OTTAWA—Liberal strategists gathered at a downtown Ottawa hotel in mid-July, the inner circle who will steer the party’s re-election hopes.
Among the 50 or so present were veterans of the party’s dramatic win in 2015 — “getting the band back together,” quipped one participant — as well as new faces.
The group, which included regional representatives, talked about the current state of politics, the mood on the ground, digital strategies and how they saw the campaign playing out.
Jeremy Broadhurst, the party’s campaign director, describes the discussion as “let’s all talk about some of these challenges, the difference of 2015 to 2019, the advances in the art and science of campaigning.
“It was a good chance to challenge some of our assumptions — let’s challenge our common wisdom,” he said in an interview.
Justin Trudeau spoke to the assembled crowd, touting the government’s accomplishments but underscoring that the job is not done, themes he would touch on when he spoke to Liberal candidates who gathered in Ottawa several weeks later.
In the session, which stretched over a couple of days, there was a recognition that it wasn’t enough to simply replicate the formula from four years ago. The political rivals are different. The domestic and international scenes are different. And critically, the Liberals are no longer the third-place party. They’ve been in government in four years, with a record, good and bad.
The Star has talked with more than a dozen Liberal strategists about the coming campaign. They paint a picture of a party that is optimistic, that had been getting the wind back in its sails after a bruising start to the year.
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They are cognizant of polls that indicate a close race with the Conservatives. They remain wary about several factors: economic anxiety, populist politics and shifting moods. Yet they saw the potential for gains, notably in Quebec, perhaps Ontario.
And then Mario Dion lobbed a grenade. In an August report, the ethics commissioner concluded that Trudeau broke ethics rules last year when he applied political pressure on then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin.
It’s a serious blow for the Liberals and adds a wild card to the coming campaign, just as they get ready to go back to voters and ask for their support.
The Liberal election machine pulled off a near-miracle in 2015.
The party started the campaign in third place with fewer than 40 seats, the result of two poor election showings under leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
Enter Justin Trudeau, the oldest son of Pierre Trudeau. The son embarked on his own political career in 2008 when he was elected MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau. He was elected Liberal leader in 2013.
Because of his political pedigree and his time as MP, Trudeau was no stranger to the public eye. Still, the Conservatives called the 2015 election early, betting that a marathon campaign would give the rookie Liberal leader more chances to stumble.
After all, Trudeau was up against Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a veteran campaigner going into his fifth federal election as party leader, and the New Democrats, led by Thomas Mulcair, who were up in the polls and seemed to have a shot at governing.
Harper’s gamble failed. The more voters saw of Trudeau, the more they liked. True to his “sunny ways” slogan, Trudeau was optimistic on the campaign trail, vowing to help middle-class Canadians through measures like the child benefit and an income-tax cut. In his final week, the Liberal leader drew overflow crowds.
When the ballots were counted, the Liberals had a majority, with 184 seats.
This election, the Liberals intend to draw on familiar themes and backroom personalities in hopes of a repeat.
Broadhurst will lead the Liberal campaign. The veteran Liberal was the party’s national director in 2015 served as chief of staff to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. He has been with Liberal leaders dating back to Bill Graham, many of those when the party was in the political wilderness. He is credited with rebuilding key parts of the party apparatus that helped lay the foundation for victory in 2015.
Olivier Duchesneau, another longtime Liberal, is the deputy national campaign director. Duchesneau was until recently chief of staff to Jean Yves Duclos, the minister of families, children and social development. He had previously served in the Prime Minister’s Office and party headquarters.
Kate Purchase, who until recently was executive director of communications and planning in Trudeau’s office, is the “chief content strategist.” The role essentially encompasses all of the content of the campaign — policy, communications, issues management and advertising. Purchase moved to this role in mid-August.
Brian Clow, a senior strategist in the PMO, will steer the party’s rapid responses day to day, including the reactions to opposition policy announcements. It’s similar to his role in the last campaign. Clow is a Queen’s Park veteran who worked as an adviser to then Premier Kathleen Wynne. He came to Ottawa after the 2015 election.
Tom Pitfield, a long-time Trudeau friend, will oversee the party’s digital strategy, reprising a role he played in the federal election campaign. He is the founder and CEO of Data Sciences. He is also the chairman and co-founder of Canada 2020, a progressive think tank.
The Liberals credited their evolving data prowess with helping them win in 2015, saying the information helped shape decisions on advertising, even last-minute shifts in Trudeau’s schedule.
Today, the data tracks what Liberal candidates are doing and hearing at the doorstep, Broadhurst said.
“A national campaign has to serve a really simple purpose. It’s to help 338 local campaigns. You do that in a lot of different ways. But how can you help those campaigns if you don’t know what’s going on in these campaigns,” Broadhurst said.
“There’s a flow of communication up. We’re hearing what’s going on at the doorstep and we will adjust accordingly … The most important feedback is what is worrying people, what’s on their minds,” he said.
“It’s helping us pierce through our own bubble.”
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Nothing beats a volunteer talking at the door or on the phone, Broadhurst said. But “digital door-knocking” is important and will be integral to the strategy. “More and more people live their lives on their phone and digital spaces so you want to have the conversations there as well.”
Matt Stickney, former chief of staff to Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement, is responsible for pulling together the national field team, expanding a role he had in 2015 working in British Columbia.
