When candidates go wrong

In this week’s Canada Votes newsletter: parties are dealing with a string of problem candidates Also: what percentage of the vote is needed to win a majority government? — and why aren’t we calling Justin Trudeau prime minister.

The Canada Votes newsletter is your tip-sheet as we count down to Oct. 21.

How hard is it to vet a candidate?

Vassy Kapelos, host of Power & Politics

Pretty hard, apparently.

Let's sum up what's happened in just the last few days:

The Liberals had to disqualify a candidate just before the campaign began after B'nai Brith accused him of making anti-Semitic statements.

A Conservative candidate in Winnipeg stepped down after the party became aware of comments it called "insensitive to Islam and some ethnic groups." And they're now facing questions about another candidate who was disqualified from running for the Ontario provincial Tories because of what that war room deemed "extremely controversial and problematic" social media posts. 

New Democrats have lost two candidates this week, one to allegations of domestic abuse and another due to "problematic social media engagement."

And the Greens lost their candidate in Simcoe North over anti-Muslim social media posts. 

Now, candidates saying wild things isn't new. Neither is making those comments on social media — we saw plenty of that in 2015.

But what's fascinating this time is the speed at which it all gets out in the public domain — and how that forces politicians to react just as swiftly (or just simply forces them off message).

We saw an example of that right out of the starting gate.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told our show early last week that she could try to dissuade her future MPs from re-opening the debate on abortion but, under her party's policy, she has no power to whip their votes and block them from introducing any kind of legislation.

Mark Vercouteren is the Green candidate in the southwestern Ontario riding of Chatham-Kent—Leamington. (Mark Vercouteren/Twitter)

A few hours after those comments were reported, the party issued a clarification, insisting that no candidate opposed to a woman's right to choose could get through the Greens' vetting process.

At least one did, though. A Green Party candidate in Southwestern Ontario filled out a questionnaire, available via any Google search, in which he was asked (among other things) whether he believed there were any circumstances under which women should have access to abortion. He answered "no."

So we reached out to the party again. Its reply was … odd.

The candidate, we were told, "doesn't remember" filling out the questionnaire — but rest assured, he's pro-choice.

Ms. May generously made herself available for another interview at the end of last week, during which she sang a different tune. The candidate in question, she said, was being "re-vetted." (I spoke to a source in her party's campaign who summed up the entire affair as a "cluster----.")

But May also (correctly) pointed out that every party is dealing with candidates crashing and burning. Will it matter to voters?

Power & Politics: now on Sunday mornings and your podcast playlist

Catch up on the latest election news with the new Power & Politics Sunday podcast. In today's episode: Vassy Kapelos talks to candidates about vetting issues. Plus, the Power Panel weighs in on which leader had the best campaign out of the gate and where they should be headed in the coming week. Listen to the lastest episode here 

And watch Power & Politics' Sunday edition live at 10 a.m. ET on CBC News Network for the remainder of the campaign.

On his campaign plane Saturday night, headed to Vancouver, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer scrummed with reporters and nearly every question focused on candidate vetting. 

"As long as someone takes responsibility for what they've said and addresses the fact that in 2019 some things that may have been said in the past are inappropriate today, that if anything that they've ever said in the past caused any type of hurt or disrespect to one community or another and have apologized for that, I accept that," Scheer said.

"I accept the fact that people make mistakes in the past and can own up to that and accept that." 

Can voters move past it too? Or will it matter to them when they vote?

Likely the presence of controversial candidates will itself turn off voters. It's how the parties and their leaders deal with those candidates that matters.

I covered the 2012 campaign in Alberta and I can tell you that, until just a few days before the election, most people would have put money on the Wildrose Party under Danielle Smith sweeping to power. That definitely didn't happen.

Smith didn't deal quickly with problem candidates who came to light right before the vote. She let them stick around to scare enough people away from her party to turn a certain victory into a massive loss.

Most politicians seem to have learned from that example; they drop problem candidates quickly. But it's not cut and dried.

Party leaders and party brass have to weigh the case put forward by the candidate, their relative importance among the candidates and the significance of the riding in which they're running. And still they sometimes appear to wait until media coverage forces them to respond. The case of the Liberals' Quebec candidate near Montreal is a good example of that.

This campaign is just getting started, of course. If more candidates with controversial views come to light and if most of them seem to be running for a particular party, that could turn into a bigger problem. And spare a little sympathy for the poor party functionaries whose job it is to do the vetting. (How would you like to spend weeks poring over years of social media comments?)

But every party ought to know it has to be done — because anything one party's vetting committee misses, its rivals will pick up and weaponize. There will be more candidate eruptions, but they don't have to knock the campaigns off track — not if they are dealt with openly and quickly.

