Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday September 18, 2021
This was no ordinary election campaign, but perhaps not ‘important’
If the polls are to be believed, we have all just wasted five weeks of our lives. An election that, in law, should never have been called, the reason for which has never been adequately explained, limped through a listless campaign on track to producing a Parliament remarkably like the one it was supposed to replace. The “most important election since 1945,” according to Justin Trudeau, might as well never have happened.
Compare the most recent polls (at time of writing) to those taken at the same stage of the previous campaign. The similarity is striking: The Liberals and Conservatives are again in the low 30s, with the NDP at around 19 and the Bloc at a little over six. The seat projections, likewise, look eerily familiar: The Liberals are projected to win about 150 seats, the Conservatives about 120, the NDP and the Bloc about 30 each. Only on the margins has there been much change: the Greens have lost half of their support, while the People’s Party of Canada have tripled theirs.
But. Well, there are lots of buts. National polls mean little: to really get an idea of what’s going on, you have to drill down into the regional figures. Polls are snapshots, not predictions: Much could change in the last days of the campaign. And the polls are often wrong. Turnout is an especially difficult thing to model: Are Conservative voters more motivated than Liberal? Will NDP voters show up? Are PPC supporters so angry they will crawl over the proverbial broken glass to vote, or so alienated that they will not bother?
So much for where we are – how did we get here? At the start of the campaign, each of the party leaders faced their own personal and strategic challenges. For Mr. Trudeau, the personal challenge was his faded popular appeal: Once the Liberal Party’s most significant asset, he had become its most significant liability, under the accumulated weight of broken promises, ethical lapses and sundry other controversies. The party led all polls going into the election, some by double digits. But the leader trailed the party.
The strategic challenge, as for any Liberal leader, was to win the “progressive primary.” A substantial majority of Canadians might be described as left of centre. But their vote is divided among several parties, with no enduring loyalty to any of them. In 2015, many of those voters were drawn to the Liberal side by a youthful, charismatic leader and a positive vision of change; in 2021, they would have to be frightened into it, as the party best placed to avert the dread prospect of a Conservative government.
For Erin O’Toole, personal unpopularity also presented a challenge: His precampaign approval numbers were even worse than Mr. Trudeau’s. A year into the job as Conservative Party Leader, people still did not know much about him, but what they did know they didn’t much like.
His strategic challenge: Conservative support has a high floor and a low ceiling. Where Liberal support can range anywhere from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, the Conservatives can reliably count on winning at least 30 per cent of the vote, but have difficulty getting beyond 37 per cent or 38 per cent. Only once in the past eight elections, in 2011, have they managed it.
To remedy that, Mr. O’Toole needed to shift the Conservatives from an angry, grievance-based party, more concerned with turning out its existing supporters than reaching out to new ones, into one that could attract centrist voters. The aim was not just to expand the Conservative vote, but to distribute it more efficiently: fewer votes wasted racking up huge majorities in the West, more going to win those tight races in suburban Ontario and Quebec.
That meant presenting the Conservatives as a safe, inoffensive choice, largely indistinguishable from the Liberals ideologically, but with a less polarizing leader. (In Quebec, where votes divide on different lines, it meant pitching the Tories as a more pragmatic version of the Bloc: nearly as nationalistic, but with more ability to “deliver the goods.”)
The catch: people might believe that about Mr. O’Toole. But would they believe it about his party? For Mr. O’Toole, in short, the problem was his base; for Mr. Trudeau, it was him. (Continued: Andrew Coyne, The Globe & Mail)