Running without a party’s machine behind you creates many hurdles for independent candidates. Former MP Jane Philpott got an inside look.
Local campaigns are understudied in Canada compared with national politics. In particular, we know relatively little about the unique challenges faced by independent candidates — those not endorsed by a registered or eligible political party. In 2019, Jane Philpott (a co-author of this article) was one such candidate. A cabinet minister in the Liberal government, she resigned from cabinet in light of the SNC-Lavalin affair, and sought re-election in 2019 as an independent. The story of her campaign is the story of the challenges plaguing independent candidates in their attempt to convince citizens to look beyond political parties when they vote.
One reason there are few independent candidates in Canada is that electoral success is elusive for them. From 1980 to 2019, only seven independents won a seat in the House of Commons. Generally, successful independents are those running for re-election directly after a severed relationship with a party. Moreover, party candidates have several benefits that independents do not have during a campaign.
Although we talk about an election as a single event, in fact a Canadian federal election consists of 338 simultaneous local contests. As such, the local campaign is an important hub of activity during elections. Given the importance of parties in both legislative and electoral politics, most candidates in Canada are party candidates, nominated to represent a given party locally. Of the approximately 2,100 candidates who ran in the 2019 election, more than 94 percent were party candidates.
Particular challenges for independent candidates
Every independent campaign is different and reflects unique local dynamics, although an independent occasionally attracts national media attention, as Philpott did when she resigned from cabinet. Nonetheless, her primary task as an independent was no different from that of any other candidate: to convince local voters to prioritize the local candidate over other options.
However, independents face challenges that party candidates do not. Simply put, political parties matter in Canada. The importance of local campaigns and candidates pales in comparison with that of the national campaign and party leaders when it comes to voter decisions. Data from the 2000 election reveals that even though 44 percent of voters formed a preference for a local candidate, the candidate was a decisive factor for just six percent of voters in English Canada. Parties and their leaders provide important information shortcuts or cues to voters about ideology and policy positions. Moreover, they command media and public attention.
The biggest challenge for an independent can be trying to convince voters that he or she would be able to represent them effectively. Parties dominate the legislative process. The ability to participate regularly in Question Period and sit on committees is related to being a member of a recognized parliamentary party (those with at least 12 MPs). An independent campaign needs to communicate consistently that voters would be well served, even without party backing.
As a “high profile” candidate, Philpott had many advantages that helped to offset these challenges. First, she was an MP seeking re-election. Incumbents have name recognition, direct ties to the local community, resources associated with their position as an office-holder and potentially a greater ability to raise campaign funds. Moreover, incumbents have political experience as well as the ability to claim credit for projects in their ridings. Research shows that incumbents have a 9.4- to 11.2-percent increased probability of winning compared with non‐incumbents and they are more likely to benefit from a personal vote separate from the party or the leader.
As a former minister, Philpott also had considerable name recognition, experience and political clout. Moreover, the circumstances under which she became an independent brought national attention.
In the 2015 election, she was elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for the Ontario riding of Markham-Stouffville. She served in numerous cabinet positions, including minister of health, minister of indigenous services, president of the Treasury Board and minister of digital government. In March 2019, she resigned from cabinet, citing a loss of confidence in the government’s management of the SNC-Lavalin affair. She was expelled from the Liberal caucus in April 2019, after which she served as an independent and sought re-election in the October 2019 election.
Philpott benefitted not only from nationwide media attention, but also from the practical advantages that a high-profile candidate can bring to a campaign: such candidates tend to attract more volunteers and donations than their counterparts, and Philpott’s campaign was no exception (see below). And yet, despite these advantages, her bid for re-election was unsuccessful — a testament to the difficulty of overcoming the hurdles all independent candidates face.
Her Liberal party rival (a former provincial minister) won the seat with 38.9 per cent of the vote. Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general who was at the centre of the SNC-Lavalin affair and another prominent independent candidate, was the only independent to win a seat — the first to do so in more than a decade.
