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1To attack or not to attack?

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sat staring at his friend Tom Pitfield’s laptop computer.

“It’s time,” Pitfield, the party’s chief digital strategist and chief executive of the digital marketing and data analytics firm Data Sciences, told him.

They were huddled on one side of a horseshoe-shaped table in a large meeting room on the second floor of the Delta City Centre hotel in Ottawa.

Trudeau had just been shown a series of biting contrast ads featuring Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Pitfield was insistent. He and Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, had discussed his pitch to the leader. They wanted Trudeau to approve a shift in campaign strategy.

It was late in the evening of Friday, Sept. 3. Over the past week, the Liberals’ internal numbers had shown the Conservatives opening up a three-point lead. Some public polls had the Tory lead as high as six points.

Trudeau was not in a good mood. He’d spent the past several hours getting beaten up by stand-in party leaders during his preparation for the English-language debate.

Pitfield had attempted to show Trudeau the ads earlier but the Liberal leader was running very late. Now, they gathered with a larger group of deputy campaign directors and other senior staff, some of whom had assembled to watch the debate preparation on a large television: Telford, Jeremy Broadhurst, Azam Ishmael, Ben Chin, Cameron Ahmad, Kate Purchase, Olivier Duchesneau, Andree-Lynne Hallé.

They’d seen the ads already. They featured O’Toole saying he’d “take back Canada.” One showed the Conservative leader pledging to repeal the Firearms Act, to break up the CBC, and increase private sector health-care delivery. The other two highlighted O’Toole’s opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for airline and train passengers, his willingness to let MPs introduce anti-abortion bills, and they claimed he would introduce private health care and weaken action against climate change.

Trudeau looked up from the laptop to the room, seeking consensus.

“We were all supportive of it,” Telford later told the Star.

But Trudeau was tired. He wanted to sleep on it.

Early Saturday morning, he texted Pitfield and gave him the green light.

The ads debuted online that day, running in heavy rotation on social media throughout the Labour Day weekend while the other campaigns appeared dormant.

It was a pivotal period in an election campaign the Liberals believe they won by shifting their messaging, and leveraging their strengths in ground game and analytics. The following is based on interviews with 57 individuals from all five major campaigns. Most agreed only to speak on condition of anonymity, some agreed to be quoted.

2Shifting gears

The Liberals’ decision to run contrast ads had been made a week earlier, on Aug. 28, when the senior team members met for their usual Saturday meeting. Trudeau was not travelling that day and staff gathered in person after lunch at the Liberal party’s headquarters on Albert Street in Ottawa.

Internal polling had the party three or four points behind the Conservatives in public support nationally. Focus groups suggested O’Toole was successfully creating the impression he was a moderate candidate, and poll respondents were increasingly comfortable with the idea of a Conservative government.

Dan Arnold, the Liberals’ director of research, was concerned by the way support for O’Toole was trending. “If you looked at his momentum and (Trudeau’s) momentum ... it certainly was not looking like it was heading into a good outcome,” he told the Star.

“I was pretty candid to people ... that the way the trajectory was going, we were going to lose the campaign.”

Arnold started the meeting with that overview. But he wasn’t the only voice to raise concerns. The campaign team was getting missives — some solicited advice, others panicked and unsolicited — urging it to go negative to change the tide.

“I was pretty candid to people ... that the way the trajectory was going, we were going to lose the campaign.”

Staff went around the table sharing their thoughts.

“We had to frame [O’Toole] up,” Matt Stickney, the deputy national campaign director of operations, recalled.

“It would not be enough to coast on an uplifting, happy message,” added Jeremy Broadhurst, a senior campaign adviser and the 2019 campaign director.

There was strong consensus the Liberals needed to push back, “even if that meant doing attack ads,” said one source. But some were concerned the shift in tactics would be criticized and make the campaign “look too desperate.”

Opposition researchers had a treasure trove of content from O’Toole’s 2020 Conservative leadership bid — which, due to COVID-19, largely took place via video calls. They had monitored him for the past year, pored over thousands of hours of footage, and concluded that the new Tory leader was a flip-flopper: he would say whatever he thought was politically expedient — even if he never held those views before — and showed a remarkable willingness to throw out positions when they were no longer convenient.

Erin O’Toole says he wants to take Canada back. Let’s keep moving forward — for everyone.

