I have long argued that a political party needs both a heroic narrative about its leader and narratives of incompetence, self-seeking, or incapacity about its opponents’ leaders. It is particularly important for a newly selected leader to advance their heroic narrative – tell their own story – quickly, because, if they do not, they are at risk of having their opponents tell a negative story about them.
The classic instance of this is former Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) leader Michael Ignatieff. The LPC wanted to present a narrative of an internationally recognized public intellectual and author returning to Canada and entering politics as his patriotic duty. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) beat them to the punch, and branded Ignatieff as a self-seeking opportunist. The CPC’s attack ads were devastatingly effective “swiftboating,” portraying your opponent’s strongest asset as his greatest liability.
Just an Ordinary Canadian
Six months after being chosen its leader in August 2020, the CPC posted two ads introducing Erin O’Toole as its leader. One, Meet Erin O’Toole, encouraged voters to visit the profile on his website. The profile showcases O’Toole’s humble beginnings, family tragedy (death of his mother at an early age), patriotism, hard work, and ambition. It pays considerable attention to his 12-year military career starting at Royal Military College and including service in the RCAF on search and rescue helicopters (though it did not make it clear that he was a navigator rather than a pilot).
The profile mentions that O’Toole spent his thirties “as a leader in the business sector, honing his skills in advocacy and the law.” His Wikipedia page is more explicit, mentioning that he studied law at Dalhousie, articled at the major corporate firm Stikeman Elliott, and worked as in-house counsel at Procter and Gamble. Perhaps the authors of the profile wanted to project a populist image for O’Toole, so they didn’t go into detail about his corporate career.
The second ad, entitled “Not a Celebrity. Just a leader. Just Erin” is very low-key, repeatedly introducing O’Toole with the diminutive just: “just an ordinary Canadian who served his country,” “just a husband and father … who works hard,” “just someone who’s in it for Canada not for headlines,” “just Erin.” The ad is channeling the characteristic English-Canadian sense of irony, implying in each case that O’Toole is more than the phrase suggests. I wonder if this irony will be lost on the voters, who will take the diminutive literally. I don’t think O’Toole was well-served by this introduction and would have benefited from an ad that was more straight-forward and explicitly heroic.
During the election campaign itself there have been no more ads introducing (and heroicizing) O’Toole. The ad on the CPC’s YouTube home page refers to O’Toole’s military background and the ad about protecting animals showcases O’Toole’s family and pet dog, but that is the sum total of references to his background.
My overall conclusion is that the CPC has done a mediocre job presenting a compelling heroic narrative about O’Toole. You only have one chance to make a first impression, and the CPC has wasted that chance for O’Toole.
Taking Down O’Toole
The LPC has finally started running attack ads against O’Toole, with three using O’Toole’s own words against him, especially his oft-repeated imperative to “take back Canada.” The ads all refer to O’Toole’s positions on gun control, abortion rights, private health care, and climate change, and play on words by exhorting the voter not to let O’Toole “take Canadian back-wards.” The three ads have received a total of 17.000 YouTube views in two days, so they are getting traction.
The LPC can take their attack ads in two directions. The theme “a man is judged by the company he keeps” would focus on the CPC’s opposition to climate change, gun control, abortion rights, and vaccine mandates, for instance by citing resolutions at policy conventions. The ads could also link O’Toole to Premiers Kenny and Ford.
The second direction – “just in his nature” – would focus on O’Toole’s tendency to tailor his message to his audience, particularly to the CPC’s social conservatives. They would highlight his policy reversals, for example his recent reversal of the commitment in the CPC’s Plan to withdraw the Liberal Government’s order-in-council banning semi-automatic assault weapons. O’Toole may have looked impressive at the beginning of the campaign because he has a plan, but as soon as the plan has been subjected to scrutiny, O’Toole has had to distance himself from it. The overall message of the “just in his nature” ads is that O’Toole is unprincipled, lacks vision, and will say whatever he thinks will win votes.
The LPC’s ability to turn out attack ads in the next few days depends on the quality of its oppo research and the strength of its war room.
Where they Stand Now
The Conservatives’ lead in the popular vote over the Liberals is no longer growing and seems to have stabilized at 3 percent. In the final two weeks of the campaign there will be many imponderables, particularly the leaders’ performances in the official French and English debates.
Whatever else they do, the Liberals must use attack and contrast ads to chip away at the Conservatives’ lead in the popular vote.