Many, if not most, Canadians cringe at jokes referring to their country as the 51st state. But if it were true, Sen. Barack Obama could count on picking up plenty of extra votes.
Although the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate is strongly favored by Canadians over presumed Republican candidate Sen. John McCain by 55 percent to 15 percent in a recent Harris/Decima poll, Mr. Obama has already set off hostile political sparks in Canada with his protectionist comments on oil and other issues.
In contrast, Mr. McCain went to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, to announce his plans to boost U.S.-Canada trade and cooperation.
One explanation for the mystery is that when looking south, Canadians tend to think with their hearts more than their pocketbooks, according to some analysts.
Canadians historically have favored Democratic presidential candidates over Republican candidates.
But Mr. Obama’s comments about reopening the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico brought a rare, pointed rebuke from Canadian officials.
Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said that if America wants to change the pact for its purposes, Canada “would want to put on the table how we deal with energy issues, oil, natural gas issues” that guarantee U.S. access to Canadian supplies.
Former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Derek Burney has said, “Canadians need to get over their love affair with Democrats” because protectionist sentiments are running high in America.
In his Canadian stopover, Mr. McCain called for expanding free trade and taking a multilateral approach to global issues and showed his sensitivity to Canadian sacrifices in the war in Afghanistan, all in an attempt to distinguish himself from Mr. Obama.
“For all the successes of NAFTA, we have to defend it without equivocation in political debate because it is critical to the future of so many Canadian and American workers and businesses,” he said.
“Canada is America’s largest energy supplier,” he said, and “60 percent of the energy produced in Canada is hydroelectric, clean energy. We stand much to gain by harmonizing our energy policies, just as we have gained by cooperating in trade through NAFTA.”
In contrast, Mr. Obama’s comments suggesting that as president, he may limit U.S. imports of so-called dirty oil from Alberta’s tar sands prompted slap shots from Alberta’s officials.
Gary Mar, a spokesman for the Alberta government, said the province has one of the cleanest oil-recovery programs in the world and is spending $2 billion on programs to reduce carbon emissions from its oil and gas fields.
Ross Laver, spokesman for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, said that no matter who wins the U.S. election in November, Canadians want their government to work cooperatively with the new administration on issues ranging from improving the flow of goods and services across the border without jeopardizing security to environmental goals.
CIBC World Markets economist Avery Shenfeld said it’s “hard to imagine” any American leader would try to re-negotiate NAFTA after all the economic integration and with the challenges North America faces from other international trading blocs.
Mr. McCain “sounds more free trade than the mixed message we hear from Obama,” Mr. Shenfeld said.
However, Mr. Shenfeld’s biggest concern is not American political rhetoric but American economic recovery.
“Canada needs the U.S. economy to get moving again,” he said, adding that it’s “questionable” whether either candidate can prevent a prolonged economic slump up north.
Dale Orr, chief economist at Global Insight Canada, is one of the rare contrarians forecasting a slowdown in American economic growth but not a recession. Despite falling house values and rising prices and job losses, America’s forecasted 1.6 percent economic growth for 2008 will outpace Canada’s 1.2 percent, Mr. Orr said.
The two main factors behind America’s positive growth are its rising exports as a result of the weaker U.S. dollar and President Bush’s economic-stimulus package, which added 0.4 percent growth, Mr. Orr explained.
“A prosperous Canada means a more dynamic and resilient American economy,” Mr. McCain told the northern neighbor, adding that as president, he would work “to expand those ties of friendship and cooperation between our two nations.”
But one can readily speculate that for Canadians, American elections are more about entertainment than serious politicking.