The Liberals Down the Stretch

October 15, 2019

Last Thursday's French-language debate was much more compelling than last Monday’s English-language muddle. The format allowed for a deeper discussion of the issues, the questions were more pointed, and the debate’s moderator, Patrice Roy, was firm, even going so far as to (gasp!) admonish Leaders for straying too far from the question at hand with their responses.

It made for good TV, but will it change the trajectory heading into the final stretch of the 2019 Election campaign? While Mr. Singh and Mr. Blanchet had solid performances, they couldn’t quite live up to the high expectations they had set for themselves as the stand-outs from Monday’s English debate. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer, the front-runners, didn’t give their opponents any new openings to expand their lines of attack. And Ms. May and Mr. Bernier, while strong on their niche issues, are still speaking to fairly narrow audiences and likely didn’t do enough to grow their respective bases.

The debate was also, naturally, quite concentrated on issues that would impact Quebec, framed by questions posed by Quebecois journalists. Not much spoke specifically to the concerns of suburban Ontarians – the 905 – for example, let alone voters in the West or in Atlantic Canada.

It’s safe to assume, then, that the trend-lines going into the debate will continue to play out in the days ahead.

That means the Bloc Quebecois continues its meteoric rise in Quebec, putting pressure on the Conservatives for their remaining 10 projected seats and stripping away seats from the Liberals. The Liberals, who were projecting almost 50 seats in the province just a few weeks ago, are now projecting 37 seats and declining further by the day. The Liberals insist that Quebec’s best representation in Ottawa is as part of a strong Liberal Government, and that the Conservatives are not aligned with Quebec values on key areas like climate change, but the appeal of sending the Bloc Quebecois as a power broker that can play both sides - Liberals and Conservatives - has seemingly grown.  

The NDP continues to rise in BC and Northern Ontario, adding pressure to both the Liberals and the Conservatives by creating unpredictable three-way races. Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Atlantic Canada hold steady, as they have largely done throughout the campaign.

And finally, while Toronto and Ottawa remain staunchly Liberal within the urban core, suburban ridings, in particular the 905, increase in importance as the difference-maker between a Conservative and a Liberal Prime Minister come October 21st.

So, what is an incumbent Prime Minister to do? Mr. Trudeau and his team are no doubt working around the clock to assess how bad it might get for them in Quebec, and what they can do to stop the bleeding. The Bloc has a high ceiling, which must worry Team Trudeau. Under Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc carried about 50 seats in Quebec from the late 1990s through the 2000s. The party was decimated down to 4 seats by Jack Layton’s 2011 “Orange Crush” and remained relatively insignificant with 10 seats in 2015 amidst Mr. Trudeau’s “Real Change” wave.  

As polling has indicated, there is clearly room in the province for a significant rebound. Sitting at about 28 seats now, it’s not inconceivable that they could add 20 more before Election Day. While a few of those seats would come from the 10 that the Conservatives are projected to hold, the bulk would come from the Liberals’ projected 37.

The Liberals are also keenly aware that the 905-region around Toronto – Battleground Ontario – is where they can pick up the seats they may drop in Quebec. Of the 30 seats that includes as part of its definition of the 905 region, the poll aggregator has 10 ridings as true toss-ups and another 10 as leaning one way or the other but far from certain. Whether those 20 seats go Liberal or Conservative may very well decide the election.

Unlike in Quebec, where the polls have been quite dynamic over the past two weeks with the rise of the Bloc, Ontario polls remain steady. With the national debates finished, and short of a major scandal that rocks either the Liberals or the Conservatives, it is hard to envision significant movement in the numbers over the next 10 days. With voter intention steady, ground game becomes paramount. In other words, who is most effective at getting out their vote on Election Day?

Here the Conservatives may have the advantage. Their voter demographic is older and more likely to make the effort to vote. Liberal support is more concentrated amongst younger voters, who were inspired in 2015 on Justin Trudeau’s message of Hope and Change, but who may not be as motivated to vote this year after four years of the Liberals in power.

If the positive message is failing to inspire this time around – and it doesn’t seem to be – watch for the Liberals to instead focus on motivating young voters by warning them against a federal-provincial coalition of Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford.

“A Conservative-led government propped up by the Bloc and in bed with Doug Ford may be good for Alberta and good for Quebec,” they might say, “but it won’t be good for you.”  

It’s about to get nasty in the 905.