Trudeau-mania hits Toronto

Most people have pegged the shocking results on one man: Stephen Harper. Here are a few other ideas.

What happened?

In politics, as in life, the simplest explanation — although beguiling — is not always the best one. So, too, the interminable Canadian general election of 2015. No single thing can account for a change this big. “Big” is the only way to describe what transpired during the nearly 80-day campaign and its culmination on election night.

When compared to 2011’s debacle, the Liberal Party of Canada increased its share of the vote by more than 4.1 million — an improvement of 60 per cent. When also contrasted with 2011, the New Democratic Party shed nearly one million votes.

There was an impressive and welcome improvement in voter turnout, nearly 70 per cent — the highest it has been since 1993.

Many, many seats changed hands, principally benefitting the Liberals — they took nearly 90 from the Conservatives, and almost 60 from the New Democrats.

In the House of Commons, the extent of the changes is seen most dramatically: the Conservatives have assumed the spot held by the New Democrats; the New Democrats have been consigned to the lonely Commons perch once held by the Liberals; and, of course, the Liberals have vaulted to the lofty heights of government.

It all reflects what we saw during the writ and pre-writ period, with every one of the three main political parties having occupied the first, second or third spot in voters’ affections. For more than a year, Canadian voters were comparison shopping and moving around in a way that we had not seen before. At various points, each of the candidates, Messrs. Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair, was considered the best choice for prime minister — and then summarily discarded.

Why? As noted, although embracing a single, pithy explanation for it all is seductive, it probably isn’t the best way to approach an event as immense and as multifaceted as election 2015.  But a few observations can be made — three in particular, one for each of the parties.

The NDP: Collapse

One million votes: that is what Jack Layton achieved in 2011, and that is what Thomas Mulcair lost.  He lost those votes and the NDP’s coveted official opposition role for myriad reasons.

Chief among them — Mulcair did not win the debates. In an era where few voters still watch these televised contests, this should not have been fatal. But for Mulcair, it was. Ottawa-based journalists — the ones who still cling to the false notion that Question Period is relevant — were enthralled by the NDP leader’s prosecutorial style and his ability to hold the government to account. They spared no glowing adjective and predicted that Mulcair would win every debate. But he did not: his style was affected and condescending. He seemed phony.

The NDP also ran a low-bridge, front-runner campaign when their front-runner status was anything but certain. When an aspiring leader is always playing it safe, it gives wings to the notion that he or she is arrogant or has a hidden agenda or both. Paradoxically, taking no risks is in itself a risk. The NDP took none.

Finally, Mulcair embraced the losing electoral strategy of Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath and Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow: he moved to the right. In his mad dash to get to the centre, he left behind his bewildered core vote, who accordingly wandered over to the more progressive Trudeau Liberals.

In Toronto, the NDP were accordingly eviscerated: Olivia Chow humiliated by former councillor Adam Vaughan; star candidate Linda McQuaig, trounced by a Grit political newcomer; an impressive activist and thinker like Jenn Hollett bested by a less-noteworthy Liberal candidate.

It was ugly.

The Conservatives: Harper-endum

In the days since election 42, it has become conventional wisdom that the result can be reduced to a single cause: everyone hated Stephen Harper, and everyone voted to get rid of him.
As mesmerizing as this rationalization may be, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The numbers tell the tale: the Conservative Party shed only 50,000 votes between 2011 and 2015. In percentage terms, they dropped by less than a single point. That is all.

Although many Canadians may have professed to detest the departing prime minister, his core vote did not and do not.

Through serial scandals, the one-third of Canadians who self-identify as Conservative did not give up on their man. Unlike progressive voters — who are highly promiscuous and flit, butterfly-like, between the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens — the Conservative bedrock remained with Harper.

His principal problem was that he was a prime minister who had been in power for a decade — and every prime minister becomes unpopular after a decade.

Harper had held on to his loyalists, but he could not acquire new ones. In election 2015, poll after poll registered the same result: only a miniscule number of voters indicated the Conservative Party was their second choice. To win again, Harper needed to grow his vote by six or seven more percentage points. But he could not and did not.

The Liberals: Undersell, overperform

Justin Trudeau won, mostly because he adopted Jean Chretien’s well-known maxim: he undersold, but he overperformed.

In this regard, the Liberal leader was greatly assisted by his opponents. Their research had clearly shown them that Trudeau was seen by the electorate as too young and too inexperienced and therefore a risk. The New Democrats and the Conservatives accordingly spent untold millions on ad campaigns to exploit this vulnerability.

In one extraordinary bit of political symmetry, the Tories and the Dippers came up with nearly identical anti-Trudeau ad campaigns in virtually the same week in August.

Just prior to the dropping of the writ, the Conservatives commenced aggressively promoting their ubiquitous “just not ready” theme about Trudeau, and the New Democrats debuted advertising stating that “Justin Trudeau just isn’t up to the job.”

The CPC and the NDP didn’t land on the same strategy by chance: their quantitative and qualitative findings had shown them it would hurt Trudeau. And for a time, it did.

The “just not ready” and “just not up to the job” attacks also produced an unexpected result. 

They lowered expectations about Justin Trudeau so low that he could not help but exceed them.

In debates, in media encounters, at rallies and on the hustings, Trudeau did far better than any of us had been led to believe he would. The campaign, which went on for week after interminable week, assisted him, too: he literally grew as a candidate within it.  

The Justin Trudeau who started the campaign was not the one who ended it.

These, in the end, are the three most plausible explanations for what happened in election 2015. The NDP tried to be something they weren’t; the Conservatives could not acquire new friends; and the Liberals were grossly underestimated.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO