Whenever Premier Christy Clark is asked to account for her surprising, come-from-behind victory in the 2013 provincial election, she invariably replies “campaigns matter.”
It’s a view that is now no doubt shared by the three major federal party leaders, who this week finished an epic and bruising 11-week marathon campaign themselves. Public opinion about the three of them seemed to shift, swing and move remarkably as the campaign wore on.
Justin Trudeau and the once-moribund federal Liberals are reveling in the fact they scored an historic, upset win that ousted the Conservatives from office and shattered the once lofty dreams of the New Democratic Party.
This election outcome, of course, is exactly the opposite of the scenario that seemed most likely to occur at the beginning of the campaign, and shows that the campaign itself does indeed matter – a lot.
The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, at the start, was the man to beat. Harper looked spent, and Trudeau was miles behind. All signs pointed to an historic NDP victory.
And then people started to pay attention.
That’s another one of the points Premier Clark’s insisted was true when she was being counted out of it in the months before the 2013 vote: “People don’t pay attention to politics until the campaign is well under way.”
And the federal campaign seemed to bear that out.
While the media and the politicians are fixated on all kinds of political issues —; from the mundane to the ones that seem “significant” —; for the months and years leading up to the actual election campaign, a substantial pool of voters are not.
Much of what passes for political debate in this country —; question period, talk shows, political panels —; is eagerly gobbled up by those with a keen interest in politics. But the majority of folks do not fall into that category, and go out of their way to essentially ignore “politics” whenever they can.
During an election campaign, however, those people take out their earplugs and stop averting their eyes, and begin assessing things. And when they started doing that, public opinion seemed to shift: the Liberals’ popularity started to grow, and the NDP’s began to shrink. The Conservatives, meanwhile, were stuck in neutral for the most part since the campaign began.
Because expectations were so low for Trudeau (and set so low, ironically, by the Conservatives’ “he’s not ready” TV ad campaign) he had the most room of the three to grow in popularity, and he did just that.
The television debates were important, but not necessarily decisive. Lacking a large television audience, most voters relied on second-day assessments —; almost of all of which favored Trudeau, who was really being scrutinized for the first time (as was Mulcair, who seemed to impress only party partisans).
Trudeau’s campaign was the only one that seemed to have energy and confidence, and his dismissal of the balanced budget (the turning point of the campaign) was the launch pad to a growth in popularity. By contrast, Mulcair was stuck in a plodding embrace of the “mushy middle” that failed to inspire.
Harper and the Conservatives flailed around at the start of the campaign, then switched to a strategy based on instilling fear and division (his attack on the niqab in Quebec only served to decimate the NDP, which seemed to have a trickle-down effect on the party’s popularity across the country). It seemed to solidify part of their base, but it also greatly limited their appeal to a broader crowd.
The long campaign was a boon to Trudeau, as it provided him time to find his sea legs and boost his credibility and his likeability.
And the long slog on the trail hurt the original front-runner most of all, as Mulcair and the NDP not only were unable to extricate themselves from the strait jacket in which they had put themselves, but also found their weaknesses cemented with each passing day.
At the beginning of the campaign, the majority of public opinion clearly wanted a change in government but saw only a confusing road ahead towards achieving that goal. As the weeks went by, the road ahead seemed clearer and clearer and the choice for so many on that road became obvious: Trudeau and the Liberals, a choice that wasn’t even in sight when the whole drama began.
And so what seemed like reality at the beginning turned out to be anything but, because the campaign itself determined the election outcome – not the long warm-up game preceding it..
Keith Baldrey is the chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.