly, but the proportional aspect of their system gives voters an additional, national (or regional), say in the legislature’s composition.

    Also, our campaigns are very short. How many huge rallies are you going to have in a 35 campaign? How are you going to book the venue on such short notice, especially in winter? In the Pearson days, Maple Leaf Gardens was rented for large rallies but this is no longer practical. When the Air Canada Centre is not being used by one of the local sports teams, it is hosting a concert or other event. And, of course, no other democratic country limits an individual or corporation’s right to contribute financially to political parties as much as Canada. There simply is not enough money for these things.

  24. I met someone the other day who has canvassed for the Liberals for years and he said that now he wouldn’t do a thing for them and it has to do with how he was treated.

    The politicians don’t appreciate those people who can bring others out to a rally and that is, incidentally, likely the biggest reason for voter apathy too.

  25. How many people showed up at the rally in Brampton when Chretien spoke?

    If there ever was to be a large rally for the Liberals it would have been for a speech by Chretien.

    But on the whole, I agree with Paul and was something I thought about during the campaign as well.

  26. 1) Presidential system vs. parliamentary system.
    2) No direct election of leaders by the membership political parties.
    3) Length of campaign. In Canada, it is wasted time, money, and effort for what benefit.
    4) Canadians (apart from Trudeaumania) are NOT cult-of-personality type of people. Arguably, Trudeaumania lead to leader-cults (rather than policy-wonk-cults) within the Liberal Party after him, which is leading to the end of the Liberal Party.

  27. We’re a very spread-out population. I got the impression Canadians were massively urbanized, and becoming more so.

  28. Must be a lot of people out of work and/or have lots of time in the “day” hours to attend these rallies in the US.

  29. “Maybe Canadians like to gather in large masses when it’s something worth leaving the house for.”


  30. The capacity of US campaigns to move in big crowds for organized rallies has never translated into actual voter turnout on the day.

  31. Hmm… Never really thought about this, but maybe having rallies might inspire more young people to be politically motivated (myself included).

  32. First, you’ve got mickey-mouse-pollster-whizkids like the Tory-Muttart and the Liberal-Muttart designing chickenshit policy planks that appeal to tens maybe huundreds of people, not tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

    Second, the weather – it’s almost always cold when we have elections.

    And finally, we don’t have compelling speakers as leaders who speak from the heart. We’ve career politicians with the soul of wordprocessors who’d be lost without their poll-tested and sanitized 30-second soundbites.

  33. I think that we do have big rallies for the head of state…but the Queen ain’t here that much. Why would anyone want to cheer on a mere PM, they just do the dirty work. We don’t idolized politicians.

  34. jwl,

    The fact that there are large rallies for causes, but not parties in the UK is significant, I think. The networks (trades unions, Greenpeace, farmer’s associations) that gather people in Trafalgar Sq for a protest don’t seem to be as available to political parties. I don’t know that any party in Britain would try to hold a large rally, but were they to, I doubt they’d see anything like the turnout.
    Incidentally, because rallies are usually in London, and it’s accessible from most of the country, there’s an added attraction for participants. I was in Westminster during the Police Union protest a year ago, and thousands had hired busses, come down early, protested, and were planning to spend the afternoon on a day out. The pubs in Victoria were jammed from 12 onwards with off-duty coppers from Bath and Coventry.

  35. Given the falling voter turn out in this country; one might say Canadians have rallied with apathy.

  36. (a) Money
    (b) Money
    (c) Money

  37. But peimac, voter turnout is higher in Canada than in the USA. I blame the existance of third parties. Not to sound trite, but the existence of fringe parties like the Bloc and NDP mean a less polarized electorate which feels they have much less at stake. These are bumper sticker voters, a large demographic who are happy to drive aroun with a sticker on their car saying “Don’t blame me I voted for so-and-so”. If we had a two-party system, there’d be more rambunctious rallies, more political donors etc. But a two-party system would have its drawbacks as well, like lower voter turnout and a different sort of apathy. I think the fact that Canadians never actually cast a ballot directly for their PM is another difference which helps explain why candidates for the position, unlike US presidential candidates are able to create a certain sense of awe, interest and momentum.

  38. A few hypotheses…

    1. Geography

    Canadian politics have a strong urban-rural/suburban cleavage. As a result the places with a high population density that could produce big rallies are not electorally contested.

