An Anti-Harper, Liberal Government
In August, I predicted there would be an anti-Harper rush to the polls in October that would defy all Conservative logic. I warned that left-wing vote splitting wouldn't stop a flood of new and part-time voters from ending the Harper era. The only thing I got wrong was the party that would end up vacuuming up this surge in voter participation. At the time, polls showed the New Democrats in the best position. The very same thing happened just months before in Alberta.
“They didn't think it was possible, but by the evening of May 5, it was a reality. The same could happen nationally in October. Conservatives are convinced that left-wing vote splitting puts them in a powerful position, but this is only true if voter turnout doesn't increase in unison with a collapse in Liberal support.” – 'An Anti-Harper, NDP Government', August 1, 2015
As October 19 got closer, it became clear that it wasn't the Liberals that were going to collapse, it was the NDP. A surge in voter turnout combined with the collapse of one left-wing party is what sealed the Conservative Party's fate. The question now is whether there was really anything Conservatives could have done to prevent it.
The Conservatives only lost 230,000 votes from 2011, which means they were able to retain most of the support that gave them a majority in 2011. Although polls showed the Conservatives in the lead at the end of September, something happened that would change the course of the campaign. Whatever that something was, it caused NDP support to collapse. Some analysts have pointed to Mulcair's opposition to banning the niqab during citizenship ceremonies and to his lack of ability to run a positive, hopeful campaign. Others have attributed the collapse to strategic voting. It's likely that all of those observations are correct. It was a combination of things that caused one million NDP voters to jump on the Liberal bandwagon.
These observations explain the collapse in NDP support, but they don't explain the surge in casual and first-time voters. This surge is best explained by the animosity and intense hatred that has been building against Stephen Harper since 2011.
“Both the Liberals and the NDP will be stoking the same fire. When voters are frothing at the mouth with anger, they'll be compelled to jump on the NDP bandwagon if polls say the party has a chance. This, combined with an overall increase in first-time and casual voters, could spell disaster for Conservatives.”
Again, it was the Liberal bandwagon that benefited from the intense fire of hatred that both parties, all public sector unions, most mainstream news sources and several phony grassroots movements stoked for three months. Trivial issues like the niqab were used to reignite the “racist conservative” narrative among other stereotypical and anti-conservative narratives. When it came to defending against these false narratives, Harper and Conservatives failed. Instead, they focused on trying to convince Canadians that Justin Trudeau wasn't ready and that his policies would prove disastrous.
By the final week of the campaign, Stephen Harper was reduced to using corny sound effects and cheap gimmickry at rallies to convince voters that Justin Trudeau would cost them money. By the night of October 19, it was game over for the Harper Government – just like it was for Progressive Conservatives in Alberta six months earlier.
Just like in Alberta, voters looking for change rushed polling stations. Many of them were first-time voters, casual voters and students. In Alberta, NDP support grew by nearly 500%. In Canada, Liberal support grew by nearly 200% from 2011. The Liberal Party not only captured a million NDP votes, it captured nearly 100% of new and casual voters. In 2015, 17.5 million Canadians voted compared to 2011, when only 14.7 million voted. Over 3 million more Canadians voted and 4 million more votes went to the Liberal Party in 2015. The math paints a clear picture.
Emotional voting will be what defines both the Alberta provincial election and the Canadian federal election. On the bright side, voter turnout won't be 69% again in 2019. By then, Harper hatred will have simmered and Trudeau will be the focus of more criticism, if not to benefit Conservatives then to benefit the NDP. Harper won't be forgotten by 2019, because the Trudeau Government will be sure to invoke his name again in order to place blame for any economic turbulence that might arise.
As for blunting the surge in turnout or trying to capture the momentum, the Conservatives probably didn't have much of a chance. The momentum that gave Trudeau a strong majority was built with anti-Harper hate and fear-mongering. To challenge that momentum, Conservatives should have built their own successful narratives. Despite the weakening effects of their Just Not Ready campaign, Conservatives refused to change their message and build positive momentum. Rather than run with failing negative ads, they could have chosen more positive messages to help Canadians see nine years of Conservative accomplishments. They could have chosen positive ads to counter Trudeau's fear-mongering about non-existent voter suppression and “dirty tricks”.
