Rahim Mohamed: When big diasporas meet big data
The relentless pursuit of an "optimized" vote is skewing our politics
By: Rahim Mohamed
Data analytics have upended virtually every field over the past two decades — from professional sports, to show business, to retail sales. Politics is no exception.
In the age of spreadsheets and scatterplots, competitive elections have been recast as a ruthless quest for “vote optimization.” It’s now standard operating procedure for campaigns to employ in-house analytics teams to scour datasets for the most “efficient” groups of voters to target (i.e.: swing voters who live in swing ridings). Even seasoned political operatives have adopted the language of campaign analytics in recent years.
Take, for instance, backroom veteran Gerald Butts, who gushed about the Liberal party winning re-election with a historically low share of the popular vote in 2021.
“What you see here is a long-term optimization trend, or a response to political market forces,” Butts wrote on X/Twitter. “We count seats, not votes, so smart campaigns focus on delivering them.”
“Vote efficiency isn’t accidental,” Butts added in a follow-up tweet, tipping his hat to lead party data scientist Thomas Pitfield and his “unsung team of super geniuses.”
Over the past decade or so, the Liberal party has led the pack in ushering the “analytics revolution” into Canadian politics, gleaning a good deal of technical know-how from the Obama-era Democrats. (Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign was one of the first to effectively leverage social media platforms like Facebook for the microtargeting of voters.) Through the Trudeau years, the Liberals have built an internal culture that is highly data driven — party mandarin Katie Telford, for example, is reportedly known to open meetings with the question “What’s your number?”
It's not hard to see where new Canadians fit in the Liberal party’s analytics turn. The party’s come-from-behind victory in 2015 was propelled by an especially strong showing in parts of the electoral map with large concentrations of immigrants and first-generation Canadians. The Liberals notched wins in 24 of Canada’s 29 most immigrant-heavy ridings that year, compared to just seven of these ridings in the 2011 federal election. All told, the Liberal campaign overperformed in these ridings by a margin of 30 per cent, versus their overall seat share.
Much of that result, of course, can be attributed to the Conservative campaign’s disastrous “barbaric cultural practices” proposal. Still, whatever help they may have had due to Conservative error, the Liberals were already working hard to win over micro-targeted new Canadians for several reasons. Being newer to Canada, they generally lacked a strong generational attachment to any one political party. Many, if not most, new Canadians maintain a strong emotional connection to their respective homelands (and often a stake in that country’s internal politics). As such, parties can make niche, cultural and foreign policy-based appeals to these groups that pose little risk to their standing with the rest of the electorate (i.e.: promising to recognize a historical atrocity committed against an ethnic group). Moreover, ethnic media channels give parties substantial bang for their buck in reaching potential swing voters. Major cultural festivals like Diwali and Caribana loom large on political calendars for similar reasons.
Conservatives have also long adopted this strategy; Jason Kenney was once considered the sine qua non of ethnic outreach, for example. Party leader Pierre Poilievre has noticeably upped his own tailored appeals to ethnic communities of late. Speaking at a Pakistan Independence Day event last month, Poilievre endorsed the burgeoning parental rights movement, telling interviewers with the Mississauga-based Awaz Entertainment, “My view is that parents should be the final authority on the values and the lessons that are taught to children.” Poilievre doubled down on this message with a tweet defending the parents who took part in last week’s 1 Million March 4 Children.
Just a few months ago, Poilievre declined to weigh in on the controversy surrounding New Brunswick’s Policy 713 on gender identity in schools, deeming it a provincial matter. Poilievre’s more aggressive tone on parental rights is likely reflective of the issue’s potential upside with various high-value ethnic communities. Muslim Canadians, in particular, have been highly visible in the movement’s leadership, organizing a number of anti-gender ideology protests over the summer. The Liberals, who were the preferred choice of over six-in-10 Muslim voters eight years ago, now find themselves on the defensive with the very same community.
Ethnic groups are, of course, free to organize and seek to influence policy like anyone else. But things can take a dangerous turn when these communities turn their attention to foreign policy (often with an eye to “righting” historical wrongs). Case in point, much ink has been spilled in recent weeks explaining how the Sikh separatist Khalistan Movement has thrown a wrench into Canada-India relations.
Sri Lankan Tamils are another diaspora community who have sought to leverage their votes to sway Canada’s bilateral relationship with their homeland. While the ethnic group makes up just 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s domestic population, there are more than a quarter million Tamils in Canada (of whom 200,000 live in the GTA). The community has aggressively pushed for Canada to come to the aid of Tamil fighters in their homeland, memorably shutting down Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway in 2009. Tamil activists have also pushed for Canadian officials to de-list the Tamil Tigers — a group implicated in the murders of two heads of state (one of them an Indian prime minister) — from the federal government’s list of known terrorist organizations. In 2022, the House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion to make May 18th Tamil Genocide Remembrance Day, a move that predictably rankled Sri Lanka’s government. (Whether wartime atrocities committed against Tamils constituted a genocide remains an unresolved question). Parties were clearly more concerned with the Inner Suburbs than the Indo-Pacific when the motion was raised.
In a recent feature for The Globe and Mail, former Trudeau government foreign policy advisor Omer Aziz revealed just how heavily electoral considerations have influenced the administration’s dealings with foreign governments. “What I saw in government was how Canada’s ethnic domestic battles were distorting our long-term foreign policy priorities,” wrote Aziz. “This was especially true within internal Liberal party politics, meaning that we could hardly focus on foreign policy and strategy without factoring in which ridings might be lost because a certain group might be upset.” Aziz laments that he all-too-often witnessed Liberal politicians “pandering in lowest-common-denominator ways in B.C. and Ontario suburbs,” and, recklessly, “playing up ethnic grievances to win votes.”
Even as the entire pundit class decries “diaspora politics” in the wake of the Nijjar affair, there’s little policymakers can do to wrest this problem, short of changing the electoral system. (Ironically, Justin Trudeau promised that the 2015 federal election would be the last to use first-past-the-post voting. It wasn’t, as readers may recall.) The incentives embedded in our electoral system push parties to “optimize” vote efficiency by isolating small pockets of high-value voters and crafting niche appeals to win them over. These incentives aren’t changing so long as the rules of the game remain the same.
Canada’s diaspora politics problem is part-and-parcel of analytics-boosted partisan “vote optimization” strategies. Barring institutional reform, it will only get worse as campaign technologies become more sophisticated.
Rahim Mohamed is a writer and political commentator based in Calgary. His writing has appeared in The Hub, the National Post, and Ottawa Citizen, among other outlets.
Update: Rahim Mohamed has asked The Line to append this note to his column, and we have agreed. The note reads: “The author is aware of the response to this article’s framing of the diplomatic row over the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. He stresses that his intention was not to take sides in the dispute, but to convey that separatist sentiment, in some corners of Canada’s Sikh community, has long been a point of contention in our bilateral relations with India. He stands by the wording he used in the article.”
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