Election post-mortem, Part 3: A Liberal insider on the gamble their party made — and lost

TVO.org speaks with an anonymous Liberal official about a lack of preparedness, close races, and why the results didn’t come as a surprise
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 24, 2021
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at his campaign headquarters in Montreal on September 21, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

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This is the final instalment in a three-part series looking at how the election played out in the Greater Toronto Area. Read Part 2 here.

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 asks experts and stakeholders for their thoughts on what happened in and around Toronto during the 2021 federal-election campaign. Today, a senior Liberal party official with knowledge of both the national and Toronto-area campaigns. (In order to speak freely and candidly, the official asked for, and was granted, anonymity.)

Matt Gurney: All right. Same first question to you as to the others: What happened on Monday?

Liberal: People looked at the options and decided they wanted to stick with the status quo. That wasn’t giving the Liberals a majority, and it wasn’t a change in government. It was just playing it safe. We thought there might be some changes here and there, and there were a few, but you know, the race narrowed, so we’re back where we started, for better or worse.

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Gurney: How was your confidence throughout? Was this the outcome you expected at the beginning?

Liberal: The Conservatives got their kicks in first. No doubt. They took the early lead right at the beginning. And, for a while, yeah, it looked like maybe we could have an Erin O’Toole government; they had real momentum. After a few weeks, though, he waffled on guns and lacked a coherent message on a few things, and we held. Like I said above, that’s when it settled into a status quo election, and we ended up back where we started.

Gurney: That’s funny. Your Conservative counterpart agrees with you, almost word for word. In the interview I did with the Conservative, they told me, yeah, we came out strong, had a good few weeks, had the momentum, but then tripped over some issues we didn’t have answers for, and that was that.

Liberal: Absolutely. That’s what it felt like on our end, too.

Gurney: What was it like for you inside the Liberal campaign during those few weeks when the Conservatives seemed to have the advantage?

Liberal: We didn’t have any traction. We were going back to our identified voters, the ones we wanted to stay with us or come back to us, and they were asking us, why are we having this election? We didn’t have a coherent answer. We could make a case for ourselves, but there wasn’t an overriding coherent answer on why we had chosen to do this. So we were finding a lot of questions about the timing. And you know what? A lot of people didn’t even know the election was happening. Honestly. It was summer! People were focused on that and wrapping that up.

Gurney: I want to ask you a question about that. Not just specifically the timing question, but overall, your election readiness. You guys are good at elections. And it was very surprising to me to see those first few weeks with no traction, as you said. And one thing I had heard from a Liberal friend or two was that, very late in the game, it wasn’t clear there was even going to be an election. That there was some hesitancy and uncertainty around when to go or even if to go. When did you know that this was for sure happening?

Liberal: You mean dropping the writ? Well, remember back in July. The polls were showing us really high. Really high, easily in majority territory. That’s when I think we all started to think, okay, let’s call this now. And we thought maybe it could come then. But then we started hearing, well, okay, August. It’ll be August. Coming out of the long weekend, we were getting pretty clear signals that it was coming. There were a lot of calls happening, and the message was always “Be ready.” And that was always the message. But after the long weekend, it was a very clear, “Get ready; it’s coming.” That was coming down from the national campaign. Get your resources ready. Get your websites ready. It was clear that it was happening.

Gurney: Do you know if waiting longer was ever considered?

Liberal: I wasn’t in those kinds of conversations at the very top of the national campaign, but from what I can gather, no. There was a decision that it had to happen and that we weren’t going to wait beyond August. After we saw those July numbers, we had to go soon, and they chose August. That was the gamble they made, and they lost. August rolled around, and we were well into the fourth wave, and that’s kind of what killed our early momentum and took away the chance of a majority.

Gurney: As an outsider looking in, that’s what it looked like to me, too. I’m curious, though. And I know you didn’t make the decision. But why the sense that it couldn’t wait until after the fourth wave? Go in six months or a year? Why now? 

Liberal: We were getting to that magical number of 75 per cent vaccinated. Borders are reopening. Everyone wants to be out and living. Things feel normal. We wanted to go now before people move onto the next issues. And I think we were feeling that by the end of the campaign. If you’re vaccinated, you want to move on to what’s next. I think the senior campaign leadership wanted to ride that delivery of the vaccines. But I can tell you, four weeks into the campaign, people were asking about newer, bigger problems. I heard more about Afghanistan and Indigenous reconciliation and boil-water advisories — and this was in the Greater Toronto Area — than I was hearing, “Oh, I’m so happy you guys got me vaccinated.”

