‘Looks like nothing happened’: Hill watchers weigh in on the campaign that was

By Palak Mangat October 13, 2021

Plagued by no clear ballot box question and a “one-two punch” delivered by a high-profile premier, the 2021 election campaign will be remembered for delivering the same parliamentary hand to party captains despite being held against the backdrop of several “anomalies,” say experts and politicos.

Speaking to Parliament Today, veteran pollster Jean-Marc Léger noted “it looks like nothing happened” since the dust settled on September 20.

“The change in the campaign was at the beginning, two weeks into August. After that, the last two or three weeks were really stable,” said Léger last week. Save for a People’s Party of Canada “surge” in support, which was the “main issue for pollsters” to quantify and analyze this time around, the 36-day affair was marked by a “stable” neck-and-neck race between the two frontrunners.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals rebounded from a slow start after forecasting a “cakewalk” of a campaign against Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who’s since made open pleas to keep the top job in hopes of leading the squad into another vote.

While pollsters painted a tight race between the two in the tail end of the campaign, the Grits started off five points ahead of the Tories, per Léger’s figures, before seeing that lead evaporate a “couple” days after O’Toole shared his platform. A “huge change” occurred when the Conservatives moved ahead of the Liberals by roughly the same margin, but once the national debates hit in September, it became increasingly likely the country would opt for either a blue or red minority regime.

Léger said he saw the vote as a referendum on Trudeau’s pandemic performance “but also on the fact that he called an election that nobody wants,” meaning a “clear ballot box question” was lacking — or at least a strong one.

Before Labour Day, the Tories appeared to have hope, as voters were deciding “if they could trust them or not,” though that was rebuffed with a full-court press from Trudeau’s entourage on O’Toole’s stance on abortion, gun policies and the child care file.

As detailed in the Toronto Star recently, the Grits seized the campaign as an opportunity to highlight social conservative voices within the blue tent and a Tory platform pledge to repeal their 2020 cabinet order to ban 1,500 firearms. The Liberals also warned the Tories would nix the several deals Ottawa had already inked with most provinces to deliver more child care spaces.

“You had a moment of the campaign where it was possible for the Conservatives to win the election, but they lost this magic moment,” said Léger.

Per the Star, Liberal insiders then felt the PM “knocked it out of the park” in his TVA French debate performance while squaring off with Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet, warning him he does not have a “monopoly” on the Quebec identity and interests — a quip that had the chattering class buzzing for days as O’Toole faded into the shadows as a “robot,” said Léger.

The pollster likened that remark to the closing act of a “one-two punch” kicked off by Quebec Premier François Legault’s earlier endorsement of a minority regime headed by O’Toole, which came just hours before captains readied themselves for the English debate.

But the star of that evening’s affair had leaders riled up for days and weeks later, after moderator Shachi Kurl suggested that Quebec has to contend with a racism issue in relation to its controversial so-called secularism law, Bill 21.

After the debate, Legault commended the BQ captain for standing up to the question and reiterated that Quebec voters should opt to support the Tories or Blanchet, who was visibly upset by the question and frequently used it to rail against what he called the rest of the country’s disdain for Quebec.

While the Bloc had been losing about one point per week since the beginning of the campaign in Léger’s polling numbers, “they started to increase their vote” in the region after the debate, said the pollster. “These two elements combined to create this trend in favour of the Bloc,” allowing it to pick up enough seats to retain its third-party status in the House.

Leger celebrates its accurate nationwide polling results.

Focus on ridings, not national figures, says Tory expert

Former Conservative Hill staffer David Murray commended the polling industry for accurately “illustrating the key events” of the campaign. Now with Counsel Public Affairs, he previously headed up the CPC’s national polling efforts for the 2019 election.

“Because Canada’s democracy and our Parliament is based on 338 individual races, the accuracy of these regions is much more important than the actual national numbers,” Murray told Parliament Today.

Beefing up the ground game is a common theme as parties embark on their respective election post-mortems, with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh noting last week there were about a dozen seats the NDP came within striking distance of, but fell short by one or two per cent.

For the Tories, Murray said his focus was on Edmonton Griesbach and Edmonton Centre, which flipped from Tory blue to an NDP orange and Liberal red, respectively.

In the former, twice-elected Conservative Kerry Diotte was ousted by rookie Dipper Blake Desjarlais by about three per cent, after taking the riding in 2019 with more than half the vote. In the latter, former MP Randy Boissonnault eked out a victory over Conservative James Cumming, who will now lead the CPC’s campaign review.

“I largely saw them as places that the non-incumbents really needed to expand in order to extend their voter base,” said Murray. Still, he said this year’s vote will be marked by “very unpredictable” variables and their impact on the result that had pollsters on their toes, including the pandemic, expected surge of mail-in ballots and “anti-lockdown vote that was really starting to coalesce around the PPC.”

“It was such an anomaly of an election,” said Murray. “So this changes a lot of the math for these kinds of predictors and it raises a bigger question of, ‘Is this going to be more true to the trend or is it simply a blip because of the public health restrictions we saw ourselves in throughout this campaign?’” wondered Murray.

He predicted that “so long as the pandemic is not an endemic,” similar “themes” projecting volatility will continue to seep into the federal political scene.

No big ‘storyline,’ agrees pollster

Public Square Research president Heather Bastedo agreed that an unknown every pollster contends with is turnout on the day of the vote.

“There’s no question that polls have an effect on voters and some want to vote for the winning team,” said Bastedo. “When all you see in the news is, ‘It’s neck and neck for these two’ and the tightness of the race [is highlighted] — that historically should increase turnout, and notably in this one, it did not. So there were all kinds of little anomalies, but there wasn’t any big storyline because it was kind of an election about nothing.”

Among the uncertainties many polling firms cited toward the tail end of the campaign was the impact Maxime Bernier’s PPC would have in peeling support away from more established parties like the Conservatives.

Further fueling that speculation was outgoing Conservative MP David Yurdiga’s endorsement of the local PPC candidate in his riding. Yurdiga made headlines for blasting vaccine mandates as authoritarian tools, before announcing shortly after that he would not be seeking another term, which the CPC said was for health reasons.

Per iPolitics, a September 9 poll from Ekos suggested national support for the PPC was climbing to 11.2 per cent, peaking in Alberta at 19 per cent with Quebec and Ontario figures hitting 13 and 11, respectively.

It may have sparked a conversation about how some media outlets should cover the far-right party that some experts dismissed as a fringe movement in 2019, with the CBC tapping Hill newcomer Travis Dhanraj to follow Bernier in the dying days of the campaign.

While Bastedo said “you knew those people would come out” to cast a ballot, rooted in motivation to show up if one either “loves or hates” the current leader, she said some firms, like Ekos, appeared to overestimate the PPC’s support.

At the 2019 vote, 292,703 electors or 1.6 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot for the PPC, a figure that grew to 833,372 or 5.1 per cent in last month’s vote.