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Expectations gap creates same risks for Liberals in Canada as it did for Democrats in the U.S.

By Greg Lyle      

Voters who believe in the American dream and still have it in sight are a big part of how Donald Trump won in the U.S. And there are just as many of this type of voter in Canada as in the U.S.

This graph shows how similar proportions of people in both Canada and the United States believe or don't believe in the possibility of prosperity in their respective countries, and similar proportions are or are not finding success in achieving it. Courtesy of Innovative Research Group

VANCOUVER—Donald Trump has won the U.S. presidency and many people are trying to figure out how it happened. In Canada, there are questions of whether a similar candidate could achieve success here.

The Economist declared that “Canada stands out as a heartening exception” and Canadians are comforted. But should we be? Are we all that different than our neighbours south of the border?

There are many unique factors in the U.S. election that don’t offer much insight into Canadian politics. Nativism has much more appeal in the U.S. than Canada as Americans are much more likely to see free trade and immigration as threats than Canadians. Americans are far more alienated from their government than Canadians. The U.S. is very different than Canada on those dimensions and they played an important part in the election.

But in many other ways, Canada looks a lot like the U.S. In particular, we share a common dream of personal achievement and a common economic experience.

We share the same dream

Two-thirds of Americans and Canadians feel that in their country “you can be anything you want if you are willing to work for it.” The big difference is Americans feel more strongly than Canadians about this.

And on both sides of the border, a majority believes the profit system teaches people of the value of hard work (51 per cent Canada, 53 per cent U.S.) over bringing out the worst in people (33 per cent Canada, 29 per cent U.S.).

Bernie Sanders doesn’t appear any more likely to build a majority in the U.S. than Tom Mulcair in Canada. Both countries agree (58 per cent Canada, 69 per cent U.S.) that government should support creating opportunity over redistributing wealth (32 per cent Canada, 21 per cent U.S.) although Canadians have a larger minority supporting redistribution.

Both countries agree that those who can’t get ahead should blame themselves (56 per cent Canada, 58 per cent U.S.) and not the system (17 per cent Canada, 21 per cent U.S.).

Yet, majorities in both countries agree every year it is harder to get by (50 per cent Canada, 52 per cent U.S.) and that the next generation will have fewer opportunities (51 per cent Canada, 51 per cent U.S.). However Americans (44 per cent) are more likely to say “it is hard for people like me to get ahead” than Canadians (32 per cent).

Expectations Gap

The contrast between the big majorities who believe you can be anything you want and the smaller majorities who feel the economy is not working for them creates an Expectations Gap. There are large numbers of Americans and Canadians who buy into their national dream as a concept but find it escaping their grasp. Michael Moore based his summer prediction of a Trump victory on this reality. He called it “our Rust Belt Brexit.”

The week before the U.S. election, we polled Americans and Canadians on their views about the national dream, their personal economic experiences and their political preferences. We grouped voters together based on their answers to “Here in the United States/Canada you can be anything you want if you are willing to work for it,” and “No matter how hard I work, every year it seems more difficult to get by”.

In both countries, about a third do not buy into the dream. Ambivalents (18 per cent Canada, 19 per cent U.S.) do not have a view on either statement, while Alienated voters (15 per cent Canada, 14 per cent U.S.) actually reject the premise of the dream. Among independent or non-aligned voters, these groups heavily favoured Hillary Clinton over Trump, if they voted.

In both the U.S. and Canada, less than one in five people are Dream Achievers: those living the Canadian/American dreams. Only 19 per cent of Canadians and 17 per cent of Americans agree with the dream and disagree it is getting harder to get by. This group favoured Clinton by 21 points over Trump among independent and non-aligned voters.

In both Canada and the U.S. we find 15 per cent in the Hopeful category; they agree with the dream, but don’t agree or disagree that it is harder to get by. Independents and non-aligned voters in this group favoured Trump over Clinton by seven points.

Canadian or American Dream Moderate Strugglers believe in the dream but somewhat agree it is harder to get by. One in five Canadians (20 per cent) and 17 per cent of Americans fall into this category. Our pre-election poll showed Trump beating Clinton 46 to 26 per cent among independent or non-aligned voters from this segment. It was his highest Trump win among independent voters.

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This graph shows some prevailing attitudes of Trump and Clinton supporters in the U.S. Courtesy of Innovative Research Group

Canadian or American Dream Heavy Strugglers believe in the dream but strongly agree it is harder to get by. Only 12 per cent of Canadians are in this group but the number rises to 18 per cent among Americans. These voters favoured Clinton over Trump 57 to 30 per cent. Understanding why those who are most alienated economically behave so much differently than those with more moderate views is a topic we will be probing more deeply.

Michael Moore said of Trump, “You don’t have to agree with him. You don’t even have to like him. He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the centre of the bastards who did this to you.”

But presidential preferences among these Expectation Gap voters is more complicated than Moore might have expected. Voters who believe in the American Dream and still have it in sight are a big part of how Trump won in the U.S. And there are just as many of this type of voter in Canada as in the U.S.

Clinton’s coalition brought together people with very different experiences—those who achieved the dream, those who gave up on it, and those for whom it is a very distant aspiration.

Here in Canada, the Liberals’ election message was very much focused on the idea of helping middle-class voters achieve their dream. But it’s harder to be seen as delivering on promises than to make them in the first place. Today, Liberal support peaks among the Dream Achiever and steadily declines in the Struggler segments. The Expectations Gap creates the same risks for Liberals in Canada as it did for Democrats in the U.S.

Greg Lyle is the founder and president of Innovative Research Group Inc., a national public opinion research firm with offices in Vancouver and Toronto.

The Hill Times

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