It was around 10:30 last night -- just half an hour after the polls closed -- that Canadian TV anchor Lloyd Robertson first broached the question of who would be replacing Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.
This was Dion's first election as leader, and probably his last. His party bled support in almost every province. More than 20 of the 97 seats they controlled in the 308-seat Parliament fell to their Conservative rivals. The incumbent Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, emerged from yesterday's vote within shooting distance of the majority he needs to pass legislation without having to reach across the floor. It was bad day for the Liberals, and it may foreshadow what is to come here in the States on November 4th.
In Canada, parties are conveniently named after their vague ideological direction. The Conservatives are rough equivalents of the Republicans -- social conservatives allied with economic libertarians. The Liberals are center-left or center-right, depending on the country's mood -- they're the party that ushered in gay marriage and almost decriminalized pot, but they can't always count on the labor vote, which often goes to the left-wing New Democratic Party.
Not to say that Dion is Barack Obama, or Harper is John McCain. The comparison to Obama is more aptly made to Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor of human rights turned politician who has been criticized for his cold stare finger-wagging intellectualism. He's likely to succeed Dion. And Harper's got none of the raw spontaneity of McCain -- he's a stolid bureaucrat, who's been trying to write a book about professional hockey.
But what makes me look at Canada as a possible bellwether for the American election is the fact that the same major issue came to dominate both campaigns: the impact of the global financial crisis. Although Canadian banks have been far less exposed than Wall Street's finest, Canadians know they ride in America's passenger side. A recession is on its way, like storm clouds on the horizon.
When Harper called the election six weeks ago, he was hoping to earn a majority. It was a bit of gamble -- Canadians are still wary of Harper's brand of conservatism, but he's tried to govern moderately. He lowered taxes and resisted the urge to repeal gay marriage. The election was Harper's to win, or to lose. At first Dion ran, by some accounts, one of the worst campaigns in decades, but when the crisis hit, he found his second wind. In the debates, Dion seemed to address Canadians' fears, while Harper seemed indifferent to them.
Then, in a televised interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Peter Mansbridge--Canada's Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw and Charlie Gibson all rolled into one--Harper tried to soothe fears by saying, "there's probably some great buying opportunities emerging in the stock market as a consequence of all this panic." It was the gaffe to trump all gaffes. Globe & Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson called the line "among the worst boners ever," and said it would "go down in Canadian political lore."
The polls began to show a tide moving against Harper. Some began to speculate about a Liberal minority government. Harper backtracked, but it seemed too late. Apparently not. Last night, he picked up 20 seats. When Dion gave his concession speech after midnight, he had a lump in his throat.
While the pundits here in America have been speculating about the Bradley effect and how white working class voters in West Virginia might not be willing to admit they won't vote for a black President, and others have been musing that soccer moms in Ohio might not admit that they will, there's another question worth asking: whether or not McCain's gaffes in this crisis -- and they are too numerous to list -- have really changed anybody's mind.
It will probably take more than a handful of gaffes being looped continuously on CNN for most Americans to reconsider their votes. Polls may tell us otherwise, but polls only skim the surface, and may pick up passing moods. This election may ultimately be decided by the slim number of undecideds that held America hostage for several cycles. And frankly, anybody still undecided at this point is about as predictable as a weather vane. Even if they make up their mind before election day, they'll probably change it three times in the voting booth. You might as well flip a coin.
A lot of people are waiting for Obama's coup de grace. Given the desperate tone of McCain's campaign, you'd think American voters would be for Obama by a landslide. Maybe he'll be able to close the deal with them tonight in the debate. But if not, don't be surprised if election day brings a surprise or two. If Canada -- that liberal bastion -- can vote for a conservative government, so too can America.