OTTAWA — The trajectory of Campaign 2021 turned on three things: guns, gravel and “GOTV” — the Liberals’ “get out the vote” machine
They delivered a Liberal minority on Monday. But while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have just pocketed his third victory, party insiders now privately admit it should have been a smoother path, acknowledging that the final days of the federal election campaign were a nail-biter.
At one point, Trudeau’s team was staring down seat projections that put it in the range of 140 or even lower — potentially enough to govern as a minority, but far fewer than the 155 seats the Liberals held when the election was called five weeks ago.
It was a stomach-churning time.
Trudeau gave no hint he was worried. He looked like he was enjoying himself, wading into crowds, crouching like he had all the time in the world to listen to a homeless busker on the streets of Trois-Rivieres. Mike Thompson offered to sing for the prime minister: “Elvis Presley, Beatles or Johnny Cash?”
Elvis it was. Trudeau grinned broadly when Thompson strummed and crooned “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The campaign had hit the home-stretch. The air wars were all but over.
That’s when the Liberals’ ground game — that Conservatives privately acknowledge has become superior — kicked into high gear.
Digital ads were pumped out, volunteer resources were shifted around, and Trudeau went on a tear through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec, back to Ontario, and then back and forth across the country, as the leader’s tour steered into tight races to motivate local workers, and to push seats into the win column.
This is a story of what went wrong and, in the end, what went right inside the Liberal campaign, and where his main rival’s bid to unseat him failed.
Liberals say two campaigns played out after the dissolution of Parliament: an August campaign, which they lost, and a September campaign, which they won.
“It’s the old Mike Tyson quote, right? ‘Everybody’s got a plan till you’re punched in the face.’ So we got punched in the face early on,” a senior Liberal strategist admitted. “And then it was, ‘Okaaaay.’ Different campaign than we maybe we were anticipating. Kind of a regrouping happened.”
The punches? The things the Liberals did not foresee — world events, a Conservative campaign primed to hit the hustings, and how anti-vaxxer anti-establishment protesters would upstage all parties on COVID-19.
Trudeau chose the day the pandemic election would be launched knowing full well he faced voter anxiety, anger and ambivalence.
But the Liberals did not foresee that the government of Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban on that very day. The chaos that ensued played out in the media for days.
That complicated Trudeau’s job of explaining why he wanted an election now, a problem made worse by his failure to frame a clear question for the electorate in the early days of the campaign.
Would the election be about COVID-19 or a post-COVID recovery? Was it about child-care deals? Was it about moving more aggressively on climate change? Or was it centred on health care? Affordability and housing? Racism and reconciliation?
It would soon become about all of those issues. But his political opponents also made it about him, and his “unnecessary” and “selfish” election call — attacks that persisted right up until election day.
Rail as they did against the Liberals’ election call, the Conservatives had been ready to go with a plan they’d been working on since not long after Erin O’Toole became their leader last August.
He’d made it clear that, in the next election, he was going to show Canadians a different Conservative party.
That would involve everything from replacing much of the party’s senior staff, and retooling its data gathering and voter ID systems — including hiring overseas firms to identify potential sources of new voters — to deploying a set of new policies that took the Tories far more to the centre than offerings past.
It was all wrapped up in a platform branded as belonging to O’Toole himself, with a photo of him splashed across the magazine-style cover — a flashy approach that raised eyebrows immediately, considering the Tories’ long-standing attacks against Trudeau as being nothing but a celebrity.
A senior O’Toole official told the Star they knew the approach would be provocative — “Conservatives don’t like change” — but it was time to shake things up to get people’s attention.
The broader point was to have a policy plan ready to swat away any Liberal attack but also hammer the Conservatives’ narrative that they were ready to lead.
The Liberals did not anticipate O’Toole would unveil a detailed platform on the campaign’s second day. It took Trudeau two weeks to recover his momentum.
The Liberals also did not expect what ultimately became political gifts to their struggling campaign — that O’Toole would not insist on mandatory vaccinations for his own candidates during a fourth wave of COVID-19, or that the Conservatives would make key policy reversals.
What the Liberals exploited most, however, was a vulnerability they saw in O’Toole’s platform — a commitment to repeal a gun control bill and a cabinet order in May 2020 banning assault-style weapons. He promised to conduct a review of the firearms law with participation “by law enforcement, firearms owners, manufacturers, and members of the public.”
Trudeau went into a French-language televised debate on Sept. 2 determined to flush him out.
When the moderator pressed Trudeau on an unfulfilled promise to ban handguns, the Liberal leader pivoted to the Tory platform and invoked the exact gun used in the Ecole Polytechnique shooting. O’Toole countered that he would not repeal a ban on assault weapons, and tried to pivot back to the question of eradicating illegal firearms.
If he thought that would settle it, he was wrong.
The next day in Montreal, O’Toole unveiled his policy on gang violence, but it was lost amid questions about how he could say one thing in the debate and another in his platform.
For days, he offered no clear answers. By Sunday, under pressure, O’Toole confirmed that he had reversed his platform position, declaring a Conservative government would uphold both the gun control bill and the cabinet order.
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“We were told it meant we could say we have the same approach as the Liberals but still keep a promise to review the whole program,” said one Conservative candidate, speaking confidentially to discuss campaign strategy. “But that made no sense.”
