Election post-mortem, Part 1: A Tory insider talks candidly about campaign missteps

TVO.org speaks with a Conservative official about close races, communications struggles — and why the party should have gone negative “sooner and harder”
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 23, 2021
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole speaks in Ottawa on September 21, 2021. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

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This is the first instalment of a three-part series looking at how the election played out in the Greater Toronto Area. 

On Monday, Canadians voted in a federal election. Much attention had been paid to the Greater Toronto Area as a key battleground. In the end, the Liberals essentially held their “Fortress Toronto”; despite losing the popular vote nationally, Liberal strength in and around the city allowed Justin Trudeau to maintain a strong minority in Parliament.

In this three-part series, TVO.org will ask experts and stakeholders for their thoughts on what happened in and around Toronto during the 2021 federal-election campaign. First up, a senior Conservative party official with knowledge of both the national and Ontario campaigns. (In order to speak freely and candidly, the official asked for, and was granted, anonymity.)

Matt Gurney: From your vantage point, what happened on Monday?

Conservative: Five weeks ago, everyone thought that this was going to be a slam-dunk Liberal majority. And the Conservatives fought a really polished campaign for the most part — we did have some struggles from a communications standpoint, but. by and large, this was a pretty solid campaign, one that I think many Conservatives were proud of. Unfortunately, we just have not had enough time to rebuild the brand and the trust with Canadians, which is something that we identified as being an issue. For the past year, it’s something that Erin O’Toole has been really seized with addressing: rebuilding that trust with Canadians, sharing our positive, compassionate approach. There hasn’t been enough time — 36 days is not a lot. And the Liberals knew that! They knew that it would be difficult for us to overcome that hurdle.

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Gurney: Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole are very different guys. They ran different campaigns. The result was basically the same. I bet that leaves you wanting to throw something at a wall. But, more seriously, what do you make of that? This is a problem for you guys.

Conservative: Yeah. The results came out similar. But I don’t agree that this was just a repeat of last time, despite the final numbers. Almost every single day last time, the Liberals pulled out some oppo research on us, and we had to apologize for something. We had constant bozo eruptions — I hate the term, but you know what I mean. That was constant last time. We also had some bombshells dropped on the last leader that we weren’t ready for. There was almost none of that this time — a few incidents here and there, but there was no crushing Liberal opposition-research attack. We had great candidates. Caucus was disciplined. I know it didn’t net out to new wins, but this was a much better campaign. 

Gurney: The problem, though, is that that much better campaign still didn’t deliver a breakthrough. I want to come back to this, actually, but later, because first I want to ask you about communications. You mentioned that above. I was very public in columns, on the radio, on Twitter, that there was a pattern that repeated itself a few times. First on vaccine passports and mandates, then on guns, and then on unvaccinated candidates: questions would come up on the campaign trail, and O’Toole would be visibly and obviously evading an answer. He’d bob and weave. And then, two days later, suddenly there’d be a change either in policy or messaging.

And I’m an outsider looking in, but that reads to me as the party HQ frantically trying to figure out what the Official Position will be and then getting the word to him so he can adopt it. It wasn’t happening fast enough, and worse, like, I’m sorry, but these weren’t surprise issues. How was the party not ready to answer on vaccine mandates? Or guns? That was obviously going to be a Liberal attack. But you seemed stunned and unprepared for stuff that wasn’t or at least shouldn’t have been surprising.

Conservative: [Pause and a sigh.] That’s …. yeah, that’s fair. That’s a fair assessment. I wish it wasn’t. Some of that is just stuff we have to get better at. But particularly on gun control, that’s a complicated issue, because some of that stuff gets hammered out with negotiations with caucus, right? And if we need to change policy on the trail, we can’t just do it on a whim. So there is a process, and that takes time. But I think your analysis is basically right. We weren’t ready for questions we should have been ready for. And the Liberals pounced on that. They’re really good at this.

Gurney: Okay, let’s talk about those numbers, the big-picture stuff. It’s important to note that we are talking very soon after the vote — we don’t even have full numbers yet. Some ballots are still being counted. I’ve only been able to give this a preliminary read myself, but something I saw right away is that, despite the seat count being very close, I actually think there’s something going unremarked upon here. You guys were very close in Ontario. In 2019, the Liberals were 8.5 points ahead of the Tories in Ontario. This time, it was four. You cut their lead in half. I know the vote tallies are still in flux, but if you guys had been able to move 2 per cent of Liberal vote into your column in a bunch of 905 ridings, you’d have flipped a bunch of them. I think the polling underestimated how close the Conservatives would be to the Liberals in Ontario, especially the GTA.

