With Election Day looming, the Liberals and Conservatives are basically stalemated. The uncertainty of the outcome and the momentum changes are gruelling for those involved in the campaigns. I cannot help but channel my own past experiences and think of the various psychologies that must be at work in the war rooms and among grassroots supporters.
For the Liberals, about a week before the election call, they had the jaunty bounce of those who read positive poll results and gleeful reports of their opponents’ demise. The pundit/Twitter consensus dictated that a majority was to be had, that the Conservatives were “in trouble”, and that the Liberals should “go now” to “get a mandate” – all of this very enticing.
Who knows whether there were voices inside the room that expressed caution, advocated for going earlier, or later. In the days leading up to the August 15th election call, Afghanistan was careening out of control. It’s hard when you have set out a campaign plan, signalled to the world that this is your intention, then face the prospect of pulling back from your plan when the plane is almost in the air. At some moment, the Liberal campaigners must have considered whether the election call should be postponed. But the hawks prevailed.
I can relate to that. The Liberal campaign team has been through the wars. A pitch-perfect come-from-behind win in 2015, a jarring 2019 re-election effort that was preceded by the JWR / SNC Lavalin controversy, blown sideways by blackface, followed by the onslaught of COVID, social movements of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter”, and the sorrow unleashed by the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School. They have collectively faced a lot of situations in elections and in government, and Afghanistan was the latest in a long list. Camaraderie, loyalty, and trust is built through tough and challenging times. Plus, let’s face it, Justin Trudeau is a political unicorn – he is a brand unto himself. Every Canadian has an opinion about him, love him or hate him, and when you have that ability to command attention, it’s very unique. The braintrust was undoubtedly confident in him, themselves, and pushed on.
We know now the Liberals did not get their campaign off to an auspicious start, facing a hotter than usual national media corps that had Afghanistan on split screen, demanding to know “Why now?” The Liberals didn’t give a good answer. Immediately, some conjured up ghosts of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals of 1990 who called a summer election at the seemingly high heights of his powers only to suffer a humiliating and decisive defeat to Bob Rae’s NDP.
What is clear that two weeks into this campaign, the Liberals had an increasingly sticky problem. Voters were shifting, particularly in Ontario. Some excited pollsters proclaimed the Conservative “freight train” was on its way to a majority. Pretty bold. In the Liberal war room, confidence and experience could well have translated into slower reaction to events unfolding around them. However, with confidence and experience, the ability to marshal resources to turn the campaign in another direction could make for a major impact. That brings about memories about past campaigns like 2004 when Paul Martin entered the campaign period as the odds-on favourite, but was pressed hard by upstart Stephen Harper and the newly re-united Conservatives. David Herle, Martin’s campaign manager, spoke on his podcast Curse of Politics about hitting the panic button in 2004 when Liberal polling numbers dipped below 30%. The old plan was thrown into the garbage and a new plan was drawn up. Martin’s Liberals rallied, went negative, dug up some primo opposition research, and formed a minority government.
I was involved in the B.C. election campaign in 2017 where our team was stocked with experience and had an ample supply of confidence. The start of this federal campaign was eerily familiar. A flat start followed by (speaking for myself) a slow-to-realize reckoning about what was happening. The voters were moving with their feet while our campaign heads were up in the clouds. We scrapped and fought to get back on a better footing, but every time we made a step forward, or had a plan we thought would work, we had a setback to stall us. We simply could not pull away from our competition nor could they pull away from us. Similar feeling in 1996 in B.C. where we were way ahead, then we were way behind, and caught back up to even. For the final two weeks, we could not generate momentum and neither could our competition. That feeling you are looking for is when, no matter what you do, it comes up roses, is Momentum. The campaign office buzz gets louder. Everyone is walking faster, with more urgency. Lawn signs fly out of the office. I can only imagine that the second and third weeks of this campaign were challenging for the Liberals – they didn’t have that feeling. They were imploring support, rather than receiving it.
What about the Conservatives? I have been involved in and seen campaigns where there was no faith in the campaign team, the leader, or any prospect of victory. It really comes down to a key distinction – does the campaign team and leader believe in themselves, or is the effort truly doomed?
