NEWS
11/08/2016 17:28 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

Canadian election watchers stunned as Donald Trump keeps it close

OTTAWA — Donald Trump's mid-evening surge in the bitterly fought U.S. election campaign was coming as a sharp surprise to election watchers in Canada.

A tweeted photo showed Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne bantering with a U.S. diplomat at an election watching party at the U.S. consulate in Toronto. "Just explain Florida to me," the tweet said.

At the U.S. Embassy's viewing party at Ottawa's historic Chateau Laurier hotel next to Parliament Hill, guests were riveted to live television coverage showing Trump's gains not only in Florida, but the key swing states of Ohio and Michigan.

One woman covered her mouth and turned away from the screen. Another said, "Oh no!"

It was in many ways proving to be a fitting end to the angry and hard-fought presidential battle between Trump, the brash businessman-turned-improbable Republican nominee, and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, who aspired to become the first female president in U.S. history.

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman predicted a smooth transition regardless of who wins.

The hotel ballroom was festooned with red, white and blue balloons and bunting, along with video screens showing live CNN coverage and a rolling Twitter feed.

Heyman intently watched the returns on a large screen standing next to a large board showing a map of the U.S. Electoral College.

"Having gone through the day, watching Americans coming out all across the country in record numbers and seeing the large number of votes that were in early, I'm very relaxed," Heyman said earlier in the evening, before results began coming in.

"One of the things we have to be most proud of is the smooth transitions in our government."

Early results saw Trump claim victory in Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia, while Clinton won Vermont. Polls also closed in North Carolina and Ohio, each expected to be among the night's most competitive races.

 Given the narrow race, a definitive result was still a long way off.

Fen Hampson, the head of the global security program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said Trump's success was reminiscent of the "Berlusconi effect," a reference to the former Italian leader Sylvio Berlusconi.

"Nobody said they supported him but he kept getting elected," said Hampson.

He said the election was still too early to call, but the "bottom line is it is a much closer race than anyone expected."

Melissa Haussman, an American-born Carleton University political science professor, said she was completely surprised by Trump's success in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio.

"(It) looks like Trump could in fact win this," she said.

Retired Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, who commanded the NATO force that backed rebels fighting Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, called it a historic night that Canadians would be watching closely.

"We wish them the best and we wish them a peaceful transition," said Bouchard, who served at NORAD in Colorado Springs and other U.S. postings during his Canadian military career.

If either candidate wins Florida or Pennsylvania, they would likely be unstoppable. Trump likely needs Florida, along with Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, and either Michigan or Pennsylvania. Neither of the latter two have voted Republican in decades.

Canada, of course, is far from a disinterested observer.

Some scathing electioneering from Trump has alarmed Mexico, Canada's other North American free partner, because of Trump's sharp anti-trade, anti-immigration rhetoric.

But unlike Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has made no secret of his concern about a Trump presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has striven to remain above the fray.

"Any responsible government is looking at what various consequences could be for Canadians, for the Canadian economy, of various measures or various policy positions that the potential next president of the United States - our largest trading partner - might take. That's simply responsible," Trudeau said late last week while waving off a question about Tuesday's outcome.

"I'm going to have faith in the American political process and reassure Canadians that I will work with whomever gets elected to continue to defend Canada's interests and grow our economy."

One Canadian official, who was not authorized to discuss the election publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity, described a Clinton win as "same old, same old" when it comes to Canada's foreign-policy priorities.

Should Trump manage to pull out a victory, Canadians can take some measure of comfort in the fact Trump apparently has a lot of respect for Justin Trudeau and his international celebrity status, added the official, who has spoken to the Trump campaign about the prime minister.

"They think he's a showman.... They respect his success."

It helps matters that Trudeau has steadfastly refused to get drawn into the acrimony south of the border.

"You've noticed how careful our prime minister has been," the official said. "I think that was smart... You don't ever know."

Laura Dawson of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington said one of the biggest headlines for Canadians in the event of a Trump win — renegotiating or tearing up the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — would in all likelihood never come to pass.

''All of those (companies) are going to be lined up saying, 'Are you kidding me? Do you know how much of our livelihood is dependent on open borders and trade between these three countries?' she said.

"If you were to impose a 30 per cent tariff on Mexico, the economic impact would be immediate, swift and would represent even more job losses for the United States."