Arnold had identified early — in focus groups from last October — that O’Toole’s position on assault-style weapons was a weakness. “People who were hard-core Conservatives were visibly shaken in focus groups when told that this guy would legalize assault weapons,” he told the Star. “You could visibly see it on their faces that it really was causing them to reconsider what they thought about O’Toole.”

The Conservatives’ platform pledge to repeal the Liberals’ 2020 cabinet order that outlawed some 1,500 assault-style firearms had now brought the issue back to the forefront.

The staff members discussed tactics. They would define O’Toole through new ads, Trudeau’s interventions in debates and media lines, satellite tours by MPs, and through the Liberal platform, on which they were putting finishing touches.

Pitfield started scripting the contrast ads the next day.

This would be the Grits’ answer to a campaign that had not gone according to plan.

3The decision to call the election

In a general sense, the Liberals started planning for a writ drop right after the 2019 election when Ishmael, the party’s national director, met with Trudeau to brief him on the party’s finances and organizational capacity. A minority meant the party needed to be ready if the government fell unexpectedly.

In a more specific way, O’Toole’s advisers started planning for the next federal election, as soon as he won his party’s leadership on Aug. 28, 2020. They thought the government might fall on that September’s throne speech and wanted to be ready. They invested in research and hired two foreign firms to help them bridge a gap with the Liberals on data analytics and social media.

While there was an election scare last fall — when the Tories sought to create an “anti-corruption” committee to probe the Liberals’ ethics and Trudeau deemed it a confidence matter — the Liberals didn’t actively turn their sights on the next campaign until 2021.

On reflection, Trudeau’s top advisers say, there “wasn’t a huge amount of debate” internally about having an election. “It was more a question of exactly when than anything.” Should the Liberals call it? Would the opposition trigger it? When would it be safest to campaign before an expected fourth wave of COVID-19 in the fall?

A few months into the new year, the pandemic’s third wave had already squashed any serious talk of running on the budget.

In June, a series of Conservative measures — a motion to censure Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and the public admonishment of a senior public servant in the House of Commons — made the Liberals consider pulling the plug. But an August call would give them more time to prepare, and give Trudeau time to get his second vaccination.

In July, things kicked into high gear, with platform development, ad shoots, finalizing candidate recruitment, and the appointment of campaign field directors.

Trudeau’s team believed this was its best chance to improve the Liberals’ standing in Parliament. A year from now, new scandals might emerge, the pandemic would be too far behind them for voters to give them credit, and an election might happen on the opposition’s timetable rather than their own.

“This is a pretty critical time in Canadian history. Why wouldn’t Canadians want to have a say?”

Trudeau made the final decision. The Liberals would have a quick campaign starting in midsummer when few pay attention, leaving the opposition only about two weeks to hammer them when people were back at work.

Arnold, the Liberals’ pollster, projected in mid-August that the Grits were on the razor’s edge of a majority, poised to win somewhere in the low 170s of the 338 seats in the House of Commons.

His data suggested the fundamentals were good. Canadians, on the whole, felt the prime minister had handled COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout well. There was more goodwill towards him than in 2019 when the Liberals were coming out of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

“We would get [to a majority] with a good campaign. With a less good campaign, we probably come back with another minority,” Arnold had told The Star at the time. “So I don’t think it’s any kind of guarantee by any means.”

The Liberals had weighed the risk of a backlash for calling an election, but underestimated the anger that would be unleashed. Advisers believed questions about the timing of the election would stop after three days, as journalists moved on to other topics.

They also believed they could easily explain the necessity of an election: the pandemic had changed the government’s priorities, and it needed a mandate to get big things — on COVID-19, child care, housing, climate change — done.

“This is a pretty critical time in Canadian history,” Pitfield told the Star. “Why wouldn’t Canadians want to have a say?

“And at the time, we believed that was enough.”

4Laying the groundwork

The Liberals wanted to ensure the election would not be a referendum on Trudeau and that the focus was kept on the pandemic.

On Aug. 5, during a news conference with Quebec Premier François Legault, Trudeau praised the province for adopting a vaccine passport.

“This isn’t just a question of individual choice, this is a question of protecting the community and protecting our children who aren’t yet 12 years old, who don’t have the opportunity” to be vaccinated, he said.

Trudeau called it a “question of leadership,” and noted he’d asked the clerk of the Privy Council to look into mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for the public service and for all federally regulated industries.

