The NDP, I argued in my last column, are boned.
But what of their less-numerous compatriots down the aisle — the party once proclaimed to be the default for federalists and nationalists alike?
Horserace numbers will tell you that the Liberal Party, headed by the ever-affable Justin Trudeau, are a shoo-in for government, when the next election rolls around. One imagines that, even if he kicked a dog, he’d still ride into 24 Sussex on a wave of populism and politics-done-right.
And, judging by the test I set out last week in wagging my finger at the NDP’s pre-election strategy, Trudeau should be a done-deal — voters see him as at least as good, if not better, master of economic issues than the current Prime Minister.
But, there’s a but.
What should give the Liberal patriots pause is the lessons that they, perhaps, haven’t learned from their last two forays into rebuilding.
For starts: Stéphane Dion and the tragic downfall of the ideas man.
Indeed, his ascension to the leadership was much-heralded. Never truly seen as the slam-dunk that the Grits were hoping for — not as smart as Ignatieff, nor as experienced as Rae, as likeable as Kennedy, as revered as Dryden, and certainly not as brash as Hall Findlay — he, nevertheless, rode to victory on the back of eagles.
And lo, he got a ten point bump in the polls for his efforts. The Liberals, languishing below 30%, soon peaked at 40% and had a real shot at unseating Harper after only a year-and-a-half of government.
Indeed, straight through 2007, the polls ping-ponged between the two main parties. Even up to the summer of 2008, Dion hovered around 35%. But that all slipped away as the writs were dropped. Harper made leadership the core question of the election — Dion’s achilles heel.
Towards the end of the campaign, Angus-Reid found a mere 8% of voters were willing to select Dion as the best chance for Prime Minister.
In other words: Harper, still a relative neophyte in the electoral arena, defined the election in a flawless way: Dion doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s going to screw it up.
Indeed, Ignatieff was a similar story.
When he became leader, he dragged Liberal poll numbers past Harper’s flagging Conservatives. His leadership numbers well outpaced anything that Dion could muster — competitive with Harper, even.
Ignatieff had fully a ten point lead over Harper on who is perceived as best placed to deal with jobs and unemployment. In fact, voters picked Ignatieff as the best placed to handle all issues.
Of course, Ignatieff’s Samson-esque fall doesn’t need re-hashing. But worth noting is that his fall was swift, painful, and entirely decided by Stephen Harper.
Much is always made about Ignatieff’s refusal to fire back at Stephen Harper. But that’s always a bit of a red herring. Ignatieff did unleash attack ads at Harper. And Harper fired back. And Ignatieff sent out an ad responding to the attacks. It made no substantive difference.
The ads didn’t define Ignatieff’s negative qualities — Ignatieff did.
Looking back to the fall of 2009, when Ignatieff’s numbers first began to slip, he first pulled the “Mr. Harper, your time is up!” shtick. From there, Ignatieff hopped around, making it his life’s business to look like Harper’s parole officer, instead of the Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons.
And Canadians got tired of it. He looked self-interested, opportunistic, and like a no-good politician.
So when the he didn’t come back for you ads rolled out, it didn’t plant a new idea into voters’ minds — it re-enforced an existing one.
And that’s where Harper’s Conservatives excel. They suss out their opponents’ weaknesses in focus groups, and they proceed to nurture the idea in Canadians’ heads.
The funny trick is that it only works on Liberals. It is, of course, not all voters that these messages target: it’s only that chunk of the Liberal base that oscillates back-and-forth between Conservative and Liberal. If the ads push some lefties to the Dippers, then all the better.
This history lesson is one I flesh out in full, via e-book, so I won’t bother re-writing the whole tome.
So, onto Trudeau.
There is little doubt that his popularity is palpable and his skills are considerable.
But the hunt between he and Harper, right now, is a bit like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd — lots of shots fired, lots of dynamite thrown, but little in the way of actual effort.
All this business about Trudeau forcing your kids to smoke pot is just cover fire. Unless the Conservatives have entirely lost their touch, the messaging in 2015 will be more like a laser-guided rifle, not a comedically-large musket.
Indeed, Trudeau’s popularity numbers are good, not great, and his unfavourables are quite high. One Abacus poll found some things that should worry the younger Trudeau. 65% of those asked said he was “more style than substance.” On every other metric, his numbers were lacklustre and falling fast — only half the country thinks he’s qualified to be Prime Minister, believes he has sound judgement, or thinks he has a clear vision for Canada. He falls behind Mulcair and Harper on just about every leadership quality.
It’s those numbers that everyone should go to. (To the pollsters: ask these questions more often. C’mon!)
If Harper can craft an ad that exploits those misgivings about the Liberal leader — likely, some evolved version of he’s in over his head — then Trudeau will fall just like Ignatieff did.
While the Liberal team seem to think that warbling Kumbaya will be enough to offset the attacks, they, for their own sake, ought to have some ready to go when the attacks drop.
Trudeau, right now, is lucky. He is not expected to be the main opposition leader, and the scrutiny is still relatively light. But that lower standard might also result in a false sense of security.
The only person who truly knows when the next election will be is Stephen Harper. That means, unlike 2008 and 2011, he decides on the timeline for his Liberal onslaught.
And it’s going to be bloody.
OTHER ARTICLES BY JUSTIN LING
Voters don’t trust the NDP on the economy
The shambolic study of the Conservative’s prostitution bill
330 Days to an election
The 6.4 million barrel question
What the hell is the Harper government thinking?
Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling