Axelrod's advice to Liberals: convince voters you still represent change

Re-election campaigns — like the one the Trudeau Liberals will embark on next year — hang on a government's ability to convince voters that it still represents positive change, Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod said Friday.

Former Obama strategist was a keynote speaker Friday at the Liberal policy convention in Halifax

David Axelrod and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics in February. Axelrod is in Halifax this weekend for the Liberal party policy convention. (The Associated Press)

Re-election campaigns — like the one the Trudeau Liberals will embark on next year — hang on a government's ability to convince voters that it still represents positive change, Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrod said Friday.

But since electoral success seems more and more these days to depend on offering voters something other than what the people in power are offering, he said, re-election can be an uphill battle for incumbents.

"You are the status quo," David Axelrod told CBC Radio's The House from the Liberal policy convention in Halifax.

"The important thing for the Liberal Party is to make clear all the changes they've already implemented."

The Liberals' 2015 campaign was built around the theme of change, and the 2019 campaign will involve a combination of citing their successes and defending their failures, incoming Liberal Party of Canada President Suzanne Cowan said.

"There has been change… but that work isn't finished," she told The House.

"We need to have a second mandate so we can make sure the things that we've been able to implement stick."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals have looked to the U.S. — particularly to former president Barack Obama's election team — for inspiration as they prepare for 2019.

Axelrod was a keynote speaker at the convention Friday, sharing lessons learned during Obama's successful 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

For the Liberals to remain in government, Axelrod said, they'll have to focus on a handful of concrete, specific issues as the foundation of their campaign.

He said Liberals should seek to set up a clear political choice in voters' minds — to be the ones to define the party options and the likely outcome of voters' choices.

What can the Liberal party learn from Barack Obama's presidential campaigns? Re-election campaigns hang on a party's ability to convince voters they have brought change and will continue to do so, David Axelrod tells CBC Radio's The House.

A populist shift

Meanwhile, the political populism that upended expectations in the last U.S. presidential election is finding a home in Canadian politics as well.

Provincial party leaders like Ontario's Doug Ford and Quebec's François Legault are building support with populist messages.

As uncertainty looms over Canada's trade relationship with the United States, the growing federal deficit and perennial issues like unemployment, Axelrod said that populist current likely will grow in power.

Doug Ford has been campaigning on a populist message targeting middle class voters. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

"Populism is a pushback because of all this wrenching change that we've seen," he said, adding that a political response to populist messaging hasn't been perfected yet.

Cowan said her party's biggest challenge going into the election will be finding the balance between boasting about and defending the government's track record during their first mandate.

"It's going to take even more to win in 2019. It's going to take more money, it's going to take more people."

Obama's success came through a close focus on the economy and the plight of the middle class, Axelrod said.

The Liberals pushed those buttons in 2015, with great success. But that doesn't mean the same messages will work again in 2019, Axelrod said.

You can still champion change and make it clear you're going to keep working on it, he added.

"Those things are tangible, those things are real."


Elise von Scheel is CBC Calgary's politics reporter and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.


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