Reading this online? Sign-up for the newsletter to get it delivered to your inbox every Sunday – then daily during the campaign.

Vassy Kapelos is host of Power & Politics, weekdays at 5 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

Power Lines

The Power & Politics Power Panelists on where the big parties will be focused this week

Amanda Alvaro  president and co-founder of Pomp & Circumstance

The Liberals will be working across the country to convince Canadians they are the best party to move Canada forward and that a vote for the Conservatives is a choice that will take the country backward. Expect Justin Trudeau and the Liberal team to continue to build on the momentum and excitement of early campaign announcements focused on making life more affordable for Canadian families and small businesses.

Rachel Curran senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting

The Conservatives will spend the first full week of the campaign next week rolling out their proposals to make life more affordable and help them get ahead. Leader Andrew Scheer will focus on building out the policies the CPC will talk about for the remainder of the campaign, while reminding voters of Justin Trudeau's ethical failings and broken promises.

Kathleen Monk principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group

New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh came into this campaign relatively unknown to most Canadians. With a strong first week and a winning debate performance, he did a good job introducing himself to voters. In the second week, look for the NDP to continue to build momentum, talking about plans to make life more affordable in concrete ways.

Poll Tracker Takeaway 

Éric Grenier's weekly look at key numbers in the political public opinion polls. 

Will our old assumptions about elections need to be re-written in 2019?

It's an almost sacrosanct assumption about Canadian federal politics that to win a majority, a government a party needs at least 38 per cent support.

No party has ever won a majority government with less than that. Jean Chrétien's Liberals set the low end of the bar at 38.5 per cent in the 1997 federal election. The last two majority governments were won with about 39.5 per cent of the vote.

But this time, it is theoretically possible — if not probable — that either the Liberals or the Conservatives could win a majority government with far less than 38 per cent of the vote.

The Poll Tracker puts the two parties at 34 per cent support each. That could be enough to put either party just a few seats short of the 170 needed to form a majority government. It wouldn't take much to push either party over that threshold.

For an explanation, let's look at what's happening with the other parties.

The latest seat projection suggests that less than 10 per cent of the House of Commons could be filled by MPs who sit with neither the government nor the Official Opposition. That would be the lowest share for third parties since 1958.

The gap between second and third in the polls is about 21 points. If that holds through to election day, that would be the widest margin since 1962.

In other words, it has been more than half a century since support for third parties has been so low or (and this is really important) so divided.

That has a big impact on the electoral math, because the first-past-the-post system penalizes smaller parties below a certain threshold of support.

Because the New Democrats are polling so low and the Greens are polling so high (but without enough regional concentration to win the party many seats) the old rules about what's needed to win a majority government may not apply in this election.

It's just another reason why 2019's vote is looking so unpredictable — and why every seat could count.

Tap here to go to the full poll tracker 

Poll averages as of the morning of September 15, 2019. (Eric Grenier/CBC)

Ask CBC News

Several CBC readers and viewers asked: Why aren't you calling Justin Trudeau the prime minister?

You may have noticed CBC News referring to Justin Trudeau as "Liberal leader." Yes, he's still prime minister. However, now that the election has been called, incumbents who are running for re-election are referred to by their party affiliation only. According to the CBC Language Guide, this is done to "avoid even the perception of giving incumbents an advantage."

There are exceptions, though. Political titles are allowed if it is a non-election story, where they are acting in their official role. Right here and now, though, it's Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

More from CBC Politics

The 60 ridings that tell the story of where the election will be won and lost
Where do Justin Trudeau's Liberals need to win to secure re-election? What is the path to a majority government for Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives? What does the future for the NDP under Jagmeet Singh look like? And can Elizabeth May's Greens, Maxime Bernier's new People's Party or Independents like Jody Wilson-Raybould change the electoral map? Explore Eric Grenier's interactive analysis here

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promises a 'universal tax credit' if elected
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer unveiled a new tax cut plan Sunday that he says will save taxpayers hundreds of dollars a year, a key plank of the Tory platform to make life more affordable. Read more

NDP unveils Quebec platform, promising more power on immigration and language
Jagmeet Singh on Sunday positioned the NDP as an "ally to Quebec and the French language," building on work of late former leader Jack Layton. Hannah Thibedeau is covering the NDP campaign

Millennial voters could decide this election — here's what some say would sway their vote
Millennials may be known for their expensive lattes and avocado toast, but will they have an appetite for politics in the federal election this fall? It's a question that could have a major impact on the outcome. Here's the full story

Thanks for reading. If you've got questions, criticisms or story tips, please email us at politics@cbc.ca

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