Politics·Analysis

In 2019, Justin Trudeau has baggage - and faces a very different political landscape

For Justin Trudeau, winning re-election was never going to be easy. But along with the baggage that comes with government - and Trudeau's own public pratfalls - the Liberals have had to cope with a markedly diminished margin of error.

The Liberals aren't just coping with a leader who's lost his halo. The electorate itself is shifting.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau holds a rally in Montreal, Quebec on Thursday Oct. 17, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Winning re-election was always going to be hard for Justin Trudeau. History tells us that.

But Trudeau has not made it easier for himself. And the partisan terrain Trudeau is contending with in 2019 is arguably trickier to traverse than anything his predecessors faced.

Beyond the electoral math, there are the stakes — the hard things that weigh on the present and our sense of the future. It just so happens that Trudeau's personal struggle is playing out at what feels like a particularly telling moment for Canada and the rest of the Western world.

All of this will come to a crescendo on Monday with an election that is still difficult to predict.

It's currently fashionable to invoke the example of 1972, when Justin Trudeau's father very nearly became a one-term prime minister. In 1968, in the midst of Trudeaumania, Pierre Trudeau's Liberals won 154 seats and 45 per cent of the popular vote. Four years later, the Liberals won 109 seats and 38 per cent and just barely held on to power.

That example has haunted Justin Trudeau since 2015. Trudeau himself has acknowledged it, joking with a group of his father's former aides at a lunch this past spring that the Liberal re-election slogan this year would be, "The Land is Strong" — the famously ponderous catchphrase the Liberals used in 1972.

Rise and fall

But Pierre Trudeau's slide was not an anomaly. Nearly every prime minister's first majority has been followed by a fall.

From 1984 to 1988, Brian Mulroney went from 211 seats and 50 per cent of the vote to 169 seats and 43 per cent.

John Diefenbaker won 208 seats and 54 per cent of the vote in 1958. Four years later, the Progressive Conservatives settled for 116 seats and 37 per cent.

Jean Chrétien and Louis St. Laurent each lost 22 seats. Mackenzie King lost 18 seats.

And those are the ones who managed to stay in government. R.B. Bennett was run out of office entirely — making him the last prime minister to arrive with a majority and then be drummed out after a single term.

Not since 1900 has a prime minister (Wilfrid Laurier) followed a first majority with an even better result.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gives a speech on election night Oct. 30, 1972. His electoral near-death experience is similar in some ways to what his son is going through now - but not identical. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

Trudeau has at least had the benefit of a relatively steady economy. His father was faced with rising unemployment. Bennett had to deal with the Great Depression. Mulroney had to sell free trade.

All of which might have been expected to put Trudeau in a better place going into the campaign. But maybe a growing economy matters less when "affordability" is the new concern and insecurity seems the dominant mood.

There is something challenging as well about the current pace of world events. It wasn't that long ago that Trudeau's fate seemed to hinge on his ability to avoid disaster while renegotiating NAFTA with Donald Trump. A year later, that whole ordeal is hardly ever mentioned. 

Of course, it is also true that none of those other prime ministers had to pause, mid-campaign, to explain why they had once worn blackface.

A dwindling margin for error

Justin Trudeau was always going to have to contend with the promises he made in 2015 and the inevitable gulf between the highest hopes and reality.

To that was added the weight of the SNC-Lavalin affair. The ethics commissioner's report in August didn't seem to dent public support for the Liberals — only because the damage had been done already. But it shrank Trudeau's margin for error. And then Time magazine published those photos.

Once again, Liberal support in public polling didn't seem to suffer. But it's hard not to wonder whether the Liberals might be three or four points higher now if not for those images.

Maybe few voters, if any, came away believing that Trudeau was a fundamentally racist person. But the pictures added to a narrative — driven hard by Trudeau's political opponents — that Trudeau is not what he purports to be, that he is less than he promises. Even if it did nothing more than dampen enthusiasm for Trudeau, that could be enough to matter in an election this close.

Singh finds his moment

In the disruptive wake of that revelation, the campaign of Jagmeet Singh seemed to find new energy.

The NDP campaign was already narrowly exceeding very low expectations. But because of who he is and what he said, Singh's responses to Trudeau's mistakes were uniquely compelling.

Then came a series of debate performances in which Singh seemed relaxed and good-natured — qualities that were not otherwise abundant on those stages. Between Oct. 9 and Oct. 18, the NDP shot up five percentage points in opinion polls.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh greets supporters during a campaign stop in Nanaimo, B.C., on Friday. Singh's easy-going demeanour seems to be making him attractive to voters put off by the vitriol in this campaign. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

For all that, the NDP still entered this weekend polling at 18.8 per cent. In 2015, Tom Mulcair's NDP won 19.7 per cent of the vote.

Conservative support is also effectively flat. In 2015, Stephen Harper's Conservatives won 31.9 per cent of the vote. Four years later, Scheer's Conservatives were polling at 31.7 per cent.