O’Toole had been polling as high as 36 per cent support ahead of that weekend. He began to see his numbers drop and a voter base he’d already annoyed by pivoting to support carbon pricing grow even more irritated.
But it was gravel that would goose Trudeau’s campaign up another notch.
There had already been protests at his events. In Richmond, B.C., someone brought a dead fish to greet the Liberal leader. Anti-vaxxers spread word of his travels on encrypted online chats.
On Aug. 27, in Bolton, Ont., things ratcheted up. Dozens of demonstrators met the Liberal bus with middle fingers extended, shouting Nazi references and profanity.
The campaign cancelled the event due to safety concerns. Trudeau quickly shifted to stage another event at a Brampton park, the stomping grounds of former MP and campaign co-chair Navdeep Bains who hustled up Brampton candidates. Against a backdrop of kids playing baseball, Trudeau doubled down on the need for mandatory proof of vaccinations for federal workers and passengers on airlines, railways and cruise ships.
The Conservative party had condemned a handful of party workers who’d taken part in one of the protests. But Trudeau’s message was suddenly in the spotlight the way it hadn’t been before.
“Bolton was a turning point for us,” said a senior campaign organizer.
Another strategist said it served to crystallize the Liberal message, for party workers, candidates and voters.
Days later, another group of protesters in London, Ont, many unmasked and carrying signs supporting Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, confronted Trudeau. Someone flung stones at him. Every party leader condemned the ugliness.
As the campaign’s final three weeks ticked down, there were other important moments.
The televised English-language debate had little impact on English Canada’s vote preferences, but it threw a huge wrench in the gears of the Quebec campaign.
On Sept. 9, Premier François Legault expressed his wish for a Conservative minority, and a moderator called out Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet to explain how he could defend “discriminatory” laws in Quebec. That inflamed francophone passions, and fired up what for the BQ had been a lacklustre campaign.
Conservatives and Liberals scrambled as voters shifted to the Bloc Québécois, which was now claiming to be the only champion of Quebec. Had the Liberals not lost ground then, organizers are convinced they’d have picked up six or seven seats.
“In Quebec, it really knocked the wind out of our sails,” said one.
The Conservatives tried to regain some of their own momentum in the province by bringing out former prime minister Brian Mulroney alongside O’Toole. That move drove a day’s worth of excited political coverage in Quebec, but again annoyed the party’s Western flank, which saw the presence of a former Progressive Conservative leader as a deliberate poke in the eye to Harper-era Conservatives.
What ultimately allowed the Liberals to survive further losses to the rising BQ was the strength of the GOTV effort.
Honed over three elections and drawing heavily on the approach developed by the team that helped elect Barack Obama, the Liberals’ voter-identification, fundraising and volunteer-based get-out-the-vote machine helped deliver 158 seats on Monday — many more than the projection of 140 or fewer that had shaken the confidence of some near the campaign’s end.
It made a difference in Fredericton, where Liberal Jenica Atwin’s victory was confirmed Wednesday. The former Green MP, who defected to Trudeau’s party last spring, won 37 per cent of the vote, squeaking past her closest competitor, Conservative Andrea Johnson, by little more than one percentage point.
It made a difference in British Columbia, where the Liberals fought hard in three-way races with the Conservatives and NDP. In the end, Trudeau won 15 ridings in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, including West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, where incumbent Liberal Patrick Weiler beat not just a former Conservative MP who was well-known, but also Avi Lewis, the NDP’s “star” candidate and son of party elder statesman Stephen Lewis.
The Liberals say the GOTV effort was not some black magic, or a secret micro-targeting scheme. On election day, it simply came down to a massive mobilization of human resources.
“Over and over again, the data shows us the most compelling, the most reliable ID and the most compelling motivator to vote is a volunteer on the doorstep,” one strategist said.
A good example? Aurora- Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill, where Liberal Leah Taylor Roy took 44.9 per cent of the votes to defeat Conservative Leona Alleslev, who got 42.4 per cent.
In 2015, Alleslev had won the riding — as a Liberal — with 47 per cent of the vote. After crossing to the Tories, she had won in 2019 with 44 per cent.
There was no doubt the riding would be as close this time around, but Alleslev — and many in the party as well — said they were taken aback by how hard the Liberals would campaign to win it.
Trudeau and a series of cabinet ministers appeared in the riding to support Taylor Roy. As Alleslev tried to focus on the Tory platform, she was confronted on doorsteps about guns and vaccinations, and she struggled to explain the Conservative positions.
“I was fighting a local and national campaign,” she said in an interview.
Another complication? The People’s Party of Canada. Its candidate won 1,672 votes in the riding. Had all those votes gone to Alleslev, she may have won.
Trudeau’s bus arrived in Alleslev’s riding for the last time on the Saturday morning before election day, while O’Toole was in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge area. It was the third event Trudeau had done with Alleslev’s opponent in 24 hours.
Hopping back onto the bus, Trudeau cracked jokes to his old friend Bains, the campaign co-chair, who was along for a ride that would see the Liberal team hit seven ridings in a GTA sprint that day. “He was in a very reflective mood and had tons of energy,” said Bains, “and he was cracking jokes in between them.
“I was, like, ‘Boss take a rest. You don’t need to entertain me.’ But he was in very good mood.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevit–
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