03.02.2015 06:22 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: when you drop 15 points

You’re the incumbent, you’re smart, you’ve got plenty of experience, but you can’t get ahead in the polls. So what do you do?

You call for a series of leaders’ debates, that’s what you do. 

Stephen Harper, however much he disdains the mainstream media, knows one media truism to be irrefutable: politicians are rarely felled by a single news story. If that were not so, Harper would have been long ago dispatched by robocalls, or Afghan detainees, or In-and-Out, or prorogation, or Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.

But that hasn’t happened. The reason: nowadays, citizens pay less and less attention to the news media. They’re busy. They’re distracted. They’re suspicious of big news organizations, even, often seeing them as just another corporate special interest group. 

Harper, being clever, knows this. He knows, therefore, that what matters isn’t a single story. What matters is a whole series of related stories, over a long period of time, incrementally chipping away at a politician’s reputation. 

Case in point: Harper’s principal opponent, Justin Trudeau.

Abacus Data released an important poll a few days ago, and you can bet Stephen Harper clipped it out of the paper to keep in his wallet for use with caucus Nervous Nellies. Most of us focused on the tail end of the poll, which showed an equal number of Canadians predicting a Conservative or Liberal election victory. Ipsos came out with a horse race poll a few days later, showing sort of the same thing: the Grits and the Tories were tied in support. 

But that was the tail. The head of Abacus’ poll showed something else entirely. It showed that, between last August and now, Justin Trudeau’s inevitability had slipped 15 percentage points. That is, a lot fewer folks expected him to win, now. 

Fifteen points.

That’s a lot. The last time that number happened to the Liberal Party of Canada, in fact, was a decade ago. Remember? Paul Martin commenced his “Mad As Hell” tour, and persuaded millions of Canadians to get mad as hell, too—at him. He promptly dropped 15 points and never recovered. 

Justin Trudeau, according to Abacus and others, has done something similar, albeit less dramatically. Since August, he has slowly, surely, and incrementally lost the aura invincibility that once clung to him like a seal fur coat.

Stephen Harper, being a student of politics, has a theory about that. 

At the very moment that Canadians noticed that Trudeau makes an awful lot of verbal flubs—at the moment Trudeau opposed taking any action against the genocidal force that is ISIS, at the moment he seemingly mocked our military—the Liberal leader commenced a downward descent. He isn’t dead, not by a long shot, but the trend line—as the pollsters call it—isn’t particularly good. It tells a story, one that doesn’t assist Justin Trudeau.

Thus, the debates idea, which The Toronto Star reported on late last week. “Tories consider more debates to trap Justin Trudeau,” the headline read, atop a story replete with the usual anonymous sources. The story went on to quote just one person on the record—NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair—who is all in favour of more debates, too. Surprise, surprise.

Now, it’s possible Trudeau could show up at said debates, and impress everyone. He’s certainly lowered expectations about his verbal dexterity, and then some. So it is possible he could exceed those expectations.

But it’s equally possible—likely, even—that, during one of a series of regional debates, Trudeau will say something that is unhelpful to his cause. And the Tories and the Dippers seize on that—as they did with Ignatieff and Dion—and again persuade a million self-identified Liberal voters to stay home.

Thus, the suggestion that there be a myriad number of debates. For Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair, it’s a great idea.

For Justin Trudeau, it ain’t.  


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    Peter says:

    Assuming he won’t win on the Harper-as-bogeyman theme, what issue will he seize on to turn things around?

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    Tired of it All says:

    Warren, what are your thoughts on the debates as an extension of the boxing ring?

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    Gayle says:

    He obviously won’t “win” the debate. Arguably Dion won both, hence the Senate post winning move by Duffy to expose him caught in a trap a few days later. Point being, the debate is not everything. It is a lot though.That said, if he does better than expected, this could backfire on Harper. Expectations are so very low for Trudeau that it would not take much to exceed them.

    And while I think Trudeau could have handled things better in the past few weeks, I suggest it is more about the security fears than anything else. When such things happen, the incumbent always has the edge, because he or she are shown in the news standing firm. Take Obama and Hurricane Sandy as an example of that.

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      MississaugaPeter says:

      Disagree. Layton won the French debate and thus the great, Quebec result.

      Due to genes and drama, I expect that Trudeau will do much, much better than the low expectations. But like everyone, will make a mistake. The Conservative war room will pounce on it. The present, pathetic group around Trudeau are not the folks I would want running my war room when that happens.

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    cynical says:

    A tie is a loss. From what I can see, the electoral boundary adjustments (micro-gerrymandering?) have given the CPC a window to a more efficient vote, and now the Liberals have to have a significant lead to win enough seats to govern. Am I wrong?
    I do not think Trudeau can do well in a debate. Sorry, but he’s going to spend most of his time fighting off Mulcair, a fearsome performer, who we know will go after Trudeau more than he will Harper.

    This will not end well. You mentioned traitors the other day in a different context. I’m starting to see the leadership of the Liberal Party as traitors to Canada, for letting Mr.Harper get away with so much destructive crap. Time to pull the chain, I think. Hopes, dashed!

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      Africon says:

      Adjusting riding boundaries in order to accommodate a new census is hardly “gerrymandering”. However, I seriously doubt that every political party will when given an opportunity take whatever advantage that they can.

      So often have I heard this accusation – “for letting Mr.Harper get away with so much destructive crap”.

      Sure would be nice to see this laid out in some bullet point summary as I simply do not see this government any more lacking than every previous government that this country has been blessed with. Or put another way, which country(s) would you like to move to that is so much better?
      If you were the least bit honest about this, you’d count your blessings for the splinter of Harpers destruction compared the huge tree-trunk of destruction in dozens of countries around the world – Venezuela, Argentina, Nigeria, Russia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Cyprus, Burma, Iran, Lebanon, Jamaica, Cuba, Zimbabwe, S Africa or those Liberal run paradises of Quebec and Ontario.

      The “people of Canada” in their great wisdom elected the horrible Harper, who elected Justin’s advisers?

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Justin has to inspire confidence for voting Canadians. He knows that perfectly well. It’s litmus test time meaning he won’t be running away from a series of debates.

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    Paul Brennan says:

    I do not get that Mulcair guy …smart , great litigator I’m sure but man he’s always seems so mad….I dont think it shows well….

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    Africon says:

    I think he posts here as Smelter Rat who also comes across as angry most of the time.

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    JH says:

    Great insight, I agree – add Scott as well. If ever there were reasons not to join the Liberal Party, those two would be the exemplars.

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    Pierre D. says:

    At this point it is #HarperOut for myself and colleagues. Tired of the police state, tired of sloughing off other issues like Thalidomide payments, gender identity in legalese and very, very tired of the state as law enforcers instead of the courts.

    I am dying for a change and I hope Trudeau gets a minority, at the very least.

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