Conservative: I agree. You hit that nail on the head. We don’t have final numbers yet, even internally. We need a few more days. But I can tell you that Ontario is closer than people realize. Not Toronto. And I haven’t looked at a specific breakdown of the 905 yet. That’ll be ready in a few days. I need to sleep more. [laughs] But I think you were actually being generous. We didn’t need 2 per cent. We need 1 per cent. Maybe this changes a bit as mail-in ballots come in, but while I can’t say anything specific about the GTA yet, I’d say that, in Ontario, a move of 1 per cent flips 15 ridings from red to blue. Maybe not exactly, but in that range.

It was so close. It’s frustrating that didn’t happen, but I don’t think people know how close we came in a lot of places in Ontario. I think that’s something people will start to notice this week. Oh, and by the way, that’s just Ontario. I think there are another 15 ridings across the country where this will be true, too, once we count them all. So do the math. What happens if we move 30 ridings?

Gurney: I resent being asked to do math. But, okay. Let’s just use round numbers, because that’s easier, and things are still changing, so let’s say it’s 160 Liberals and 120 Conservatives, and you flip 30 of those reds to blue. That becomes 150 Conservative and 130 Liberal. [Editor’s note: at time of writing, the results were still in flux, but at present, the Liberal and Conservative seat tallies are close to that estimate: 158 and 119, respectively.]

Conservative: Right. Exactly. Real life is never that clean and easy, but that’s the big picture, yeah. And this is moving maybe a thousand or two votes in a riding from them to us. So if you asked me in a week, I could give you better numbers, but that’s where my quick analysis is. A 1 per cent movement from red to blue flips 15 Ontario seats to us, and probably about that many in other places. That’s not just GTA. That’s Kitchener; that’s Niagara. Lots of places we can grow.

Gurney: Did the PPC block you guys? They basically tripled their vote share from last time.

Conservative: It didn’t help, but I don’t think so. I don’t know yet. People don’t get this. And I know that you have been writing about this lately, actually. But this new, bigger PPC is not made up of Tory defectors. Former Conservatives are less than half the PPC’s current strength, and it’s probably more like a third. And here’s the thing: this is a one-issue party. I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, and I’ve never seen this kind of correlation. The PPC is the anti-vax, anti-mandate, anti-lockdown party. That’s it. I’ve never seen anything like this before. There was just no way we could aggressively court those voters without alienating thousands of other voters. I’m glad we didn’t try. People want to know their kids’ school will stay open. We can’t chase the anti-vaxxers. But honestly, I’m repeating myself: I haven’t seen anything quite like this before. I’ve knocked on thousands of doors, and this is a single-focus party like no other we’ve experienced.

Gurney: So let me ask you the question you won’t like. What needed to be better? What did you guys screw up that you wish you could redo?

Conservative: [Laughs] You’re right. I don’t like this question. Okay. Yeah. The first two weeks, maybe two and a half weeks, were almost perfect. We ran exactly the campaign we wanted, and it was working. We did really well. But around Labour Day, that whole long weekend, things blew up. On vaccine mandates and on guns, we were off-message. We were all over the place. We had to dig in, we were explaining, and we were losing. Well, actually, that’s an exaggeration. I don’t think we lost ground. But our momentum was gone. We didn’t do well that long weekend, and we never really got going again. But I’d also say that the Liberals didn’t really gain, either. They stopped our momentum but never really put us on the defensive. We lost an opportunity after that to refocus, ask ourselves what had been working, and really recommit to that.

Gurney: It’s interesting that you think you lost momentum but didn’t lose ground. That’s actually my analysis, too. The Liberals and the Conservatives both showed up with a plan, they both executed their plans, and they negated each other. It was weird to watch. They just cancelled each other out in some form of stalemate. And I agree it was around Labour Day. I sort of thought to myself, oh, and this is where the Liberal counterattack will begin! You had a great start, and now they’re going to crush you. It looked like that was starting on Labour Day, but then it didn’t. It was like trench warfare. No one could advance. 

Conservative: And this ties back into what you said above, and I had to agree with you. We weren’t ready to be attacked on stuff we should have been ready on. We knew the Liberals were relentless and good at this stuff, and we didn’t do well enough when the attack came. They stopped us, and that was it. Status quo for two weeks and right until election night. I don’t think anything much changed after Labour Day.

Gurney: What should you have done?

Conservative: Go negative sooner and harder. Voters say they hate negative stuff. But it works. Voters lie when they say they hate negative, because it’s a proven tactic. We should have gone more negative, harder. In Toronto and Vancouver, we should have done nothing but talk about housing and hammered the house-flipping tax. The Liberals would have yelled that we were lying, and maybe the Toronto Star would have be mad at us, but the Liberals are shameless at misrepresenting the facts on guns, for example. You write about that a lot.

Gurney: [Laughs] I sure do. It doesn’t seem to have helped!

