Advice to party leaders on summer stumping

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This piece first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 23, 2019.

As the warm weather finally sets in and the House rises for the summer, the leaders of our federal parties will begin to have visions of electoral success dance in their heads.

Conventional wisdom tells us Canadians don’t want to hear from their politicians at this time of year — they would rather tune out the news and let leaders flip burgers and pal around at the Calgary Stampede.

But before they checked out for the summer, millions of Canadians gathered around their television screens to watch the Raptors claim the country’s first NBA title. And third-party advertisers took advantage of record television audiences to impress upon Canadians the key narratives and frames that will follow the leaders into the fall federal election: Andrew Scheer was tagged as “weak.” We were reminded that Justin Trudeau is (still) “not ready.”

And Jagmeet Singh’s current position in the polls meant he suffered the ultimate humiliation: no one even bothered to attack him.

So while it may be traditional to take a pause before the start of the campaign, the intensity of the pre-emptive air war (and the increasingly stringent campaign spending rules) has changed the conventional calculus that leaders can take a break and simply ramp things up come September. Now that the messaging of their opponents has begun to take hold, it would be a mistake to allow it to set in over the summer.

For the prime minister, bad news abounds: the Conservatives are leading in the polls and many observers predict the Liberals would be lucky to secure a minority.

Trudeau’s polling has been worsening since mid-February, around the time that Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned as Minister of Veterans Affairs amid the SNC-Lavalin affair. But there may be a silver lining. That decline seems to have finally slowed, along with the steady Conservative gains that accompanied it.

Now it’s up to the prime minister to convince Canadians there is still a job to be done, and he is the right man to do it. Along the way, he would do well to avoid further gaffes, like his comment about “drink-box water bottles.” Such moments may seem benign, but they are red meat for the likes of viral content factories such as Canada Proud.

For Andrew Scheer, the most crucial thing will be for him to build his own brand, distinct from the Jason Kenney-Doug Ford coalition that has come to define conservativism in the minds of many Canadians over recent months.

Polls suggest this has not worked to Scheer’s advantage, particularly in Ontario, where candidates out door-knocking have found voters conflating the provincial party with their federal counterparts — and not necessarily in a positive light. While the Conservatives have effectively capitalized on Trudeau’s SNC-Lavalin woes, their momentum has been slowing. Scheer should devote his summer to travelling the country, making himself more accessible to Canadians and proving he is a viable option as prime minister.

Considering the New Democrats’ dismal standing in the polls to date, my advice to Jagmeet Singh is simple: batten down the hatches.

With support crumbling in former “Orange Wave” ridings, the NDP leader needs to accept the reality that this campaign is not a winning opportunity, but rather an attempt at survival. For the party, that means they must carefully prioritize ridings they can actually win or hold, rather than make any long-shot efforts at incursions elsewhere.

What’s more, the weakness of the NDP seems to be paying off for Elizabeth May’s Green party.

On Tuesday, Ekos released the first poll to show the federal Greens ahead of the New Democrats. While it may have been less than a two-point lead, it’s clear the party’s message is resonating with at least some Canadians.

With another elected MP by her side, May should be laser-focused on maintaining that momentum over the summer.

For every leader, I would advise them to remember — as the Raptors victory and so many other events have shown us — that this is truly a year of firsts. Anything can happen, especially during an election. And while that may be a blessing for some, for others it may well prove to be a curse.

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