That caught the attention of O’Toole’s advisers, who spent the next two weeks researching and consulting focus groups on the question of mandatory vaccination, expecting the Liberals to make it an issue. They settled on a position that their research suggested was in line with the public’s thinking at the time — the Conservatives would strongly encourage people to get vaccinated but not force them to do so.

“We thought it was a reasonable [position] and one we could defend,” a senior Conservative adviser said.

It was also a position that avoided clashes with caucus and party members.

“I would have liked to insist on [vaccination] but we would have lost a couple dozen people,” another Conservative strategist said, pegging the number of unvaccinated incumbents at between 10 and 20.

Public polling showed a slight majority of Canadians favoured mandatory vaccination, with support high in Quebec and Ontario, and among those aged 55 and older.

Liberal strategists believed mandatory vaccination was a legitimate issue that required a mandate from the public — one that justified an election, one where stark differences could be exposed, and one that spoke to competent management of the pandemic.

“It was going to be a key distinction … Who’s prepared to push that, to take the steps that are necessary?” Broadhurst explained. “As the summer progressed, it was becoming obvious that we were increasingly comfortable with pushing that envelope and the Conservatives were just unprepared to go there.”

There was always the possibility O’Toole would change positions. But the Liberals had unearthed several cases of Conservative caucus members publicly opposing mandatory vaccination, and O’Toole wasn’t rushing to denounce them.

“As the summer progressed, it was becoming obvious that we were increasingly comfortable with pushing that [vaccination] envelope and the Conservatives were just unprepared to go there.”

Unbeknownst to them, O’Toole’s campaign chair, Walied Soliman, was about to call Jonas Smith, the Conservative party’s Yukon candidate, and a vocal opponent of mandatory vaccination, to urge him to step down.

According to Smith, Soliman called him four days prior to the election to say the campaign was concerned that Smith’s COVID-19 views might cause the party grief because his Liberal opponent was the territory’s former chief medical officer of health. Asked if he’d “stay silent,” Smith refused. A day later, Smith said, Soliman called back to dump him as the Conservative candidate, in breach of party rules. Speaking through Conservative spokesperson Cory Hann, Soliman suggested no rules were broken since, in his view, “Mr. Smith voluntarily resigned following discussions around our expectations of candidates respecting public health guidelines.”

Fort McMurray MP David Yurdiga — who had referred to mandatory vaccination in the public service as “a tyrannical idea” — also resigned right before the election.

By then, the Liberals had used their last work day in government to announce they would require all federal public servants be vaccinated, as well as all passengers on airplanes, trains and cruise ships.

Simultaneously, a crisis was brewing in Afghanistan. That week, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau told reporters that although nine cities had fallen to the Taliban, the government hoped to continue to build capacity within its democratic institutions. Nobody seemed to recognize the impact this could have on the Canadian election campaign.

“I just did not see that that was going to be as big a factor as it was,” one senior strategist told the Star. “To be perfectly blunt, I don’t think there was a real sense of what the visuals were going to be in Afghanistan — the heart-wrenching scenes of the plane, the crowds … In retrospect, you think, right, that is going to be a dominant thing. It wasn’t quite as clear to everybody at the front end of it.”

5The beginning

On Sunday, Aug. 15, Trudeau walked over to Rideau Hall, where he asked Mary May Simon, the governor general he’d appointed three weeks earlier, to dissolve Parliament. When he emerged to announce the start of the 36-day campaign, the Liberal leader began by addressing the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. Taliban forces had taken control of its capital, Kabul, and Canadian diplomats were on their way home.

Trudeau told Canadians the election would offer Canadians a choice about “how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better.” He stressed his government’s decision to mandate vaccination on planes and trains and said “not every political party agrees.”

Facing reporters later that day, O’Toole tried to frame the election as a choice not about who could guide the country best out of the pandemic, but who could guide the country toward the economic recovery needed over the next four years.

When asked about mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, O’Toole said he supported “enhanced measures,” such as masking, showing a negative test, and rapid tests for the unvaccinated.

Asked four times whether all his candidates would be vaccinated, he did not directly respond. He said it was possible to “have reasonable accommodation for people who may not be vaccinated” and pledged that he and his candidates would “follow public health guidance.”

