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The 'peekaboo campaign' the Liberals hoped would return them to power

Forty years ago, the federal Liberals were keeping their leader inside a bubble that their opponents wanted to burst.

Federal Liberals limited Pierre Trudeau's exposure on the campaign trail ahead of the 1980 election

A 'peekaboo campaign'?

42 years ago
2:42
In January 1980, Peter Mansbridge takes a look at the Liberals' efforts on the campaign trail about halfway through the campaign. 2:42

Forty years ago, the federal Liberals were keeping their leader inside a bubble that their opponents wanted to burst.

That's because Pierre Trudeau and his party were in the midst of an election campaign, which saw them leading in the polls with a month to go before Election Day.

And the party was employing a so-called "peekaboo campaign" strategy that was seemingly built around limiting Trudeau's exposure — something Peter Mansbridge said was a marked change from the previous election cycle.

"This year, with an apparent big lead, things are a lot different," Mansbridge reported on The National on Jan. 18, 1980.

"Trudeau quietly reads from a prepared text, he rarely answers questions and his party platform still lacks detail."

'If it can swing one way, it can swing the other'

Alan Frizzell said a fickle electorate meant substantial shifts in polls were possible during the course of the 1980 election campaign. (The National/CBC Archives)

Alan Frizzell, a pollster at Carleton University, said the lead the Liberals held did not ensure their eventual victory at the polls. 

Noting the shift in the polls that had then favoured the Liberals, Frizzell said a fickle electorate could easily move in a different direction.

"If it can swing one way, it can swing the other," he said.

The election outcome would all come down to what voters decided, of course, including whether they approved of the Liberals' campaign strategy. 

"Surely, leaders can be judged on the basis of their unwillingness to speak to the issues and that's the risk they take if they choose a tactic that doesn't permit the voters to make an informed judgment on the basis of issues," said Fred Fletcher, a political science professor at York University.

'Trying to induce Canadians to forget'

PC Leader Joe Clark was not impressed with Pierre Trudeau's decision to opt out of a proposed leaders' debate in 1980. (The National/CBC Archives)

The Liberals' strategy had been under some scrutiny before the campaign had reached its mid-point, however.

Earlier in January of 1980, CBC had reported on the Liberals' decision not to participate in a televised leaders' debate, leaving PC Leader Joe Clark and New Democrat Leader Ed Broadbent without a platform to square off against Trudeau.

Liberal strategists had confirmed that doing so was a purposeful part of their campaign strategy.

Broadbent called the decision to skip the debate "the height of arrogance" and Clark had then suggested the Liberals were "trying to induce Canadians to forget what Pierre Elliott Trudeau did during the 11 years he was prime minister."

Before 1980, Trudeau had led his party through four elections, winning three of them and serving as Canada's prime minister for almost all of the 1970s. 

But the 1979 election saw the Progressive Conservatives take power in Ottawa as a minority government and Trudeau eventually stated plans to step down from politics.

His plans changed when Clark's government was defeated, triggering the 1980 election that returned Trudeau and the Liberals to power.

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