Election 2021: Tight two-way race

This is Sergio Marchi’s fourth article, in a series of weekly election analysis and reflections.

Week three of the campaign began with the Libérals’ stark realization that they had fallen behind the Tories. The substantial lead they enjoyed going into the election quickly evaporated over a 14-day period. They watched O’Toole —- who they had written off as weak and ineffective —- capture the early imagination of Canadians. The Libéral brain trust broke one of the cardinal rules of politics — never, ever underestimate your opponents. If you do, chances are that it will come back to bite you. And now, Liberals we’re feeling the pain of that chomp!

The news only got worse for Liberals as the week wore on, only to end on a higher note.

During the week, Conservative support continued to surge. They opened a five point party lead over the Liberals, and in terms of leader preferences, O’Toole led Trudeau by four points. When you consider that the PM enjoyed an 18 point advantage when he called the election, the Conservatives have generated an impressive wave of momentum. Even in Ontario, which has been a Libéral fortress, Trudeau’s lead is dwindling.

Two other issues were made public that added to the anguish.

Nanos Research found that 50 per cent of Canadian respondents believe that the Libéral government has done a poor job of evacuating Canadians and Afghan nationals. If this is issue is still percolating by election day, it will not break well for the government.

And then Statistics Canada reported that the economy shrank in April, May, and June. They predicted the same for July. This was awful news for Liberals, especially considering how important the economy is as a top-of-mind issue.

Not surprisingly, O’Toole slammed the Liberals, and promised to get the economy growing again. He also committed to balancing the budget within 10 years, without any cuts, which frankly does not pass the smell test. I was in Jean Chrétien’s cabinet when we balanced the books, and that would not have been possible without a fair amount of pruning. Plus, O’Toole has not costed his platform.

The Liberals have built their strategy completely around the PM, during their years in power and in this campaign. He is the brand. They are not showcasing much of the team, and from lawn signs to airplane logos, it’s plastered with the ‘Trudeau’ name. But now that he has lost considerable ground to the PC’s, that brand has taken a hit.

For years, many observers have commented that Trudeau was over exposed; too much in people’s faces. The Boss dismissed the warnings. Yet, I firmly believe that this over exposure has contributed to a level of Trudeau ‘fatigue’ across the land, rendering his support soft. He would do good to trot out some of his front benchers, if it’s not too late, in an effort to convince voters that they have a deep bench.

By mid week — which was also the midpoint of the election — the Liberals finally released their policy platform. At 53 pages, their plan features $78 billion in new spending. It differs sharply with the PC platform, and proposes to invest in climate change remediation, job creation, Indigenous reconciliation, a 15 per cent tax on high income earners, and increased support for the cultural sector, to name a few areas. Unlike their counterparts, the program was fully costed, at 5 year increments, which is both responsible and transparent.

Now that the major parties have released their policy blueprints, the voters can shop around. As well, the two remaining leaders’ debates should focus squarely on the merits of these ideas. Which is what an election should be about, a constructive clash over creative and effective options for strengthening our country’s future.

Thursday brought us the first leaders’ debate. It was in French, and there were no clear winners, losers, or knockouts. While the debate was not a turning point, we did see some sparks fly. Trudeau continued to hit O’Toole on his refusal to support mandatory vaccines, while the Tory leader countered that the government has failed to provide the required level of health care transfer payments to the provinces. Singh talked a lot about the rich not paying their fair share in taxes, while Blanchet strongly defended Quebec interests. And all the leaders kept harping about why Trudeau called an unnecessary election; an issue that is still greeting Libéral candidates at voters’ doors.

In fact, Nanos polling shows that three-quarters of Canadians believe that the election call was unwarranted. After 3 weeks, this issue still has lots of legs. Unfortunately for the Liberals, it has the feel of the fatal David Peterson election call of 1990.

Over the weekend, polling data indicates that Trudeau got a bump from Thursday’s debate. Nanos stated that the five point Tory margin was reduced to 1.5, and that leader preferences were once again tied between Trudeau and O’Toole. That must have brought a temporary sigh of  relief among Liberals. This narrowing might have something to do with the PM condemning the PC’s commitment to repeal the ban on assault weapons. This is a most emotive issue, which can hurt O’Toole going forward, unless he clarifies his party’s position.

Next week, there will be two more debates. It will give leaders the opportunity to build on the first round. For Trudeau particularly, they will be critical as he strives to turn the tide. By contrast, O’Toole must avoid costly mistakes. Trudeau will come out swinging, while O’Toole will likely adopt a Mohammad Ali roper dope strategy.

On a very positive note for our political culture, this election boasts the highest number of women candidates ever —- 582 in all. When Parliament was dissolved, there were 100 female MP’s, roughly 30 per cent of the House of Commons. Likewise, there are 77 Indigenous candidates, which is also a record. There were 62 in the last campaign.

Hopefully, more female and Indigenous MP’s will be elected, as this would provide our politics with a significant and value-added dynamic. Fingers crossed.

The big story of the election thus far is the  Libéral slide at the hands of the Conservatives. But by the Labor Day weekend, Trudeau had made a healthy comeback. Everyone will now be watching if Trudeau can sustain a turn around in the coming days, or whether O’Toole recaptures a more comfortable lead.

I have been a candidate in five elections, and I can attest to how tough it is to campaign from behind, with that level of pressure and expectation. But recapturing momentum is certainly possible. Remember how Mulroney successfully attacked John Turner’s lead after the mid-point of the 1988 election, and went on to win. Plus, the remaining 14 days is a long time in politics.

Obviously, it is not a position that Trudeau relished being in at this stage of the campaign. To overcome his political deficit, he will require a disciplined focus, and a ruthless pursuit of O’Toole’s political jugular.

By contrast, O’Toole must shore up areas of potential weakness, while radiating confidence. He must also continue to go on the offence, and not just counterpunch, if he is to hold and grow his lead.

Fasten your seat belts.

The Hon. Sergio Marchi served as a  Toronto City Councillor, MP, Minister, and Ambassador

Photo: iStock