O’Toole’s strategists had worried that COVID-19 — an issue that favoured Trudeau — would dominate the campaign. But by the time the election was called, their focus groups suggested concerns about the pandemic had been replaced by concerns about the economy and pocketbook issues.

“The timing seemed to be perfect for us,” a senior campaign official said.

The next day, as planned, they released the party’s platform.

The Conservatives had mapped out nearly every single day of the campaign.

The early release showed O’Toole as a man with a plan. It was intended to frame what they wanted the election to be about — the economic recovery — and to show that their new leader would invest in, rather than cut, health care and social services.

“The best way to mitigate the accusation that you have a frightening agenda is to put out a comprehensive, detailed plan showing exactly what you will do,” that official added.

The Conservative platform had been worked on for nearly a year. It was carefully crafted to broaden the party’s tent to include what was internally referred to as “the left behind,” those economically disadvantaged but still working.

These were the new voters O’Toole’s strategists hoped would propel them to government — just as the Liberals had found millions of new supporters in 2015 and got them to the polls.

“Maybe what happened here is we fooled ourselves a little bit too much into thinking how much further ahead we were from the other parties in the first place.”

The Conservatives’ platform release caught the Liberals completely by surprise. They had planned to release theirs weeks later, as is typically done, but now they looked unready for the election they had called.

Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan was spiralling. In one particularly haunting image, video from the Kabul airport showed desperate Afghans storming the tarmac, some climbing on a U.S. jet as it was taking off, only to fall to their deaths.

Afghanistan had displaced the election as the lead item on the news. Trudeau was having to wear his prime ministerial hat to update Canadians on evacuation efforts, while also trying to announce Liberal party policy and introduce his candidates.

The party’s policy announcements were getting little coverage. Public opinion polls showed support for the Conservatives steadily rising. Liberals were getting frustrated.

Some questioned whether they’d recommended the right call.

“It’s hard not to have that moment,” one source said. “But also, at that point, you tell yourself maybe there is no good moment. Maybe what happened here is we fooled ourselves a little bit too much into thinking how much further ahead we were from the other parties in the first place.”

6Week two

When Trudeau’s senior staff members met that first Saturday, there was a hanging question about whether voters were just grumpy that the election had been called, or whether this feeling would sustain itself.

They discussed the need to sharpen the contrast with O’Toole, to put more “meaty” policy announcements in the window. They strategized about the platform and its timing, a stronger emphasis on Ontario — where the election could be won or lost. They even talked about guns.

The general consensus then was that the party should wait, allowing its messaging on mandatory vaccinations and a big ad buy to support its flagship housing announcement to resonate. The Liberals would keep some of their powder dry, pulling the trigger in the latter part of the campaign when voters were paying more attention.

The Tories’ early platform release did offer the Liberals a silver lining: a chance to pull it apart. One of their first offensive moves was to point out a passage in which O’Toole pledged to protect the conscience rights of health-care professionals.

When questioned on Aug. 19 about what that would mean for women seeking abortions, O’Toole said he was a “pro-choice leader” and would “make sure abortion services are available from one ocean to the other” but he did not directly answer whether conscience rights should apply to abortions or whether doctors and nurses could avoid giving referrals.

Those questions continued the next day, but O’Toole had a new answer. Health professionals would be free to uphold their own beliefs but they would be obliged to refer patients for services — even those that they objected to. It was a stark shift from the policy position he’d articulated during his leadership run.

But three times during that news conference O’Toole denied he was expressing a different position. “My position has not changed,” he said.

It would not be the last time he’d shift positions.

Days later, on Aug. 22, the Liberals tried an attack on a different front: O’Toole’s support for increasing private delivery of health care.

The Liberals posted a video on Chrystia Freeland’s Twitter account that showed O’Toole enthusiastically responding “Yes” when asked if he’d allow provinces to experiment with the provision of private for-profit and non-profit health care options within a system of universal coverage.

The video had been edited to include various parts of O’Toole’s answer — prompting Twitter to label it “manipulated media.” While the full video was posted on Freeland’s account minutes later, O’Toole would lean on that tag to accuse Trudeau of engaging in American-style attacks against him.

American or not, the Liberals’ attacks were not landing.

“Internally, inside the central campaign, they had come to the conclusion that we were fighting for a minority,” Navdeep Bains, the co-chair of the Liberals’ national campaign committee, told the Star.


