Why Justin Trudeau Will be Prime Minister by Remembrance Day

The polls’ consensus prediction is that the Liberal Party will win the most seats in Monday’s election. It will gain seats in the Atlantic Provinces, Ontario, and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. The Conservative Party will revert to its status of a decade ago as primarily western and rural. The NDP will see the Orange Wave in Quebec recede, leaving that province politically divided into a set of islands. The Liberals will have only a plurality of seats. Harper, Trudeau, and Mulcair all agree that the party with the most seats wins the election, which, in a minority, means that it has the first chance to form a Government that must win the ongoing support of a majority in the House of Commons. Harper will resign as prime minister and, by Remembrance Day, Justin Trudeau will take his place. The nature of the majority Trudeau fashions and how durable it proves to be are topics for future discussions.

Why will this happen? Standard explanations of election outcomes pay attention to the leader, the platform, and the party. My analysis focuses on the narratives each party constructs about itself, its platform, and its leader, the story it tells voters about why it should be elected. And this analysis privileges overarching narratives widely shared among the electorate, rather than policies or promises that are narrowly targeted at defined groups within the electorate.

Consider, first, the Liberals. It is widely agreed that they won the campaign. The Conservatives’ relentless attack on Justin Trudeau – that he’s “just not ready” – had the flaw that it was falsifiable. Indeed, Trudeau’s strong performance in the debates and on the campaign trail put it to rest. The Liberals also had the political good fortune that, due to the drop in energy prices, the country, if not in a recession, is experiencing a slowdown in economic growth. They capitalized on it by breaking with the Conservatives’ balanced-budget orthodoxy, promising to run three years of modest deficits intended to “kickstart the economy” through infrastructure spending. The tone of Trudeau’s campaign has emphasized hope, optimism, energy, and patriotism. Trudeau’s commitment to doing politics differently has been exemplified by eschewing straight-on attack ads, and rather using rhetorical jiu-jitsu to deflect attacks and a variety of humorous and tongue-in-cheek counter-attacks.

The Liberal Party’s base that had gone to ground during the disastrous years of Dion and Ignatieff’s leadership has been dramatically re-energized by Justin Trudeau. I would go so far as to say that the base has fallen in love with him. Swing voters on the left and even in the centre have revised their assessment of Trudeau and, by turning to the Liberals, are willing to give him a chance to govern.
The Liberal narrative is another exemplar of a well-known political narrative, in which a young leader with new ideas and abundant energy defeats an older worn-out burned-out incumbent. Trudeau’s constant references to “real change” and “a better Canada is always possible” channel this narrative. I’ve watching politics long enough to have seen this story unfold many times. Here are a few:
• John F. Kennedy, 1960: “let’s get this country moving again”
• Pierre Trudeau, 1968: “Just Society”
• Bill Clinton, 1992: “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” and “it’s the economy”
• Tony Blair, 1997: New Labour
• Barack Obama, 2008: “Yes we can.”
Lastly, I remember Allan Blakeney telling me about how he swept to power in 1971 against the tired Ross Thatcher, promising a “New Deal for People,” and how he was swept out of office a decade later by Grant Devine vowing that “there is so much more we can be.”

Long-term incumbent governments and leaders have a natural tendency to defeat themselves. The Harper Government has exacerbated all its worst tendencies in this mandate as a majority government, alienating more and more of the electorate. It’s impossible to forget the hyper-partisanship of its incessant attack ads and its propaganda pitches under the rubric of the Economic Action Plan, its corruption, its wedge politics, and its faith-based denial of evidence. Its economic achievements of balancing the budget and enacting wide-ranging tax reductions were undercut by the public apprehension that focusing on the energy sector is a mistaken course of action when the bottom is falling out of the energy market.

Rather than attempt to tell a new story, the Conservatives’ campaign doubled down on the Harper Government’s modus operandi. Continued attack ads combined with the nasty wedge politics of demonizing women who wear the niqab and a promise to establish a “barbaric cultural practices” hot line. The campaign started with a focus on Harper’s leadership, but the trope of a dedicated micromanager was contradicted by growing public belief that he has been making bad decisions, has been turning a blind eye to unethical practices in his office, and has been less than honest in accounting for his actions. Midway through the campaign, the Conservatives’ theme shifted to the defensive slogan “protect the economy.” But the Conservatives have translated this slogan into protection for its tax cuts, which is a much narrower matter. The Conservatives been unwilling or unable to envision the economy as a collective endeavour; in contrast, the Liberals’ focus on infrastructure is explicitly about public goods, the benefits of which we all will share.

When Harper retires from politics to the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, or a conservative American think-tank, or the board rooms of the energy industry, he may take the time to introspect about how his leadership style and his ambition of transforming Canadian politics by dismantling the Liberal Party, rebounded to destroy his regime.

Speaking as a Liberal partisan working on the front lines, I have lost count of the number of voters I encountered whose primary desire was to get rid of Stephen Harper. Had I had the time or liberty to engage my social-scientific bent, I would have asked what precisely it was that they found so objectionable. One voter – of Eastern European origin – spoke for many others when he told us that, for him, the election was about defeating Canada’s Putin.

Tom Mulcair’s New Democratic Party missed the historic opportunity to build on its gains in the 2011 election. Accepting Harper’s balanced budget orthodoxy undercut its commitment to real change – incoherence that Trudeau has repeatedly pointed out. The New Democrats assumed that their lead in the polls was stable and Tom Mulcair needed only to portray himself as an uncontroversial, safe choice. Yet Mulcair is also a skilled and aggressive debater, as his success as Leader of the Opposition demonstrated. Like its economic contradictions, the New Democrats’ messaging contained contradictions between Tom Mulcair’s smiling and modest self-presentation on the podium and his aggressive debating stance coupled with the attack ads highlighting the Conservatives’ corruption. In a way, by running these attack ads so often, the NDP did the heavy lifting, or the dirty work, for the Liberals.

These are my first impressions of the overall story, but I’m sufficiently confident in my reading of the trends that I’m willing to post it today as prediction rather than next Tuesday as explanation. (I’m aware that the forced resignation of Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier for conflict of interest could hurt the Liberals in the last weekend of the campaign, but I think Harper’s reluctant last minute embrace of the Ford brothers nullifies any gain the Conservatives might make and the NDP is now too far behind to benefit.) In my research after the campaign, I intend to delve deeper into the database of election advertising that I’ve built to show how the ads attempted, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to shape winning narratives.

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