From “Real Change” to “Choosing Forward” Liberals tell Canada to Elect “Stay the Path”

September 2, 2019

A message of change helped the Liberals in 2015, but with four years in Government, they now ask Canadians to re-elect them through a message of staying the same way.  Under the mantra of “Choosing Forward”, liberals find contrast with Conservatives. But the promise of holding onto power also requires recapturing votes on the left of centre. How Liberals plan on doing so, remains to be seen.

With a handful of days to go before Election 43 is officially called, the Trudeau Liberals have released their campaign slogan “Choose Forward”.  The branding will be stamped on a series of national ads which began airing on television and the internet this week, and will be part of a comprehensive campaign that also includes featured stories from Canadians.  

The Choose Forward slogan speaks to two main messages:

Real change is happening, continue moving forward

One key message that will be central to the Liberals’ narrative is that much has been accomplished on infrastructure, climate change action, economic growth, gender equality, and progress on social fronts such as poverty, housing and health.  Their re-election bid is backed with the promise of continuing in that direction, running on their track record of sorts.

In showcasing their accomplishments and their vision for Canada, Liberals also hope to eclipse progressive vote contestants NDP and Green Party. However, with a number of weak flanks on their track record, including backtracking on the electoral reform promise, the cringe worthy India trip and the SNC Lavalin scandal, Liberals will need more than their track record if they hope to pull the undecided progressive vote to their tent.

On the other flank, Liberals hope their narrative will resonate with voters by contrasting their record with that of the Conservatives. In the words of Jeremy Broadhurst, Liberal Campaign Director speaking on the liberal framing for the election with Paul Wells, “OK, the train’s left the station, we’ve had some advances, we’ve had some setbacks. But the general direction is good.” The Conservatives, in this frame, want to bring the train back to the station and set it out on some other path. “It’s hard to see that as anything other than a return to Harper-era policies. Which will be very attractive to some people, but we think, to most people, won’t.”  

The first badge of Choose Forward Liberal ads feature Mr. Trudeau contrasting conservatives on climate change, taxation, social supports, and notably taking a subtle jab at Ontario Premier Doug Ford, hinting that Conservatives are not for the people.  The latter is already a regularly featured strategy by Mr. Trudeau, and expected to be replicated, which seeks to draw a parallel between Mr. Scheer and the unpopular Conservative Premier in hopes to persuade voters to vote red in the key battleground of Ontario.

Contrast Conservatives’ Social Policies

Further, in running on a message of choose forward, the Liberals re-signal to the socially progressive vote that theirs is the Party of social progression. This mantra will focus in defining the Liberal Party accomplishments and values as much as it will focus on defining CPC Leader Andrew Scheer on these files.  Andrew Scheer is not yet a widely-recognized name for most Canadians. By defining Andrew Scheer to Canadians under their own narrative, the Liberals increase their re-election prospects and avoid talking about the elements of their own record they would prefer to avoid.

In the last two weeks, Liberals have managed to mitigate backlash on the release of the ethics commissioner report by way of focusing media attention on Mr. Scheer, on the social files of same-sex marriage and abortion.  While Conservative policy is to support both same-sex marriage and abortion rights, the Liberals have inflicted brand damage not to the CPC, but directly to their leader. Liberals resurfaced a previous speech by Mr. Scheer from 2005 where he spoke on his moral and religious ideology and convictions as core reasons why he opposed same sex marriage.  Further, on the abortion file, the Liberals have focused media attention on both an apparent change in narrative by the party, and Mr. Scheer’s personal religious views on the file.  The fight to define Mr. Scheer is by no means settled, but the Liberals certainly won the battle these past weeks.

Why Campaign Slogans Matter?

If there is one thing that the 2015 Election taught/reaffirmed to political observers is that elections matter.  In less than two months national polls transformed from early signs of a Prime Minister to-beThomas Mulcair to ballots crowning Justin Trudeau as the 23rdPrime Minister of Canada.

Back in 2015, and after 9 years of the Harper Conservatives in Government, the Liberals backed their election bid under two slogans: “Real Change” and “Hope and Hard Work”.  These slogans helped build a brand around Mr. Trudeau that not only spoke to the broader undecided voters segment that desired a change in government, but also contrasted the Liberals’ brand with that of the NDP and tilted the electorate in their favor.  

Items such as building infrastructure, advancing gender equality, poverty reduction and social housing, and addressing climate change were items that both Liberals and NDP ran on.  However, the real change mantra helped drive public opinion in favor of Liberals.  Mr. Trudeau promised to deliver real change through running deficits to foot the Bill.  On the other hand, Mr. Mulcair held a promise of balanced books to go hand in hand with his left-of center policies.  Balanced books as a promise was perhaps too close to Stephen Harper’s election bid.  Effectively, their slogans helped Liberals define issues important to voters and craft a narrative of themselves and of the other parties that best resonated with Canadians.

Last week, I mentioned thatvoting in Canada is accounted for in terms of party identification, party leader attraction, ethnicity, and religious affiliation.  While these factors are decisive, campaign slogans are the tip of the spear in steering voters to consider voting in one direction or another.  

For the large majority of voters who pay little attention to politics year-round, and have little time to review campaign platform documents, local candidate profiles, and the like, a campaign slogan can resonate to their core beliefs and their notions of which is the direction that our country should follow.

According to polling released by the Angus Reid institute, 52% of the electorate do not have a party that they will “support”, meaning that while some individuals in this category may have a party of preference, all this segment of the population is uncommitted to vote in a certain way. Considering this large group of undecided voters, the focus of political parties in the remaining 7 weeks to the election will shift from wining the masses to “micro-targeting” these voter segments, based on issues most important to them.  According to the poll, the top 10 issues for uncommitted voters are the following:

(1)  Improving healthcare access

(2)  Transparency and honesty in the federal government

(3)  Climate change

(4)  Access to affordable housing

(5)  The amount of taxes I pay

(6)  Natural resources and energy policy

(7)  Job opportunities in my community

(8)  Immigration policy

(9)  Improving living conditions of Canada’s first nations

(10) Management of federal deficit in Canada

As evidenced by five initial campaign ads under the choose forward narrative, the Trudeau Liberals will place a heavy focus on attracting voters who take interest on healthcare, affordable housing, immigration, jobs and taxes.  Effectively the five Liberal ads released so far feature a story centered around each of these five themes showcasing Liberal values and their policy accomplishments over the past four years.

It is notable that, two central policy files for the liberals over the last 4 years, climate change and first nations have not been central to their campaign so far.  These two issues are important to the progressive undecided vote which at present is split between Greens, Liberals and NDP.  On the right of center of the spectrum Liberals will battle with Conservatives on items such as affordability, taxes, and job creation.  However on items such as transparency and honesty in Government, federal deficit management and energy policy Liberals are expected to go on the defensive.

With such high percentage of uncommitted voters, the way in which slogans help leaders and their parties relate to issues most important to voters will be key in determining the next party to form Government in Canada.