Party vs. candidate: When it comes to Toronto, does it matter who knocks at your door?
With a large proportion of new voters, party may matter most, but local candidates could make key difference
The federal election campaign may be in full swing, but voters in several Toronto-area ridings still don't know who all of their candidates will be — and while that may not matter much right now, it could make the sliver of the difference needed for a win on Oct. 21.
As of this week, the Liberals had yet to finalize candidates in 31 ridings across the country, finally nominating former Liberal MPP Han Dong in the coveted Don Valley North seat on Thursday.
The New Democrats were in rougher shape with more than 90 candidates left to nominate nationally. Meanwhile, the Conservatives had announced their full slate of candidates across the country before the election officially kicked off, having named hopefuls even in ridings they haven't traditionally held in Toronto.
The Greens were slightly further along than the NDP, while the People's Party of Canada had 17 candidates left to name across the board, with a full slate named in Ontario.
Parties technically have until the end of the month to nominate their candidates. But as long as they're preoccupied with choosing who will run under their banners, voters have less of an opportunity to engage with the person and platform up for consideration, says a senior research associate for the Samara Centre for Democracy.
"There's been a lot of interest over the years as to whether local candidates matter and the evidence comes back again and again that they do," Paul Thomas told CBC News.
You could even quite easily have one party winning government or not based on that kind of margin.- Paul Thomas, Samara Centre for Democracy
Thomas points to research published last year showing local candidates were decisive in the voting decisions of about four per cent of voters in the 2015 election.
That may not sound like a lot. But Thomas says it meant that one-in-10 constituencies were decided based on the local candidate, and that there were enough close races in which the local candidate made a noticeable difference.
The urban/rural divide
"Every little bit helps. And you could even quite easily have one party winning government or not based on that kind of margin," Thomas said.
How much local candidates matter to voters also appears to come down to how urban or rural their ridings happen to be.
That might mean that in cities like Toronto, the party could matter more than the candidate, with voters more concerned with the government they'd like to see in power than with the specific people running.
John Beebe of the Democratic Engagement Exchange at Ryerson University says that's often the case for first-time voters, whether they're new Canadians or they've just turned 18.
Figuring out how the electoral system works and where parties stand can be enough of a challenge for such voters that specific candidates may not be their first point of reference, he says.
1/3 new voters also new citizens
"I think it's still the case that the political parties are still the most important piece," Beebe said. "Ultimately I think that our political parties need to step up and do a better job reaching out to these communities to show that they feel engaged and feel heard as part of this conversation," he added.
As part of its work, the centre engages with community organizations and government agencies to create tools and events to help strengthen democracy and help boost voter engagement, especially with newcomers, young voters and racialized communities.
Parties that don't pay attention to these segments of the population do so at their peril, Beebe says.
Some 646,598 new Canadians have become eligible to vote since the last federal election, making up one-third of new voters nationally, he says.
"That is a significant part of the population," he pointed out.
In the Greater Toronto Area, at least 51 per cent of the population was born outside of Canada. And while it's not known how many eligible voters are among them, Beebe says, new Canadians are often eager to participate in the electoral process — either because they've come from places where democracy doesn't exist, or because they've been active voters and want to continue that in their new country.
But Toronto's ethnic and cultural diversity might actually increase the importance of local candidates, says Thomas, adding there may be an expectation that candidates come from the communities living in a given area.
"People may look for candidates who seem to be representative of the people who are living there," he said. If parties decide to "parachute in" a candidate that doesn't reflect the voters in a riding, he says, that may ultimately hurt their chances of winning a race.
He says he's looking for "someone who in addition to their duties nationally will ensure that their local constituency office is always open to support local families and encourage greater engagement and access to key issues such as immigration [and] the environment," for example.
Toronto resident Shaheen Bagha has a different take. "Unfortunately for me it comes back down to strategic voting and choosing the lesser of the evils," she said, adding she knows which federal leader she doesn't want in power and keeping them out will be her priority.
Ultimately, say Beebe and Thomas, parties that haven't nominated candidates lose out when it comes to the logistics of campaigning at the ground level: the absence of lawn signs, a familiar face at community events, etc.
"I think that there's the critical piece of what we see happening at the door ... If you don't have a candidate, you can't campaign in communities," Beebe said.
"People's views of the campaign may be shaped by that absence," said Thomas.
What matters to you this election? What issues do you want us to dig into? Email us at myGTAelection@cbc.ca.
- An earlier version of this story stated over 400,000 new Canadians have become eligible to vote since the last federal election. In fact, according to government statistics, that number is 646,598.Sep 27, 2019 8:19 AM ET