Anatomy of an independent campaign
Before launching a campaign, all candidates need to craft a solid policy platform. This is one area where party candidates often have an advantage. While some local party candidates develop policy planks, especially for local issues, for many, policy and messaging decisions are made by the central campaign. Parties also provide resources, including templates for brochures, websites, lawn signs, and access to voter contact data/management systems. Independents, on the other hand, must develop policy positions on their own.
Voters in Philpott’s riding expected her to have policies in hand when she spoke to them at the door. To that end, she developed and published policy statements on her blog for a dozen key issues, including climate change and electoral reform. This was time-consuming but necessary to convince voters that she would be an effective representative on key issues.
There are upsides to developing one’s own policies. While it is more work, independents have more control over the communication of their policies. They can have more authentic conversations with voters. Moreover, party candidates may be hamstrung in cases where their party’s policy planks or campaign techniques are incompatible with local priorities.
Philpott launched her campaign in May 2019 at a press conference that was timed to coincide with a similar announcement by Wilson-Raybould. While canvassing, or door-knocking, is a central aspect of any ground campaign, Philpott and her team aspired to attempt one-on-one conversations with every household in Markham-Stouffville to appeal directly to voters. Before the writ dropped, the campaign had reached 14,000 doors, and by Election Day, the team had reached 60,000 door knocks. Volunteers also made around 15,000 phone calls with voters. These were not robocalls, where a pre-recorded message is delivered via a computerized autodialer, but rather personal calls with voters.
Philpott and her team describe this as a “high-touch campaign”— one in which talking with people in person or by phone was paramount. While they also used digital technologies, including a website and social media, canvassing was the central communication method, delivered with the help of more than 400 volunteers.
This approach was made possible by the high number of volunteers Philpott’s campaign attracted, due to her high profile. Her campaign had significantly more volunteers than the typical candidate, and twice the number of volunteers she had in 2015. Philpott also had an extensive campaign team.
Fundraising is another area where her campaign had advantages that most other independents lack. Electoral law favours party candidates; independents cannot provide receipts that are eligible for a tax credit for donations received before they are an official candidate, whereas registered parties, including constituency associations, can. Some local campaigns, especially in the case of a high-profile candidate or a competitive race, also benefit from money from the national party.
While fundraising can thus be problematic for independents, it was not an impediment for Philpott. According to Elections Canada, the spending limit for Markham-Stouffville was over $119,000. Because of her national profile, Philpott raised well above that. Fundraising was so effective that her campaign shut down receiving donations. Flush with cash, Philpott’s campaign was significantly easier to operate than that of other independents. Her campaign paid for the use of the U.S.-based data management system NationBuilder, which was used for the campaign website, tracking in-person and phone contacts with voters, and analyzing email contacts. Unlike most local campaigns, her campaign was also able to conduct opinion polling.
Philpott was the subject of intense media attention throughout the campaign. Research shows that the Canadian media focus on the national campaign, especially party leaders, with little attention to local campaigning. Yet Philpott was featured in media across the country in both the pre-campaign and during the writ period. While the campaign was committed to meeting with all local media, the media attention was so great that Philpott had to decline many national media opportunities.
Despite all of these advantages, Philpott was unable to convince local voters to take a chance on an independent. She came in third place, behind both the Liberal and Conservative candidates. It is worth noting, too, that Philpott and Wilson-Raybould were both exceptional independents: together they obtained 43 percent of all the votes cast for independents in 2019. By contrast, the remaining 84 independent candidates each averaged less than a percentage of independent votes. Despite the success of Wilson-Raybould, Philpott’s story reminds us of the challenges independent candidates face — not that it was up for debate, but it reminds us of the importance of political parties in shaping the electoral preferences of Canadians.
This article is part of The Insider’s View Behind the Scenes of Election Campaigns special feature.