Just completing a week of instruction at the University of Montreal Summer School on U.S. politics, I am astonished and impressed to see the level of interest of Canadians ,and particularly Quebecers ,for U.S. Presidential politics. In 2008, Canada was as caught up in the classic Obama – Clinton primary battle as many Americans were. The stakes on U.S. – Canadian interests and issues were not at all the concern. The contest and the candidates is what captured the attention.
To understand this phenomenon, it is important we go back to the beginning of the television age in Canada in the 1950’s. Our national network, CBC, would regularly include coverage of both party conventions in an election year. This is how we got to know about Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy and their epic battle. No such coverage of our campaigns would ever be considered north of the border by U.S. television networks.
When President Kennedy won election in 1960, interest peaked for this first-ever telegenic president. We wanted a Kennedy of our own. And who can forget November 22, 1963? Canadians were glued to their television sets, and shared the tears and the sorrows over the tragedy in Dallas. Since then, the interest for who will become the President of United States has never wavered. The rise of Barack Obama and the nature of the campaign in 2008, however, brought it to new heights.
Why is it important to follow the various election cycles in the U.S.? Despite the attractiveness of some candidates and appeal of American political campaigns, we cannot be insular to events and issues affecting our closest neighbor, friend, and principal commercial partner. The most powerful nation on the planet sits on our border.
We know that an economic recession is bound to have repercussions on consumer demand, investment, and jobs in Canada. Moreover, the events of 9/11 and their implication left no one indifferent north of the border. After all, any decision to go to war by the U.S. cannot be seen as an isolated event. If you recall, the Canadian government supported the actions in Afghanistan, but opposed those in Iraq.
Do Canadians have preferences when it comes to a U.S. election cycle? Again, Canadians are not indifferent. It is fair to say that Canadians since the 1960’s share greater affinities with the Democratic Party and Democratic Presidents following the tragic assassination of JFK. Many of my fellow countrymen like and admire JFK, Bill Clinton and now Obama. All three have large and sympathetic followings north of the border. Besides, many of their policies find resonance in our country.
What about the GOP? Do we not have a Conservative party in power in Canada? The Republican Party since the 1960’s has moved progressively to the right and that explains certain reluctance by Canadians for the Republican candidate. Even Ronald Reagan was not a highly popular figure in Canada. In a country that can be characterized as more left of center than right of center, Canadians have consistently shown a greater preference for the election of a Democratic President. Actually, polls in Canada show Obama the most popular politician in Canada! However, this may change in the future .
Actually, it is quite unique to see this constant preference for the Democratic Party when Republicans have shown greater openness on trade matters than their counterparts. The Free Trade Agreement of 1988 was a deal between Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Republican President Ronald Reagan, and the North American Free Trade Agreement was largely negotiated between Mulroney and Republican President George H.W. Bush before they left office.
As we approach the fall election showdown between Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, rest assured that Canadians will follow it closely, and opinion surveys are already indicating a clear preference for the incumbent President.
Once the outcome is known, it is fair to assume that the person in the White House will matter less because our common interests and divergences on issues will then become the focus in the relationship. However, come the next election cycle in 2016, Canadians will once again turn to the campaign coverage and have a favorite candidate, irrespective of the stakes and the interests involved. At the end of the day, we just love U.S. presidential politics.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.