Rahim Mohamed: Is Andrew Yang a cautionary tale for Pierre Poilievre?
Andrew Yang went from topping the polls to working the Bitcoin conference circuit in the space of a year.
By: Rahim Mohamed
It may be hard to believe, but the race to crown the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is now well into its third month. If there is one clear takeaway that can be drawn from the campaign so far, it’s that one candidate, frontrunner Pierre Poilievre, has dominated social media.
By any metric, Poilievre’s social media presence dwarfs that of the other candidates in the race. He boasts nearly 340,000 followers on Twitter and more than half-a-million on Facebook. By comparison, none of his opponents has cracked six-figures on either platform. Poilievre’s personal YouTube page, which houses a growing library of hundreds of videos, has garnered over 39 million views since it was launched in 2011. As digital advocacy guru Cole Hogan tweeted earlier this month, “if you’ve watched Canadian political content on YouTube, you’ve seen Pierre Poilievre”.
And Poilievre has not just lapped his opponents in terms of quantity. The contrast between the polished, professional content that his digital team consistently puts out and the amateurish social media fare offered by the other candidates could not be more stark. Earlier this week, the Poilievre campaign released this excellent five-minute video targeting housing affordability, filmed on-location in Vancouver (the world’s third most unaffordable housing market). The video drew praise from unlikely corners of the Twittersphere. For instance, left-leaning Washington Post Canadian politics correspondent David Moscrop quote-tweeted the video, adding; “God I hope you lose but you’re onto something here.”
Poilievre has strategically highlighted issues that appeal disproportionately to the “very online.” For instance, housing policy is a preferred topic of conversation among the aging millennials who dominate YIMBY Twitter — many, ironically, tweeting from their parents’ basements. He has also embraced cryptocurrency; promising to make Canada the “blockchain capital of the world” and purchasing a shawarma with Bitcoin at a recent campaign stop in London, Ontario.
But before he uncorks the champagne, Poilievre would be prudent to take heed of lessons learned the hard way by another social media darling: failed New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang.
Fresh off a breakout performance in the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Primaries, Yang set his sights on the Big Apple, launching his bid to become the city’s mayor in January of last year. Armed with nationwide name recognition, more than a million followers on Twitter, and a dedicated army of social media foot soldiers dubbed the “Yang Gang,” Yang was immediately tipped as the mayoral race’s frontrunner.
Much like Poilievre, Yang campaigned on a package of policies popular with technolibertarian netizens. His headline campaign promise was to deliver $2,000 a year in guaranteed cash to the half-a-million poorest New Yorkers — a downsized version of the $1,000-a-month universal basic income (UBI) he pushed as a presidential candidate. Yang, a former tech executive, has pitched the UBI as a mechanism to offset job losses created by automation. (The UBI has many influential backers in Silicon Valley, including billionaires Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg). Yang also promised to make New York City “a hub for [Bitcoin] and other cryptocurrencies” as the city’s mayor.
Yang was the race’s de facto “anti-lockdown candidate,” holding in-person events from the opening days of the campaign and committing to an aggressive plan to reopen New York City (despite contracting COVID himself less than a month into the campaign). Poilievre, who took selfies with anti-vaccine mandate protestors earlier this year and routinely draws large, maskless crowds to his indoor campaign events, occupies a similar space among Conservative party leadership aspirants (although he is joined there by social conservative Dr. Leslyn Lewis and a handful of less well-known candidates).
Yet despite the early buzz, Yang puttered through a gaffe-filled campaign before finishing a distant fourth in the June 2021 Democratic mayoral primary, garnering 12 per cent of first-round votes and getting shut out of all five of the city’s boroughs.
How did it all go so terribly wrong for the seemingly insurmountable Andrew Yang?
To start with, the New York City mayoral race isn’t just any municipal election. New York is best understood as a modern city-state consisting of over 8.5 million residents spread out across five culturally distinct boroughs. Nearly one million New Yorkers voted in the Democratic primary alone (for context, just over 175,000 ballots were cast in the last Conservative Party of Canada leadership vote). Media attention is a nice thing to have, but winning is generally a question of which candidate can organize the most effectively at the borough and precinct level.
