Federal election 2021: A campaign marked by failure and frustration
by Stewart Prest, Lecturer, Political Science, Simon Fraser University
Just about every campaign strategy attempted by the mainstream parties to attract new supporters has failed.
The Canadian federal election campaign has been frustrating for voters and parties alike. Just about every campaign strategy attempted by the mainstream parties to attract new supporters has failed.
The first failure came before the campaign had even begun. Riding high in the polls over the summer, the Liberals decided to risk an election less than two years after the last vote in order to lock in that support.
In theory, it was a justifiable gamble, as a number of other incumbent governments, including in several Canadian provinces, had won solid victories in pandemic-era elections. It didn’t go as planned, however. The Liberals have been dogged for much of the campaign by a crucial question they seemed to have had no convincing answer to: Why have an election now?
Liberal rough start
From the start, the Liberals tried to make COVID-19 management a ballot box issue. The prospect of a federal vaccine mandate, in particular, emerged as a favourite potential wedge issue. Trudeau focused on the issue during remarks on the opening day of campaign.
In theory, this seemed smart given how incumbents had been rewarded when associated with strong COVID-19 responses. The execution was a failure, however, as a quickly removed government memo on the Treasury Board Secretariat website led to questions about just how comprehensive a Liberal vaccine mandate could be.
The party responded, but the damage was done. By the end of the first week, some observers concluded that the Liberals and Conservatives weren’t very different on the subject — or that the differences between them weren’t clear enough to constitute a defining campaign issue.
For much of the initial weeks, the campaign continued on in a similarly listless fashion; by the end of August, the Liberal lead had vanished.
In the closing days of the campaign, the Liberals appeared to be inching ahead of O’Toole once again. The explanation of that turnaround, however, is as much a story of others’ campaign failures as it is of Liberal success.
For their part, the NDP campaign plan was simple: keep issues general and attack Trudeau whenever possible. The NDP tried to use leader Jagmeet Singh’s popularity to insulate him as he and the party attacked the prime minister relentlessly in ads, on the campaign trail and in the leaders’ debates. The goal clearly was to woo disillusioned Liberal supporters to the New Democrats.
And, to a point, the strategy seemed to work.
However, any weakening the Liberals experienced failed to turn into much additional NDP support. Though Singh remains personally popular, the party has largely treaded water throughout the campaign, with support almost unchanged since the start.
The NDP was in part hampered by a maddening tendency to talk in generalities about policies that were in theory quite popular, but were sufficiently novel that people would not vote for without more detail.
The most egregious example was perhaps the housing graph without axes, but that moment was emblematic of a larger problem. If voters conclude a party is afraid its policies will be less popular with greater specifics, they will be unlikely to vote for something new and different. Ultimately, it was another failure of execution.
Of the three major parties however, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives took the biggest gamble of all by trying to reinvent the party on the fly and move to the centre of the political spectrum. Had it worked, O’Toole might have been on the verge of becoming prime minister. Unfortunately for him, however, his gambit also seems likely to end in failure.
Following a 2019 campaign in which the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) failed to break through in urban Canada, it seems clear O’Toole concluded the party would never win without moderating its policies in order to win over urban voters, who tend to care about different issues than their rural counterparts.
Accordingly, the Conservatives under O’Toole took climate change more seriously than under his predecessors. They also proposed policies designed to appeal to working-class Canadians, including on seemingly un-Conservative issues like labour representation.
But this moderation carried considerable risk if it failed. And much of it happened quickly, in the course of a single five-week campaign. Indeed, the party’s positions evolved throughout the campaign; in its final days, for instance, O’Toole suggested the Liberal carbon tax might continue under a Conservative government.
While many Canadians may approve of such moves in principle, sudden policy reversals make it hard to figure out what the Conservatives truly stand for. The reversals are also at odds with the views of many in the party who regard climate change and climate action with skepticism. The rapid transformation makes O’Toole look opportunistic.
The PPC and the Jason Kenney effect
O’Toole’s shift to the centre may have alienated a significant wing of the party — one that he courted in order to win the leadership — and didn’t endear him to traditional Conservative voters. Indeed, those alienated Conservatives may help to explain what could be considered the biggest surprise of the 2021 election: the growth in support for the People’s Party of Canada’s (PPC).
The PPC has articulated a position that will never win a majority of support in Canada, but nonetheless resonates with a significant minority of Conservative voters. In opposing vaccine mandates in favour of individual choice, the party opted for a stand that a clear majority of the country has rejected. But it’s nonetheless one that a vocal minority fiercely supports, as seen by the ongoing anti-vax protests across the country.
Ultimately, it’s a strategy that won’t win any elections, but it will gain support, siphoning voters from the CPC and creating new problems for O’Toole’s Conservatives.
One final failure must be considered to fully understand the national scene as Election Day dawns: namely, the catastrophic failure of the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) COVID-19 recovery plan in Alberta.
Premier Jason Kenney, an ally and supporter of O’Toole, admitted that his government’s pandemic policies had failed and needed an urgent overhaul to avoid a breakdown of the province’s health-care system.
This means the stage is now set for CPC to bleed both to the left and right: voters sufficiently worried about COVID-19 will go to the relative safety of Liberals, while those concerned instead about government overreach in pandemic responses — and the sudden more moderate tone of the CPC — may vote for Bernier’s PPC.
The result of all of this is the Liberals are now on track to win once again, despite running a lacklustre and uninspiring campaign dominated by the relentless deployment of wedge-issue politics. And if they do win, ironically the Liberals may have Kenney to thank for the fact that one of their strategies finally worked.