On the eve of the election call, the Conservative campaign was roundly crapped on for running a juvenile social media ad that was a takeoff of a scene from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What were they up to? The political intelligentsia pounced on the perceived amateurism and a Conservative MP was compelled to call out his own national campaign team (never a good sign). Meanwhile, the video got over a million hits. Whether the Conservatives were playing 4-D chess or screwing around is beside the point. The team could have fallen apart amidst caucus and internal discord. Instead, it looks like the Wonka controversy served to reinforce the Conservative campaign’s “us against the world” mentality.
The internal infighting is often the result of insecurity and not believing in the plan as grassroots supporters are influenced by media commentary. There’s nothing that rankled me more than to hear defeatists. “We should try to save our core seats” was a common refrain. My uncle, a WWII veteran, not to mention a candidate for Pearson in ’65, talked about those who got “hemorrhoids on their way to Halifax”, meaning some people weren’t really up for a fight. Or you hear complaints about the campaign team not being up to the job. In fact, I read about my job performance in the Vancouver Sun one day: “some Liberals must be wondering whether McDonald is over his head in this campaign”. I’m sure the columnist had been hearing from a few Schadenfreudians. There’s a lot of them when you’re losing, but they are hard to find when you win.
You gotta ignore the whispers, even when they’re loud, because battle-scarred politicos know that anything is possible. If you have been around long enough, you have seen it happen. I was part of efforts that were more like comets than campaigns – Sharon Carstairs’ Manitoba breakthrough in 1988, Gordon Wilson taking the B.C. Liberals from obscurity to Official Opposition, and watched from afar as Justin Trudeau went from third to first in 2015, and, last month, Nova Scotia’s PC’s taking power after being leagues under water months earlier. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. How many more times does that need to be proven? Most pundits and media experts play it safe. They stick to the consensus. Smart politicos understand and have a pulse for voters and know that they can move quickly, decisively, and sometimes imperceptibly, especially during the writ period. Erin O’Toole and his campaign team likely believed, and likely still do, that they could win. Smaller parties, like the NDP, the Greens, and the Peoples Party cling to the hope of anything is possible as well. Need I say it? Campaigns Matter!
As the campaign moved through its first week, the Conservatives would have been feeling good. They launched successfully, including a smooth platform unveiling. While the Liberals stumbled, Erin O’Toole had a clear path to introduce himself to Canadians. The Conservatives were doing some things differently – the platform, charting a path for middle ground, and communicating and touring in a new way. Likely, they were feeling, “Our plan is starting to work.” They were probably feeling that on the ground too. As the first week rolled into the next, the public polling numbers were creating an environment that Conservative prospects were being taken more seriously, which made the Liberal call of the election a bigger story. Had Justin blown it? A nice run of momentum started to unfold that must have felt like uncharted territory. Who knows what Conservative internal polling numbers showed, but public poll numbers are avidly read by grassroots supporters and the 99% of headquarters staff that don’t see the closely guarded internal tracking. Things were looking up! The Conservative inside voice: “Do we dare to dream? Are we allowed to have nice things?”
Many campaigns go through phases, which makes sense. As one party gets the upper hand, the main rival normally does everything in its power to push back. In situations where a government has been in power for a long time, it’s harder for an incumbent government to push back when ‘time for a change’ is in the air. It has to be compelling. As much as the national media has its inherent biases, they like a big story more. Justin Trudeau blowing the election is a big story. An exciting horse race is a bigger story than a dull pre-determined outcome, like the Chrétien re-elections in 1997 and 2000. With Conservatives on the rise, and Liberals on the ropes, what’s gonna happen next? Is this the end of Justin, or will he prevail again? Stay tuned for more!
The Liberals have amped up the attacks and found one that seemed to hurt – on guns. Frankly, I’m not even sure of the details of the issue. All I heard was that the Conservatives had a policy, and they flip-flopped mid-campaign. That is never a good idea. It’s a tough spot – they likely felt they were taking water in urban and suburban ridings that they targeted for victory in the GTHA and Metro Vancouver, and among attainable younger and female voters. They must have come to believe that they could not persevere with the current policy so decided to course-correct. One wonders how that decision was made, on what timeline, and who was in the room? Was it decided by ‘committee’, were they forced by candidates threatening to speak out, was it a Leader directive? Whatever the case, it created a new problem – a perception that the Leader is a flip-flopper when under pressure. They may have believed their plan would work and talked themselves into it, perhaps without getting an outside read on it. Whether or not voters even care about the gun issue or how the Conservatives responded, it will be having an effect on the Liberal war room by putting wind in their sails, and on the Conservatives who may have the sinking feeling that they were outfoxed by the Liberals on an attack that they had to know was coming. They should have been able see that big red missile from one coast to the other.