Primary winner Eric Adams (now mayor of New York) entered the race as a long-serving borough president for Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough. This gave Adams a built-in base of support in the city’s most vote-rich area (Adams won his home borough by 10 points and over 25,000 votes).
Adams, an ex-police captain, also capitalized on a springtime spike in murders and other violent crimes, promising to bring law and order back to the city. The New York City electorate’s shift in favour of more resources for policing is one of the most vivid examples of the “Twitter is not real life” phenomenon in recent memory.
By contrast, Yang failed to connect with large, organized pockets of voters. Black residents, who make up over 20 per cent of the city’s population and vote in disproportionately large numbers, made up less than five per cent of the districts won by Yang. Yang also fared poorly with Latinos, who comprise over a quarter of the city’s population. Yang, who grew up just outside of New York City, was ultimately undone by a lack of grassroots support within the city itself.
What can Pierre Poilievre learn from Andrew Yang’s failed mayoral run? Much like the New York City mayor’s race, the outcome of the Conservative party leadership vote will likely be determined by how well each of the leading candidates can appeal to large, organized blocks of voters. While Poilievre has shown that he can fill venues across the country, how do his voters align with the Conservative party’s major voting constituencies — the people who actually show up to cast a ballot? This could be his downfall.
Social conservatives have historically been the most influential group of voters in Conservative party leadership races. The last two winners, Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer, both needed second- and third-place votes from social conservative candidates to seal the deal; social conservatives were also instrumental in making Stephen Harper the first leader of the Conservative Party of Canada back in 2003.
For now, Poilievre is united with social conservatives in his staunch opposition to vaccine mandates and continued COVID lockdowns. However, if the last two summers are any indication, COVID restrictions are likely to fade from voters’ minds over the next few months as temperatures rise, people spend more time outdoors, schools let out for the summer, and transmission rates (hopefully) fall once again. The timing of the leadership vote, which will take place on the Saturday after Labour Day, may be bad news for Poilievre if he hopes to ride lockdown fatigue to victory.
While Poilievre has dominated the airwaves, Leslyn Lewis, the lone holdover from the last leadership race, has quietly consolidated support on the Prairies, and has begun to inch her way into socially conservative tilted parts of western Ontario and British Columbia (she drew a packed house in Kelowna earlier this week). Lewis appears to be playing nice with Poilievre for now, but could very well go negative against the frontrunner in the months to come. Poilievre, who is pro-choice and has called same-sex marriage “a success,” is vulnerable to such an attack on his socially conservative bona fides. Moreover, his pledge to “make Canada the freest country in the world” leaves him with little wiggle room on matters relating to reproductive and LGBT+ freedoms — he can’t exactly promise to curtail either without violating this pledge.
Poilievre is, in fact, the only one of the race’s “top-four” who does not have a large, organized base of supporters to draw first-place votes from. Patrick Brown, who leads Canada’s most heavily South Asian city as the mayor of Brampton, Ontario, could be a factor if he can mobilize the sizeable South Asian communities that surround Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and other major cities. Brown has astutely been targeting immigrant and racialized groups that lean conservative ideologically but have been disengaged from “capital-C” Conservatives since the party lost power in 2015.
Jean Charest, who served as premier of Quebec for nearly a decade between 2003 and 2012, should have enough juice left in la belle province to comfortably pick up a handful of ridings there. Charest also enjoys a substantial amount of goodwill in the Maritimes, Canada’s last bastion of Progressive Conservatism. The voting system used to determine the party’s leader awards each electoral district 100 points; a quirk that gives disproportionate weight to districts with smaller numbers of card-carrying Conservatives. This could be good news for Charest, given his strength in Quebec and Atlantic Canada (the two parts of the country where the Tories have fared the worst in recent federal elections).
Frontrunner Pierre Poilievre’s social media dominance and packed events have undoubtedly been the story of the campaign so far. However, elections are won and lost on the ground — especially elections where voting is restricted to members of a single party. If Poilievre is unable to leverage his social media presence to win the favour of the large, organized groups that will determine the race’s outcome, he may suffer the same fate as Andrew Yang, who went from topping the polls to working the Bitcoin conference circuit in the space of a year.
Rahim Mohamed is a visiting assistant professor of international studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com