The news from this week’s Canadian election is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s success in winning reelection, and his failure to achieve his real purpose in calling Monday’s vote: A governing majority for his Liberal Party. Instead, the Liberals ended up with almost exactly the share of parliamentary seats they had going in.
But the most important questions — and possible harbingers for U.S. politics — revolve around the Conservative Party and its leader, Erin O’Toole. Why did his campaign begin with a bang and end with something of a whimper?
The big bang was created by O’Toole’s effort to moderate his party’s image. Having been elected its leader as a “true blue” conservative appealing to the party’s right-wing, O’Toole turned around and rebranded himself as a centrist.
O’Toole’s shift, said Darrell Bricker, CEO of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs, was all about picking up seats in the Toronto suburbs, where Canadian elections are decided these days. “It’s not about moving to the center,” Bricker quipped, “it’s about moving to the suburbs.” This, too, is relevant to the United States, because House elections in 2022 will depend heavily on outcomes in suburban districts.
For the first two weeks of the campaign, O’Toole “burned pretty brightly,” said Garry Keller, a veteran of Conservative politics. O’Toole profited initially from a public backlash against Trudeau’s calling an election that Canadians overwhelmingly felt the country didn’t need during the middle of a pandemic.
Trudeau, Keller added, had “no compelling message about the election,” and was hurt by the chaotic troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. In the meantime, O’Toole looked like a new kind of conservative as he embraced substantial public spending.
But the Conservative leader had a problem that will also confront Republicans who — one can hope — eventually try to disentangle their party from the far right: O’Toole’s pivot to the center “really alienated” some of his party’s core voters, said pollster Frank Graves, and these discontented souls had a right-wing alternative in the anti-vaccine People’s Party of Canada (PPC). At various points during the campaign, Graves said, the PPC seemed poised to win up to 10% of the vote. (They ended up at about 5%.)
O’Toole, Graves noted, was “caught trying to straddle” his two imperatives of gaining in the center and holding the right. And Trudeau pounced on his opponent’s ambiguities, hitting O’Toole hard on the Conservative’s opposition to gun control (broadly popular in Canada) and vaccine passports.
It was the beginning of Trudeau’s comeback, and a key to his success in solving his own coalition problem.
The paradox of Canadian politics, said Liberal pollster David Herle, is that in the last two elections, the Conservatives have run narrowly ahead of the Liberals in the popular vote — by piling up huge margins in the prairies, particularly Alberta — even as a majority of voters supported progressive parties. Among them, the Liberals, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Greens won just over 52%, the Conservatives and the People’s Party 39%. (The rest went to the Quebec nationalists in the Bloc Quebecois.)
“There’s a center-progressive majority in Canada,” said Marcella Munro, a longtime strategist for the NDP, a social democratic party to the left of the Liberals. Unusual cross-border endorsements this year highlight the left-center divide. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., backed the NDP while Trudeau’s Liberals won support from former president Barack Obama and from Hillary Clinton.
Munro described the key dynamic: “A wide swath of centrist/progressive voters who are open to voting for the New Democrats can be brought back to the Liberals if they see a real threat of a Conservative government.”
O’Toole was just strong enough to be such a threat, but not strong enough to win. The Liberals’ closing ads focused on core progressive issues: gun control, climate change, health care, abortion rights and vaccines. They helped pull over the voters Trudeau needed in the right places — particularly Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
If Canada offers cautionary tales for Republicans, there is one for Democrats, too. It arises from the spread of the delta variant, which not only aggravated the public’s sense that this was the wrong time for an election, but also undercut Trudeau’s core rationale for reelection.
Graves’s polling helps explain why Trudeau’s hopes for a majority based on his successful handling of Covid-19 evaporated: In June, 87% of Canadians thought the worst of the pandemic was behind the country. By the time the election was called, that figure had dropped to 60%.
Trudeau’s experience is a tutorial for President Joe Biden and the Democrats. Getting the virus back under control is, of course, a public health imperative. But it’s a political priority, too.