“Let's make no mistake about it. Stephen Harper does not want you to vote.” – Justin Trudeau, Vice
“They'll throw every dirty trick in the book at us.” – Justin Trudeau, October 4 in Brampton
Harper's campaign failed to successfully counter Trudeau's ridiculous claims. Failing to address Trudeau's jabs and fear-inducing rhetoric became a common trend for Harper on the campaign trail. When it came to media, Harper did the same. During an interview with Rosemary Barton, Stephen Harper failed to counter one of her inaccurate suggestions.
Barton: “Why is it OK for the government to tell Ms. Ishaq how to dress and how to live?”
Harper: “Well, look. Our position is very simple. We're an open society and a society of equality.... But I think the legislation is broadly reflective of the large, large majority of Canadians.”
At no point did Harper bother to correct Barton on her claim that the government wants to “tell Ms. Ishaq how to dress and how to live.” As most informed voters are aware, the niqab debate was about being required to remove the niqab during a citizenship oath ceremony, not about banning niqabs all together and telling women how to dress and live. Unfortunately, not only did Harper fail to address this fact, he went on to suggest that Conservatives would consider banning the niqab in the public sector.
It was around the time following the interview with Rosemary Barton that polls began to suggest that Harper's reign as Prime Minister would end in the following two weeks. Rather than use the interview to blunt the fears created by Trudeau and Mulcair, Harper chose to do exactly what his opponents were accusing him of doing. Harper chose to use the niqab as a wedge issue.
From there, it was all down hill. There were likely more factors at play, but all of them only helped build and intensify the raging flames of hate. When it came down to it, Trudeau's positively negative campaign gained enough traction to pull off a majority. In the minds of some biased pundits and deranged Harper haters, Trudeau ran a perfectly positive campaign. In reality, his campaign capitalized on the seething hatred and used negativity in a positive way. As we've seen, Trudeau used pointed attacks on Harper's integrity and character. He threw small, negative jabs into every campaign ad, every stump speech and every interview.
Trudeau's negativity was viewed as positivity by voters who have despised Stephen Harper for the past nine years. Given the outright negativity of the Conservative campaign, Trudeau's negativity was warranted. From the beginning, the Tories focused on assassinating Trudeau's character. In the end, it backfired in the most epic and appropriate way possible. However, even after he had won the election, Trudeau continued to be purposefully deceptive in his victory speech.
“Last week, I met a young mom in St. Catherines. She practices the muslim faith and was wearing a hijab. She made her way through the crowd and handed me her infant daughter. And as she leaned forward, she whispered something to me that I will never forget. She said she's voting for us because she wants to make sure that her little girl has the right to make her own choices in life and that the government would protect those rights.” – Justin Trudeau, his victory speech, October 19
Trudeau's story was a direct reference to the niqab debate. It's not the hijab-wearing woman that makes his story deceptive. She was real and what she said was probably real. What makes his story deceptive is his reference to the hijab. As most muslims and educated voters know, a hijab is not a niqab. Unlike a niqab, a hijab does not cover the face. The niqab debate was directly centred around face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, not all muslim garbs. The debate was never about hijabs. At no point has there ever been a national debate about the hijab in Canada. Trudeau's reference to the hijab was purposefully directed at refueling a narrative that paints Conservatives as bigots. His remarks were meant to capitalize on misinformation and misconceptions surrounding the niqab debate.
It matters that Conservatives never targeted all muslims and never intended to tell women how to dress during their daily lives. It matters because Trudeau successfully drove his own narrative straight to a majority. It matters because Conservatives thought it wouldn't.
It matters because there are lessons that need to be learned. Going forward, Conservatives will have to defend their platforms from misrepresentation. Facts cease to matter after nine years. Being a tenured and tactful strategist, Harper should have known that. The next leader will have to throw away the old playbook and focus on striking the populist nerve. The next election will be about Trudeau's record and – judging by his smart campaign this time – he'll know how to defend it against misrepresentation while still rehashing demons from the Harper era. Unless Trudeau runs a disastrous government, the next Conservative leader might be paddling against the wind if the party doesn't install a new motor.