The Liberals take pride in the strength of their field organization. It was built up before the 2015 vote to help offset the Conservatives’ fundraising advantage. “In a dollar-for-dollar battle, we were going to lose,” one organizer said.
There’s a question mark hanging over the role of one prominent personality: Gerald Butts. Butts, a Trudeau friend and confidant, served as principal secretary until his resignation in February as the SNC-Lavalin controversy swirled. But the party said he had been acting as a “senior” adviser in the Liberal campaign this summer, a role that will continue for the campaign.
Party staff of about 100 will be bolstered by another 60 or so at campaign headquarters, including some now working for various cabinet ministers, who will take leave from their day jobs to work on the campaign. Just weeks before the expected campaign launch, the party has nominated 259 candidates, 79 short of a full slate.
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Several Liberals sketched out the strategy Canadians can expect. The first priority is to remind voters of their record. They’ll talk up the economy — the steady growth and low unemployment. They’ll highlight Liberal measures to put a price on pollution to combat climate change.
They will remind voters about “significant measures” such as the Canada child benefit and an income tax cut, measures done early in the mandate that may have faded from memories.
“That’s real money … but life still feels hard,” said one strategist. “There are new challenges all the time.
“We need to approach this as a fresh election and have a vision that is good for 2019,” the strategist said.
That’s where the second part of the strategy comes — the rollout of new offerings in a campaign platform. That could include an announcement on pharmacare and health-care measures, along with skills training and other proposals to address economic anxiety.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, especially around the digital transformation, changes in technology, what does automation mean?” said Navdeep Bains, the MP for Mississauga-Malton and minister of innovation, science and economic development.
“But we also acknowledge that more needs to be done. And that’s the case we will be making,” said Bains, a co-chair of the party’s national campaign committee.
The job of crafting that case fell in large part to Liberal MPs Mona Fortier and Ralph Goodale, co-chairs of the national platform committee. Last September, they began assembling ideas for the 2019 platform, an effort that involved consulting caucus members, citizens and outside experts. They came up with some 200 ideas that touched on the economy, social justice and the environment.
“We want to offer Canadians what we’ve been doing for the last four years,” Fortier said. “But we know the political environment has changed. The world we know has changed.”
On climate change, she says the party “has done a lot. But we don’t have a choice. We have to do more.”
The committee’s work is largely done and the party has been whittling down that list of ideas into the core proposals that will make up the platform.
The final piece of the election strategy will be to motivate progressives to vote for the Liberal brand and woo them away from the New Democrats and Green party. That is not a small challenge.
If sunny ways won the day in 2015, the forecast is decidedly more mixed this time. Four years of governing have saddled the Liberals with baggage. Some is the inevitable result of governing, but some wounds have been self-inflicted.
The Liberal government broke some prominent election vows on balancing the budget — the 2019 budget forecast a $16.8 billion deficit for the current fiscal year — and sweeping electoral reform. (Trudeau declared it was no longer a priority for Canadians.)
The fallout from Trudeau’s star-crossed trip to India in 2018 — with criticisms about a light agenda, and images of the Trudeau family in traditional Indian dress — lingers on. An ill-considered family vacation to the Aga Khan’s island earned Trudeau his first rebuke from the ethics commissioner.
The revival of the SNC-Lavalin controversy could cause disgruntled progressives to stay home or vote for another party.
Pollster Frank Graves said the success of the Liberals in 2015 rested largely on the support of progressive voters keen to end the Conservatives’ 10 years in power.
Four years later, the coming election landscape looks “very different,” Graves said in an interview. For starters, a government that hasn’t faced a vote-killing issue like a recession or national unity crisis finds itself in a “tenuous” position,” he said.
“A government that frankly should be sipping beer as it kind of cruises to a next majority is finding itself in a much tougher position than you would have expected,” he said.
“The Liberals have shed a lot of votes,” Graves said, citing an erosion of support among men, college-educated voters and working-class voters.
Trudeau is a good campaigner and debater, with skills honed in his town-hall sessions, Graves said. But he’ll have to work to shore up his credentials with working-class Canadians, he said.
Still, several factors work in the Liberals’ favour, Graves said. They include sagging support for the NDP and the potential impact of the People’s Party of Canada, led by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier. While the PPC is polling in the single digits, Graves thinks the party’s support is being understated, which could eat into Conservative votes.
Finally, Graves says the “biggest asset” for the Liberals is the Doug Ford government at Queen’s Park and its unpopular budget cuts that continue to make headlines.
The federal Liberals waste no opportunity to draw attention to the Ford cuts and imply that a similar situation would play out in Ottawa if the Conservatives got elected.
The Liberals know they are not likely to win any support from the rock-solid base of Conservative supporters — relatively stable at between 5.2 million and 5.8 million votes in recent elections.
They have to draw their support from centre-to-left voters, who may also consider the NDP or Greens. Support for Green Leader Elizabeth May could hurt the Liberals.
It’s in the Conservatives’ interests to persuade Liberal votes to stay home or vote for another party. The task for the Liberals is to counter that. They have to motivate voters to cast a ballot for the Liberal candidate.
“A huge element of this campaign is going to be voter turnout,” Broadhurst said. “We want to build up a broad coalition of voters that we were able to bring together in 2015, we want to grow it even beyond that,” he said.
“The goal of the Conservatives is to dismantle that group of voters who came together, largely through discouraging them voting and participating at all,” Broadhurst said. “We need to get people engaged, excited and feeling that it’s something that matters to their country, to their own household.”