Gurney: I had written and talked about this on videos and radio, that there was this assumption or hope among senior Liberals that there would be this sort of enduring gratitude in the population, and that would carry you guys to a majority. But something that surprised me in the campaign was that you didn’t talk about it. It was like a strange kind of bashfulness over a genuine and massive accomplishment by this government. But you didn’t bring it up, and other issues filled the void.

Liberal: Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t focus-group well? I’m not sure. But at the doors, people were asking, “Okay, what are you going to do for me next?” It was interesting to see how quickly vaccines stopped being the dominant narrative. One thing that surprised me on this campaign was how the issues we were hearing about weren’t the issues we’d been talking about since, say, the last election. Blackface? Never came up. SNC-Lavalin rarely came up. The pandemic feels like a million years, right? But even pandemic stuff didn’t come up much. Vaccines? The Conservatives had been hammering us, saying early on that, at the current rate, we wouldn’t be vaccinated until 2030. Never came up. What came up were the campaign wedge issues: child care, banning guns, abortion. 

Gurney: I’ve done my Conservative interview already, but also just in full public view in columns and elsewhere, I’ve said many times how shocked I was by how unprepared the Conservatives were on some of those wedge issues. Especially guns. Like, you guys were always going to go after them on that, and they were not ready, at all, for that attack.

Liberal: [laughs] I know! That’s exactly it. I think that they were ready in some areas. They’d worked hard to not be attacked on their environmental plan. So they had some stuff on that in their platform. And they were more ready on health care, too, where they’re always vulnerable. O’Toole and other candidates in the Toronto area — they were good. They were better. They played it safer and made a move to the centre and bet that the People’s party wouldn’t hurt them. And we went back to our old tricks, and it seemed to make the difference. I wouldn’t definitively say that these three issues were the most important issues that people voted on, but they were what we were hearing about at the doors, and when we picked up on that at the campaign level, it resonated.

Gurney: Your comments about running against the Conservatives there are interesting. What were they like as opponents this time? You sounded almost impressed with them.

Liberal: The Conservatives, and this is just the reality, they were ready for an election. They were prepared. We weren’t. It’s a bit different for us, obviously, as the incumbent. The optics are different. But Melissa Lantsman in Thornhill? She had her office open 11 weeks before the vote. They had the war room running. They were shooting ads. They were in election mode. The NDP didn’t seem to be totally ready; they needed more resources and candidates. The Conservatives were ready. O’Toole was ready. They had their platform out on, like, the second day. The message was honed; they had their virtual studio going. They came out strong, and that was a big contrast, because we sputtered out at the start.

Gurney: But you turned it around. What allowed you guys to stop the slide and dig in and hold the line?

Liberal: Yeah. O’Toole seemed a bit untouchable at first. That’s not the right word, exactly, because he did take hits in the first few weeks, but it didn’t hurt him. But after he stumbled over a few issues that we’ve already talked about, that was our chance to say to our voters, look at what you have, look at the alternative here, and what do you prefer? I can’t speak for every Liberal voter, but that was when we got some of them back. They said, okay, things have been good, and I want to keep that. But, hey, we can’t ignore this truth: our vote is down.

Gurney: It is, but so is the Conservative vote. It’s actually quite remarkable. I’ve been watching this. Both major parties lost a lot of voters, but the relative share of the popular vote held roughly even since 2019. This is still in flux as ballots are being counted, but it’s like hundreds of thousands of Canadians, maybe millions, decided to stay home, and in direct proportion to their 2019 vote share. It’s kind of weird, to be honest. 

[Author’s note: as of Friday afternoon, this remains true: between them, the Liberals and Conservatives have lost a million voters relative to 2019, but this has netted out only to a 0.2 per cent change in their popular vote share, to the Liberals’ advantage. “Weird” remains the operative term.] 

Liberal: Yeah. I had noticed that, and I’ve been thinking about it. I also think, in some areas, for everyone, it created an impression of some closer races than were actually the case. What was a razor’s edge on Monday night might end up being a comfortable win by a few hundred or thousand ballots when everything is done.

Gurney: I want to ask you a specific question about this, actually. So the national top-line popular-vote numbers didn’t move much. The riding count didn’t move much. But, in Ontario, there actually has been some real movement — the Conservatives have really eaten into the Liberal vote advantage, and that’s a topline number, but in some ridings, basically outside Toronto, they’re really eroding the Liberal comfort margins. What do you make of that as a sign of what could be in the future?