Scheer's party might try to blame Maxime Bernier's People's Party for shaving a few points off their total. But if the Conservatives were feeling better about things, they might not be spending the final days worrying loudly about coalition governments and phantom tax hikes.

So what has changed?

A whole new landscape on the left

The Greens are polling nearly five points higher, the Bloc Québécois is up more than two points and the Liberals are down almost eight.

If those numbers are accurate, and if they hold (and it's impossible to know what late mood swings and actual turnout will mean to the final result), Trudeau's drop would be in line with what Mulroney suffered in 1988 and what happened to his father in 1972. But 2015 left Trudeau with less room to work with.

With slightly higher support (and some polls have the Liberals at 34 per cent) Trudeau could come close to matching the relatively small drop that Chrétien experienced between 1993 and 1997 — from 41.2 per cent to 38.5 per cent. That amounted to a comfortable majority for the Chrétien government.

Reform Party Leader Preston Manning in 1991. Unlike Jean Chretien, Justin Trudeau can't count on a centre-right split to save his government. (Ron Polingé/The Canadian Press)

But the divide in Canadian politics was then on the right — the old Progressive Conservative party had split, with the space it once occupied consumed by the Reform Party and the Bloc. On the left, the NDP was a minor player. The Green party barely existed. Together, the NDP and Greens took less than 12 per cent of the popular vote in 1997.

Twenty two years later, opinion polls suggest those two parties could finish with the combined support of more than a quarter of the electorate. And some number of other voters with progressive values are currently siding with the Bloc -- the NDP's rise nationally is mirrored by a similar boost for the BQ in Quebec.

Crowding the centre-left

While his party is polling in the 30s, Trudeau does not seem to be wildly out of step with public opinion.

Thirty-seven per cent of respondents to a recent Angus Reid survey identified climate change — one of the key points of distinction between the Liberals and Conservatives — as one of their top two issues, a higher share of those polled than for any other issue. A combined 55 per cent would like to see the federal carbon price either maintained or increased.

Fifty-seven per cent prefer running a deficit to focusing on balancing the budget. A majority of respondents preferred the Liberal approach to housing affordability and opioid treatment to the Conservative positions. And a plurality preferred the Liberal proposal to gradually expand pharmacare.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. Voters in 2019 seem less inclined to give the Liberals a corner on progressive issues - including climate change. (Gary Moore/CBC)

But on almost all issues — climate change, in particular — the Liberals are competing with both the NDP and the Greens. In a simple match-up, voters might prefer a Trudeau government to a Scheer government. But those aren't the only options on the ballot. And voters have seemed willing to look beyond Trudeau to see where they might invest either their hopes or their frustrations.

Also not on the ballot, but buried within the choices that millions of Canadians have made and will make, are the seismic issues of this moment: climate change, of course, but also economic security, inclusion, reconciliation, populism, nationalism, the future shape of liberal democracy and the international order. Trudeau himself once spoke of this election in terms of what it might mean for climate policy in Canada — a frame that put added responsibility on him.

Has Trudeau lost his campaign mojo?

Trudeau has perhaps struggled in this campaign in a way he didn't struggle in 2015 — to capture a feeling, or to rise above it all. Some of that could be put down to the difference between running as a challenger and running as an incumbent. Some of that is simply a reflection of a general election campaign that has been more of a grind (though we've definitely had worse outings). 

He has tried to put himself and his government front and centre on the major issues of the day, but he has been unable to move as fast or as far as some would like. He was a massive personality when he arrived, but that may have left him vulnerable. He can talk about what he's done over the last four years to address the public's concerns, and what he would do with the next four — but he also has simply had a harder time getting a hearing in 2019.

What the Liberals sought was a direct fight with Scheer's Conservatives. For a while, it seemed like they might get that. And they have tried to bring it back to that choice in the final two weeks. But things ended up more complicated. 

If, in the end result, Trudeau falls too far there will be ample second-guessing: about whether he could have done more to seize the moment or whether he should have done something differently on the trail or at the debates or even whether there is something about the social-media age that has made it harder to govern.

But the crowds the Liberals have been able to draw in the final days suggests a number people are still interested in what he has to say. In the waning hours, the Liberals might be finally showing some momentum — aided by the fact that Scheer is struggling to fend off questions about a covert operation to attack Maxime Bernier.

If Trudeau is lucky, he'll get more time to continue wrestling with it all.

But, barring an unforeseen majority, the next Parliament will be harder still — for whoever governs.

If potential Liberal supporters turn out in sufficient numbers — particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia — and the party ends up closer to 35 per cent overall, the Liberals may return with the largest number of seats, but still in need of other parties' support.

If Liberal support slips closer to 30, Trudeau may find himself with the second-largest number of seats and decisions to make about whether he can pull together a government for these uncertain times.

At some point in the first four years in office, Trudeau and his team adopted the phrase, "Hard things are hard" — a credo picked up from Barack Obama's White House.

The Liberal leader has not always done enough to avoid making things harder for himself. Things seems unlikely to get much easier for him anytime soon.

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