US & Canada

US election 2016: What Canadians make of it

Justin Trudeau Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Canada has a new leader... the US will have one too

It was not long ago that Canadians had their own game-changing election, when Justin Trudeau swept the Liberals to an unexpected victory last October. But now they are fascinated by an election going on next door.

While many Americans have threatened to move to Canada if the candidate of their choice loses, Canadians are certainly paying attention to the US election.

This will come into sharper focus when Mr Trudeau pays a visit to the White House for talks and a state dinner with President Barack Obama this week.

So what do Canadians make of this wild, unpredictable 2016 US election season?

Is the US experiencing Trudeaumania?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption News about Mr Trump has dominated the election

Donald Trump dominates the coverage

For many Canadians, there's a simple lack of understanding about what is happening in the US, said Rafael Jacob, a researcher who focuses on American politics at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

In Canada, most media attention on Mr Trump focuses on his more outlandish comments, and there is very little discussion regarding the substance of his positions, said Mr Jacob.

"There's really an amazing level of puzzlement with what's actually happening," he said. "People can't believe it."

But most people aren't concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency, even though some of his positions would have a direct impact on Canada, like his opposition to free trade and to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr Trudeau's government has signed onto.

People realise Mr Trump isn't terribly concerned with Canada - when asked if he would build a border wall with Canada the same way he's proposed doing with Mexico, he said no.

Mr Trudeau has not taken a stand in the election either, though he has said he is watching it closely.

"I'm not going to pick a fight with Donald Trump right now. I'm not going to support him either, obviously," said Mr Trudeau at a recent town hall with Huffington Post Canada.

22 things that Donald Trump believes

Canadians in the middle

Politics is not as polarising in Canada. Some observers said Conservative Stephen Harper's loss to Mr Trudeau was because his positions moved too far to the right after nearly 10 years in office.

Bob Plamondon, a consultant and author who has written about Canadian history, said he puts competency above party politics.

He said he was so distressed about the state of the US election he tried to donate money to Republican candidate Marco Rubio and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"I was prepared to make a contribution on the basis of a safer and more prosperous world," he said. "But then I looked up the laws, and because I'm Canadian I'm not allowed to donate."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Polar but not polarising

In Canadian leadership contests, not many parallels can be drawn to what's going on in the Republican party now, he said.

But Canadians are fascinated by the political drama unfolding over the border, both for their own self-interest and for the entertainment.

"It's such a remarkable, reality-TV like experience, like watching a train wreck in slow motion," said Mr Plamondon. "It's theatre of the absurd. It's hard to imagine that a mature, developed democracy of the world's most important and strongest nation has deteriorated to such nonsense."

Some Canadians do see some virtue in Donald Trump, but his level of popularity in Canada would likely be a lot lower than the faction he has "exploited" in the US, said Mr Plamondon.

And on the Democratic side, the reality is a bit shocking, too.

"If you told me six months ago a self-confessed Democratic socialist from a small state with a campaign further left than anything a liberal would fathom was running against Hillary Clinton... I'd be not as astonished as I am over Donald Trump's rise, but it's a close second."

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Media captionDivided US split into 'alien tribes' who increasingly live in ideological isolation

This goes on for how long?

Americans have been talking about the 2016 presidential election for years now, while 2015 saw the longest-ever Canadian campaign - only 78 days.

The length of the US election, and its cost, has raised eyebrows in Canada, with Mr Trudeau saying the US should address "the role of campaign financing".

In Canada, there is a cap on individual campaign donations and no corporate or union donations are permitted.

Canadians may see the long US election process as a "spectacle" and an interesting but drawn-out affair, said Peter Loewen, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

But Mr Plamondon sees some advantages to the American way.

"The reason I like it is that it engages a large swath of the population and not just a particular special interest," he said.

"That's a weakness in our system since party candidates at the local level in Canada are often selected simply because they can turn a few hundred people out to a meeting."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Trump has challenged Ted Cruz's ability to run for president since he was born in Canada

A Canuck Ted Cruz?

Canada has popped up a lot in the campaign, but not about trade or borders.

Mr Trump has repeatedly accused his Republican rival Ted Cruz of not being eligible to run for president because he was born in Canada, even threatening to sue him over it.

Mr Plamondon called the Canadian issue a "joke".

"Imagine if an American diplomat had a baby while overseas... Would this disqualify them from high office? I thought Donald Trump made a fool of himself as leader of the birther movement," he said.

Long before the 2016 election cycle, Mr Trump questioned President Obama's American-born credentials as well, demanding to see his birth certificate.

"I think it registered among the politically engaged as a nice irony that after eight years of questions about Obama's eligibility, now someone genuinely born outside America was going to be the Republican standard bearer," said Mr Loewen.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many doubted Rob Ford, but he became the mayor of Toronto

The Canadian Donald Trump

In 2010, Toronto had its own unlikely mayoral candidate who many laughed off - and then he won.

But Americans shouldn't take the comparison between Rob Ford and Donald Trump too far, said Mr Loewen.

"There are some similarities between Rob Ford and Donald Trump," he said. "But for all of Rob Ford's foibles, he never, ever tried to appeal to base racism and ethnocentrism."

Mr Ford admitted to smoking crack cocaine while in office - and a video later emerged which showed him threatening to kill someone.

"There was this sense that these things would be the end of Rob Ford, but they actually increased his support," said Mr Loewen. "The more outrageous an act, the more popular he would become."

In the US, the political and media class has long expected a stumble to bring the outspoken Donald Trump down, but it has not happened.

"The stakes are a bit lower in Toronto," said Mr Loewen. "The mayor is not responsible for putting together a multi-trillion dollar budget."