    2. Rallies are inefficient

    Any big rally will draw people from a large region around where the rally is taking place, and will tend to dominate local news organs (but not national ones). In presidential elections or multimember districts, you can hold your rallies in swing regions. In Canada that is less feasible, because rallies really only make electoral sense in places where lots of battleground ridings are close by to each other.

    Moreover, the riding association is the basic organizing unit of Canadian politics, and is ill-suited to organize rallies, which if big, will draw from multiple ridings.

    3. Canadians (and Brits) have the lowest identification with political parties in the advanced industrial world. Americans are registered as Democrat and Republican. Here you have to buy a membership to a party and few people do.

  39. “But peimac, voter turnout is higher in Canada than in the USA. ”

    Not in this decade. And in 2008, the USA might outpace Canada by 10%.

  40. I’m wondering what the per capita breakdown is? Given the size of our population in Canada (country as a whole, city, etc.) compared to that of the United States, the size of our political rallies may or may not be commensurate in size?

  41. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that our leaders are a dull group that couldn’t inspire flies to a pile of poop. If Canadians had something to be excited about, they might show up at allies. We’re just not fooled by the same old nonsense.

  42. I would love to see someone fill the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

  43. Rallys take place at Leadership conventions. They are not needed after that.

  44. As a Canadian living in a southern state, I can tell you exactly why people come out:

    The sides are so desperately far apart on the political spectrum in so many respects that you come out for your guy and against the other guy. It’s a show of support that seems necessary because of the disparity of the body politic in this country.

    Points like Canadians’ inability to vote directly for the PM, and the relative shortness of the Canadian campaign + the largeness of the country’s geography factor in.

    It’s also true to say that rallies aren’t a focus for campaigns anymore.

    But what remains is the fact that Dion and Harper are battling over a carbon tax and the Green Shift. Compared to a battle over whether or not America should even consider(!) public health care. Or whether the wealthy should be subject to progressive taxation.

    Those (and so many more) issues are ones the opposite side loves to hate. That’s enough to get me out the door.

    Maybe, if the Canadian campaign had gone on for a few months, you might have seen a rally for arts funding.

  45. You could start by telling Buddy the German diplomat that Canada is not the United States — a point frequently lost on Europeans.

  46. Canadians rally at the pumps.

  47. Canadian rallies … certainly those of Our Leader …. seem to be invitation-only.

    Maybe if they sent out more invitations ….

  48. One reason for large rallies in the U.S. is the importance of voter registration to drive turn out. The candidates have hundreds of thousands of self-identified supporters who are, knowingly or unknowlingly, not registered voters. One of the best ways to ensure a supporter is registered, and to get them to register their friends and neighbours, is to get them to a rally, get their name, address, enter them into your database, etc. Here in Canada, registration is more or less automatic, so the biggest premium is on contacting registered voters and seeing if they are supporters.

  49. I seem to recall some pretty large gatherings, and pumped up crowds during the 88 free trade election.

    However, I was at a Bush senior Republican event in Plymouth, Michigan, in 92. Unbelievable: bunting, fife and drum bands, not a dry eye when they sang God Bless America. warm up speeches by regional popular politicians. crowd of thousands upon thousands.

    I think it speaks to the cultural differences of our countries. If you tried that rah, rah patriotic stuff here, it wouldnt fly, we are too cynical a bunch. Naturally, it follows that thousands of us wont congregate to hear a politician speak.

  50. Because we’re not a bunch of idiots?

  51. Canadians don’t have quite the same relationship with our PM as Americans do with their President. Although they are ostensibly a democracy, their President, as head of state, is given immense powers and immense loyalty. I lived in Vermont for a year in high school, during the 80s, and it frightened me how loyal the student body were to Reagan. The idea of not agreeing with him seemed to frighten some of them, because it might be seen as un-American. Say what you will about us, you’re not likely to be called un-Canadian for expressing a belief which is contrary to that of the PM, or even for saying that you think the PM is an idiot. I’ll live without the rallies, thanks, and settle for sober reflection.

  52. You only rally when your vote makes a difference…

    my vote in Manitoba HAS NEVER been counted/effective for the 30 years I’ve been voting.

    It’s decided by Ontario and Quebec…I no longer vote.

    No point.

  53. Weather? Canadians prefer politicians to leave them alone during the pleasant Summer months, so elections take place during months when it’s quite possible that large outdoor gatherings will be unpleasantly cold or wet. Imagine organising an event and finding that hardly any of your supporters show up because the weather’s miserable.

    What time of year were Canadian elections held back in the days when we did have outdoor rallies?