In 2013, the BC Liberal campaign seized on a mid-campaign flip flop by the NDP leader. Similarly, it was an issue that everyone could see coming but the NDP tried to finesse it. The narrative became not that issue – oil pipelines – but leadership. The leader was a weathervane.
We are at that point now in this election where it’s truly up for grabs – everyone knows it – with the final French language debate followed by the lone English language debate. By the time the leaders walk off the stage on Thursday night, it’s a ten-day sprint to final voting day.
The debates are high stakes. My first campaign in 1984 was as a lowly, yet devoted young Liberal in no-hope riding. John Turner was a very admirable leader with an impeccable record of public service. Yet, he took on the leadership at the tail end of an almost-uninterrupted 21-year run of Liberal government- and he was rusty. In that year’s election debate, Brian Mulroney delivered a devastating critique of Liberal patronage appointments. The election was over that night, though it limped on for weeks. In 1988, the rematch debate delivered a different thunderbolt when Turner delivered a passionate, patriotic attack on Mulroney over Free Trade. The effect was immediate and the Liberals rocketed to the top of the polls after starting the campaign in third and withstanding an attempted leadership coup. However, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had time on their side and wheeled against the Liberals with a furious negative onslaught, prevailing on election night.
In 1991, I attended the B.C. Leaders debate as part of a motley crew of Liberal campaign volunteers. Leader Gordon Wilson strutted around the small CBC dressing room, bare chested, focusing on his breathing exercises, and astutely disregarding the scattershot advice being tossed at him by me and others. He knew what he had to, and he delivered the most memorable line in B.C. election debate history. That debate blew up the campaign and led to the end of the Social Credit Party. I was learning early in my political life that debates matter and how they could turn the psychology of campaigns upside down.
I never had fun watching a debate after 1991. Henceforth, my party was expected to win and no longer a plucky insurgent. Debates brought stress – even when I had nothing to do with the preparation. I could barely watch. When things went well, we cheered, and when things didn’t go well, we rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes you had those “uh oh” moments. Thinking back to provincial debates over the years, I don’t recall many dramatic moments – I just remember a lot of careful preparation undertaken by the debate teams and the pressure on the leaders.
When I directed the 2013 BC Liberal campaign, I had little to do with debate prep. It was not my strength and certainly not my happy place. We had a great team of advisors that thought through the content, the camera angles, and how best to rehearse. But I do remember watching the debate and feeling good and feeling proud of our team and our leader, Christy Clark. It was exactly how you want to feel at a seminal moment of the campaign. Then what followed was that feeling of momentum, not just in my bones, but in our nightly tracking. The debate was a big factor in our ultimate success.
Debate night must be a moment aspiring leaders imagine for years. Other than election night, it is probably the most exciting moment of the campaign, especially when there are fireworks. This is Justin Trudeau’s third election, and Jagmeet Singh’s second. Erin O’Toole is the newcomer. Their relative experience in debates will flow into their leaders’ teams. How to protect against over-confidence? How to build up under-confidence? How to get the leaders in ‘the zone’? And uncluttered. A common problem with leaders is that they are over-scheduled. Have their teams found the right balance to let the Leaders rest, think and prepare, amidst a frenzied election campaign? Have they settled on their final debate strategy or are they spitballing until the stage lights turn on?
The French language debates are over and on English language debate night, thousands of campaign volunteers will be watching every moment and the psychology of their respective campaigns will be impacted by how they feel their leaders performed. In fact, the campaigns will tell their volunteers how their leader performed. “We won!”. Polls will be generated to show they won. A furious spin war will be waged with edicts to grassroots supporters to share, tweet, Instagram, TikTok, phone, doorknock, and telepathically transmit that their leader won the debate.
That’s where this story ends for now. The final ten days will be a roller coaster ride for all campaigns. Their hopes are invested in their leaders and in themselves. At the centre of it all is two campaign war rooms that are vying to govern. The Liberal team, is no doubt, facing the Conservative challenge squarely in the eyes now, and drawing upon its collective experience and confidence in order to prevail, while exhorting supporters to stay true and steady in order to beat off the surprising Conservative challenge. The Conservative team is thirsty for a win, yearning for its taste from the goblet of victory, made sweeter by the doubters, while keeping at bay the nagging feeling, nurtured by past defeats, that it could fall out of their grasp just when it seemed victory was so close.