Conservative: Well, we need to be that ruthless and relentless, too. A house-flipper tax is in their platform. We should have run harder with that. Make them eat that for two weeks. And, yeah, the voters say they hate that sort of thing, but then why does it work?

One other thing I’d say: we overplayed how angry people were about the election. People were angry about the election, but we had all those votes by Day One. We needed something new, positive or negative, and we didn’t really ever figure that out. So I don’t know if TVO.org will let you quote me, but see if they will: We have never been as relentless and shameless as the Liberals, and we should be. If we’d spent two weeks attacking them on housing, they would have been f**ked. That’s the quote!

Gurney: Well, I’ll run that by the editor and see what he says. He’ll appreciate the candour in any case. [laughs] Okay, let’s move on. So. Two stalemated elections. What do you guys need to do to break through?

Conservative: Some of this is just time. We have really good candidates now. I talked about that above, but I don’t think people realize how important this is. All over the country, we have good candidates. And they will help in neighbouring ridings, too. I’d say there are another five ridings in Quebec that we can target next time — maybe not 10, but five. In the Atlantic, there are four seats we’re going to push hard. Take those, flip 10 or 15 in Ontario, and that’s a very different election next time. And I think we can do even better.

Gurney: Let me be a jerk here for a second. Erin O’Toole is not secure in his leadership. I’ll just say that bluntly. He took a bet, and it didn’t pay off immediately, and I don’t know if he’s secure enough in his job to hang on. My personal opinion is that he would do better in a second election, but he might not get one. I agree with what you’re telling me about all the long-term causes for optimism, but if he’s purged between now and then, it won’t matter. So for a skeptical Conservative who isn’t sold on this plan, what you want to do differently next time? Is it getting out the vote? Data? Polling? What do you need to get that extra percentage point?

Conservative: I think our get-out-the-vote effort was fine this time — excellent, even. I don’t think we left a lot of votes out there. Our data was pretty good. Let me tell you what I mean: I don’t know exactly yet how well our internal polling performed beyond the general sense that it was pretty good. I could tell you more about that by the weekend. But our voter-identification data was really good. We weren’t walking up to a lot of doors and being surprised by a Liberal sign on the lawn. So I think getting the vote out was good, I think voter ID was good, and I think fundraising was good. But I think we obviously want more of all of those things, and we want more time for the new caucus to become known — both nationally and locally, in adjacent ridings we’d like to flip. We have strong new members in the Atlantic, in the GTA with Melissa Lantsman, for example, and definitely some great new voices in Quebec. And we’re going to use these people to make it easier to win next time. We are going to show Canadians that this is a new Conservative party. Because, honestly, that old Conservative coalition is gone.

Gurney: Whoa, hang on. That sounds like something we just shouldn’t blow past! What was the old Conservative coalition, and what happened to it?

Conservative: [Laughs] Okay, obviously it varies by place, but think of it this way: our three legs were big business and corporate, rural and farmers, and a swing component. That third one was tricky. Mulroney brought the Quebec nationalists. Harper, we got them with ethno-community suburban outreach. But I think the Liberals are beating us on big business, and we need to accept that and pivot to small business, working-class, things like that. We just started doing that, and it’s already working. We did shockingly well in Hamilton. And look at northern Ontario. These places are in play for us now. Northern Ontario is going to get very interesting. But if I’m being honest, the question of who the new Canadian Conservative voter isn’t one we’ve fully answered yet. We’re winning the popular vote, but we still need to grow, and I think that needs more time.

Gurney: That’s a way bigger issue than I was expecting to pop up at near the end of the interview. We’ll have to talk about that more someday. Last question. Did this go the way you thought?

Conservative: I need more time to look at the GTA numbers to really understand what happened there, but obviously we wanted to win some of those really tight races. But I’ll tell you this: we did better than expected in the Atlantic.

Gurney: There are, like, a million things I could ask you, but I need to go get my kids from school.

Conservative: [laughs] No, that’s fair enough. Let me just say this. It’s easy to look at this election and think nothing changed. But let me tell you what I see as a Conservative. I see a get-out-the-vote and voter-ID effort that went well. I see a pool of candidates with very few mid-campaign bozo eruptions. I see new members in caucus who are very, very impressive people and are going to help us put a better face for this party before the public — and that includes a better one in French! We are doing better in the Atlantic and in Quebec, and we have great new members there who will help us get even better. And I see us doing way better than expected in Ontario. Not good enough yet, but much better, and better than most pollsters thought we would do. I wanted to win.

But, like I said at the start, I think a lot of Conservatives are proud of this campaign, and as people realize over the coming week just how close we were in the GTA, how we beat expectations in Ontario generally, I think the view of this as a stalemate election will start to change. This was closer than the seat count tells you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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