OTTAWA — First, there was the embarrassing trip to India and an infamous photo. Then came the brownface picture scandal. Diplomatic fights with China followed, which left Canada bruised. Throw in a slow Covid vaccine rollout, extended lockdowns and a string of damaging parliamentary tussles.
Justin Trudeau’s run atop Canadian politics has featured a Teflon-like talent for getting into scrapes and dusting himself off. It will be his mission Thursday night during the final leaders' debate in the crescendo of a campaign that has served up the toughest test yet for the 49-year-old prime minister.
When Trudeau called an early election on a lazy Sunday in August, it was the worst kept secret in Ottawa. Candidates were already on the trail.
His Liberal party spent the early weeks of summer touring the country to hand out big-ticket items — incentivizing what seemed more and more like a walkaway win.
Canada was a world leader in vaccination rates, Trudeau's party had a double-digit lead in most polls and a coveted return to majority government was within reach. His main rival, Conservative Erin O'Toole, was still relatively unknown but not well-liked by voters who had an opinion.
Except for the wild card of Covid, there’d never been a better time in Canadian history to call an election, one pollster quipped on the eve of the campaign.
“Canadians are in a good mood, the government helped to successfully facilitate a global-leading vaccination effort and it’s summer in Canada,” said David Coletto, the CEO of Abacus.
As Trudeau faced cameras on the afternoon of Aug. 15, fresh from a conversation with Governor General Mary Simon that resulted in the dissolution of Parliament, he proclaimed the 36-day campaign the most important since the Second World War.
"The decisions your government makes right now will define the future your kids and grandkids grow up in," Trudeau told the nation. "In this pivotal, consequential moment, who wouldn't want a say? Who wouldn't want their chance to help decide where our country goes from here?"
But it was in that moment outside Rideau Hall that pollsters and campaign observers say everything changed.
“Within the minutes of calling the election, he went from being Prime Minister Trudeau to being candidate Trudeau,” Coletto says. “For many Canadians, it reminded them of why they didn’t like him last time.”
That same August afternoon, Trudeau's government was hastily repatriating diplomats from Afghanistan and closing the country’s embassy. Covid was spiking in some parts of Canada, mostly among the unvaccinated. British Columbia was fighting more than 250 wildfires. And prairie farmers were struggling mightily against a punishing drought.
“What seemed like a propitious moment for the Liberals to seize the goodwill of the public and secure a majority — which would probably look iffier if they waited — it kind of started unraveling,” Frank Graves, the president of the polling firm EKOS, tells POLITICO.
Trudeau was rebuked by all parties for calling an unnecessary election — traditionally a one-day issue in the Before Times. Opposition candidates, including New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh, managed to cement the notion that the only reason Canada was holding a pandemic election was so the Liberals could tighten their grip on power.
“The narrative took hold,” Coletto says. The Liberals' lead immediately started to erode.
It didn’t help that Trudeau failed to articulate why he was sending Canadians to the polls during the fourth wave of the Covid-19 health crisis. “The government and indeed Parliament needs an opportunity to get a mandate from Canadians,” he offered, with less than convincing rhetoric.
The Liberals couldn’t justify the call, “so people couldn’t justify the call,” Coletto said.
Éric Grenier, author of The Writ, agrees the election call “probably hurt them a lot more than was expected.”
The decision forced people to think about Trudeau as a candidate. They were reminded that he often promises things and fails to follow through. “There's a sizable number of people who like the prime minister, but there's not a lot of love for Mr. Trudeau out there,” Coletto says. “There's not a lot of people who say, ‘I really like him.'"
With just 11 days remaining, Thursday’s debate may be Trudeau’s last chance to make his case — even if it’s just to convince voters that the Liberals are the least worst choice.
Trudeau got off to a slow start that created room for his opponents in the early days of the campaign.
Ian Brodie, who served as chief of staff to former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told POLITICO last week that he could not remember a prime minister calling an election and seeming so unprepared. “The surprise of the election is that Trudeau has just looked frozen.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, came out steady and focused. They released their 162-page platform on the second day of the campaign, an attempt to define their leader's vision before the Liberals could do it for them. The document was stuffed to the gills with policy.
The party courted working-class voters with the promise of pension protection measures and incentives for companies to offer financial stakes to employees. This was uncharted territory for Conservatives, squarely aimed at broadening the party's appeal.
Not to mention the manifesto's cover showed off O'Toole's trim new look — an unorthodox framing of the leader, to be sure, but one that got people sharing the policy platform all over social media. Introducing Erin O’Toole: “The man with the plan.”
Grenier said a key tactic for O’Toole has been to try to present himself as a moderate centrist “who isn’t all that different from the Liberals.”
"He over-delivered," Graves says. “People said… ‘by the way, this O'Toole character doesn't really seem nearly as bad as we had expected.' ”
The strategy yielded some early fruit for the Conservatives. For the first three weeks of the campaign, support for Trudeau waned while O’Toole steadily gained.
The Liberals countered with wedge-issue attacks, warning that an O'Toole government would undermine Canada's public health care system and open the door to anti-abortion laws. They accused him of courting anti-vax voters and not doing enough to condemn nasty protests on the trail.
All the while, Singh's leader's tour targeted almost exclusively Liberal and Conservative ridings. He projected the image of a happy warrior, buoyed by favorability ratings that consistently left Trudeau and O'Toole in the dust.
The New Democrats' greatest perennial challenge is to persuade fickle progressive voters to stick with them — instead of voting Liberal to avoid a Conservative win. Two years ago, voters fled the party for just that reason. This time, the NDP's national numbers are hovering around 20 percent, which would almost surely deliver more seats than they managed in 2019.