Liberal: Yeah, I know. I think we will continue seeing a lot more close races, closer races. A week or so out from the vote, we were talking, and we really thought that we’d see the Conservatives make some gains in the 905, and the NDP in Toronto. But, like I said above, I think we were able to get a lot of our people out, and even some races that we thought would be tight ended up not being that close. In Toronto, we have some comfortable margins, like you said, and I’m glad we held them, even in places we thought that maybe we wouldn’t. 

Gurney: It’s interesting that you were more worried than you had to be a week out. Let me ask this: Did the outcome surprise you? What did you expect to happen?

Liberal: Did you see the article a few days before the vote? Some senior Liberal saying we’d get a majority? I think it was LeBlanc?

Gurney: Yeah, that’s right. Dominic LeBlanc. I did see it. He said he really thought you were headed for a majority.

Liberal: It never felt like that to me. Out there, working in Toronto, it just never felt like a majority. I was in a campaign bubble, but that never felt like a majority. And I’d pop out of the campaign for a minute and, like, talk to a friend or read an article [laughs], and the tone was, nothing much is going to change. And that’s how it felt. So, yeah, even though I had my head down in Toronto, I wasn’t surprised at the result. We did lose some cabinet ministers, but I think that was often over local issues, rather than any pushback against the party or the campaign itself.

Gurney: What did you like about the campaign?

Liberal: [long pause]

Gurney: [laughs] Did you hate it that much?

Liberal: [laughs] No, no. Fortress Toronto held. The government now has some breathing room, and we’ve put some of our issues front and centre. Climate change, child care, stuff like that. We have some time to focus on our issues. I guess my long pause kind of tells you, though, that yeah, it … well, as we were wrapping up, everyone was like, okay, see you in a year. Or 18 months or two years. [laughs] We know we have to do this again soon, but in Ontario, at least not until after the next provincial election, and probably the next Toronto municipal election, too. So that’s good news. But, I guess, once we found our footing, I liked how we campaigned. We needed a while to get that coherent message, but once we had it, it worked. Toronto held. There was a rejection of O’Toole, but he did well enough to probably get another kick at the can. But, I mean, the NDP spent $25 million to flip a single seat.

Gurney: I’ll flip the question: What didn’t you like?

Liberal: My obvious biggest peeve was that we called it, and the other guys were more ready. It was obvious as the summer went on that it was going to be called, and then they dropped the writ, and we had no momentum. Afghanistan and B.C. wildfires took some of that away, but where was our coherent message? Ten-dollar-a-day child care ended up being a great issue for us, but we dragged our feet and didn’t have a central message, I think, until some of the campaigns were saying, child care is working — this is the issue. 

Gurney: As the week goes on, I’m coming to think that this was a more interesting election than we realized. There was a lot going on under the national top-line numbers that’s only becoming clear right now. But it wasn’t an eventful campaign. It was quite tame, actually. I kept waiting for there to be some surprise, some moment that shook things up, and that never really happened.

Liberal: The last election was defined by personal stuff. Blackface for Trudeau, [Andrew] Scheer’s professional credentials, and, this time, we just ran on records. Trudeau’s record in government. O’Toole’s record when he ran for leader and then what he was saying when running for the election. I was expecting the big dramatic blow-up, too, but, instead, it ended up being a few candidates who had trouble, not the party leaders. At this point, if there’s something out there about them, we’d probably have heard it. [laughs] To be determined!

Gurney: Speaking of leaders, the Conservatives are already convening a circular firing squad to review O’Toole’s leadership, but there’s speculation about your guy, too. Trudeau has shed votes every election. Some of that is inevitable for any leader, of course, but do you get the sense that he’s a spent force politically? Does he hurt more than help? Would you have done better under Chrystia Freeland or Mark Carney?

Liberal: I don’t think so. I honestly don’t. Obviously, I’m biased, but in Toronto, at least, there’s still a positive Trudeau Effect. It’s tarnished, yeah. But it still helps. And, in Toronto, we can also play up local candidates. You know this person. They’re around. And they’re going to be in government. They might even be a parliamentary secretary or minister. Do you want to trade that for someone new, unknown, who won’t be in the government? I don’t see any rejection of Trudeau here. He held back a wave. He’s the prime minister. We’re still in power. Maybe in a few years, he’ll have to make some decisions about his own future. If we’d lost 30 or 40 seats, it’s a different conversation, but I don’t rule out him taking another kick at the can in ’23. I imagine there might have been some leadership campaigns that were ready to ramp up that might have to go back into storage now and wait a few more years.

Gurney: Yeah, Mark Carney can switch back to his old Twitter profile picture.

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

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when Melissa Lantsman opened her campaign office. TVO.org regrets the error.

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