But O’Toole’s numbers kept rising. The Tories reached as high as 37 percent in one poll, only a few points shy of the kind of popularity typically required to win a majority government. Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau both won recent majorities with just 39 percent of the vote.
Liberals acknowledge the campaign faltered early. Wayne Easter, a soon-to-be-retired member of Parliament known to speak his mind, sat down with POLITICO on Wednesday as he cleaned out his Ottawa office. His assessment was blunt: "The first 10 days really seemed directionless," he said.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a two-term Liberal incumbent who's fighting for reelection in Toronto, also saw the campaign "stumble a bit out of the blocks." His diagnosis was straightforward.
“Honestly, I think it’s as simple as an election that those who follow politics probably expected, but [one] many Canadians who are busy with their own lives did not expect. And the reason for the election was not adequately articulated at times." he told POLITICO. "It’s a question we’ve certainly gotten at the doors quite often."
Erskine-Smith insisted voters are now asking fewer questions about why an election was called. Instead, he said they’re focusing on the policies and the “clear differences” between the Liberal and Conservative plans.
If the campaign struggled to craft a persuasive narrative, fatigue was a contributing factor for the small army of Liberals who jumped from the Hill to the reelection effort.
Greg MacEachern, a Liberal strategist who is also senior vice president of government relations at Proof Strategies, said a grueling pandemic and tumultuous parliamentary session exhausted the ranks. Top campaign officials faced tough questions from the outset.
"Do you bring in some fresh faces who may have been a bit more rested? Or do you keep the [same] people around because of the level of trust that has been established over the previous 18 months?" Win or lose, said MacEachern, those questions will preoccupy Liberals long after the ballots are counted.
A turning point
A veteran Liberal insider told POLITICO that Trudeau's advantage heading into the election was his experience in the political arena. The Liberal leader has the ability to compartmentalize and focus better than any other athlete on the field, they said — and acknowledged the uphill start for Trudeau this time around. “If the election was after the first two weeks, I'm not saying the Liberals would have lost but it certainly would have been a loss in the popular vote like the last election.”
Unless the Liberals lose their stride in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, “the Liberals are going to get a plurality of seats,” the insider said.
It’s not like he hasn’t faced obstacles before. During the 2019 election, Time Magazine published a story that led to Trudeau’s admission to wearing racist brownface and blackface make up multiple times when he was younger. The revelations destabilized the Liberals’ campaign, yet they were re-elected with a minority government.
“In the end, campaigns are about suffering and your ability to tolerate taking your lumps," said the insider. "You’re gonna take them. And no one cares if you don’t like it. It’s happening anyway."
Debates can be rewarding, but dangerous — that is, if the public even has the interest these days to tune in. Few Canadians were watching the first leaders debate of the 2021 campaign, which took place on Sept. 2 in French on TVA. Abacus found that 75 percent of Quebecers had at least heard about it, but 46 percent of the rest of Canada was in the dark.
The pollster measured little disturbance in Quebec's polls in the aftermath, but a key exchange between Trudeau and O'Toole reset the campaign's dominant narrative — and changed the course of the election.
With a few minutes left, moderator Pierre Bruneau turned to gun control. A feisty Trudeau defended his government's ban on assault weapons. He could barely hide his excitement as he directed O'Toole to page 90 of the Tory platform — a pledge to reverse the edict.
"We will maintain a ban on assault weapons," O’Toole insisted. Cue the Twitter storm: #page90.
For several days after, O'Toole changed his position on the assault weapon ban. He ultimately settled on maintaining it until a public review of firearm classifications made recommendations. But his campaign played defense for almost a week — an eternity in a five-week election sprint.
The Liberals had their wedge. They circulated records that showed the Conservative campaign manager, Fred DeLorey, had lobbied for a national firearms association. (The party said he recused himself from discussing firearms policy.)
Trudeau's debate performance invigorated the moribund rank and file. They saw their leader looking like himself again; some polls registered a reversal in the slide.
On the afternoon of the next French-language debate, with Trudeau preoccupied with the final hours of closed-door prep, a pair of his candidates held a press conference. Mélanie Joly and Mark Holland accused O'Toole of "saying anything to special interest groups to get himself elected." They were back to playing offense.
One of the sharpest moments of Wednesday's debate again starred an emotional Trudeau. Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet accused the Liberal leader of not having Quebec's best interests at heart.
“You constantly forget that I’m a proud Quebecer, that I’ve always been a Quebecer and I will always be a Quebecer," Trudeau fired back. "You don’t have a monopoly on Quebec.” The exchange was front-page news in the Journal de Montreal newspaper.
Abacus CEO David Coletto acknowledges the mood of the country has shifted since his sunny forecast on the eve of the election call. Anxiety around the pandemic has gone up.
“People are just tired,” he said. “When you're tired, you don't want to make decisions.”
He says Canadians are still deciding if they want to penalize Trudeau for calling an election.
“People who want to punish him for making a reckless election call need a reason not to do so.” So the stakes for Thursday’s debate are high.
“This could go multiple ways, or it could end exactly as it is right now. I think both of those outcomes are as likely — that one of these parties takes off, or we get into another stalemate — and we get the same Parliament that we had when this whole thing started.”
It’s not about liking Trudeau, Coletto says. “In order for the prime minister to break free from this, it's going to have to be because people look at the alternatives and say they're far worse.”
Just when Trudeau's reelection prospects looked bleakest, he picked himself up off the mat. No one should have expected any less of a prime minister who always seems to wriggle out of trouble. But he hasn't won yet.
Zi-Ann Lum and Andy Blatchford contributed to this report.
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