Responding to Liberal attack ads against Erin O'Toole on September 4, 2021, the Conservative Party of Canada's election campaign team responds the same day with these two ads bearing the tag line, "We can't afford more of the same."

Meanwhile, Trudeau was still being questioned on the road about the government’s efforts in Afghanistan and the reason behind the election call. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was accusing him of prioritizing the election rather than helping solve a humanitarian crisis abroad. O’Toole was being described in the media as the “sunny ways” candidate. And the Liberal leader was increasingly being followed by anti-vax protesters.

Demonstrators had shown up that week at events in Ontario and in B.C., but on Friday, Aug. 27, those travelling on the leader’s bus were met by scenes they had not encountered before.

In Mississauga, where Trudeau was scheduled to speak outside a restaurant owned by Syrian refugees, he was greeted by protesters blowing horns and yelling obscenities. Organizers moved the event indoors (where they were later criticized for breaking capacity limits).

At a whistle-stop at a bakery in Nobleton, Ont., Trudeau was met by an even larger group of demonstrators.

“It was something else. It was the first time we saw the big banners saying, ‘F-you Trudeau.’ It was the screaming ... It was extraordinarily loud,” recalled Telford, who likened it to something she’d seen on the news in another country.

“I remember standing there on the bus just looking out the window, and it was hard not to be taken aback,” she added. “Largely because you were seeing kids that were out there — and I mean kids, not teenagers — kids that were my son’s age with their parents, who were just so angry.”

protesters swarmed the leader’s bus.

That evening, Trudeau’s event in neighbouring Bolton, Ont., was cancelled. protesters were spitting on supporters and pulling their masks off. After a two-hour wait, and based on the RCMP’s advice, the Liberals concluded they could not risk the safety of their supporters.

His team organized a last-minute news conference in a baseball park, where Trudeau struck a sympathetic chord, saying those protesting had had a difficult year. “We need to meet that anger with compassion,” he said.

Two days later, as he was being shouted down by protesters, Trudeau adopted a different tone. “That doesn’t work to get us to back down,” he said. “That won’t scare Canadians for standing up for what’s right.”

Being too compassionate had made Trudeau look like a “wimp,” a senior Liberal had advised. Trudeau needed to show compassion for the majority of Canadians who were doing the right thing, and use the protesters to drive a wedge against his opponents.

Trudeau took the advice.

Protests, including a gravel-throwing incident — which led to charges against a People’s Party of Canada riding association president — would continue to meet Trudeau throughout the campaign.

More RCMP and local police resources were added for protection. Unlike in 2019, when a specific threat against the prime minister had led to extra security, several sources told the Star the concern this time was more general in nature — that unhinged protesters could act at any moment.

The demonstrations were a mixed blessing for the Grits. They focused the conversation on COVID-19 and Trudeau’s response, but initially, they also overshadowed the Liberals’ campaign message.

7Week three

Although the “Take Back Canada” ads were drafted prior to the TVA French-language leaders’ debate, they reinforced a message Trudeau planted on Sept 2.

“The prime minister opened a window for us, and we drove a truck through it,” Ishmael, the Liberals’ campaign director, told the Star.

The Liberal leader came out swinging during that debate. First, he demanded O’Toole state whether he supported more private health care. “Yes or no? Yes or no?” he pushed. Then he pointed out that the Tory leader planned to legalize the type of firearm used to kill 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989.

“That is not true,” O’Toole insisted.

“Yes, it is. It’s right there on page 90 of your platform,” Trudeau countered.

Earlier in the day, Trudeau asked Telford which page O’Toole’s firearm changes were on. She told him page 90. He remembered that detail — but Telford was referring to the Conservatives’ English platform page number, not the French version.

It didn’t matter.

O’Toole had articulated another policy position that didn’t match his platform. During the debate, and in its aftermath, O’Toole insisted he would keep the ban on assault weapons. The Conservatives said he was referring to a 1977 ban that classified fully automatic weapons as “prohibited” firearms.

The Liberals swarmed. Their contrast ads began airing on Saturday. They spent several hundred thousand dollars promoting them online and pushed them on TV the following week. It emboldened the Liberal troops. “It was also a rallying cry to our base to say, ‘We are fighting,’” said Broadhurst.

That Sunday, Trudeau held an event in Markham where Markham—Unionville candidate Paul Chiang, a former police officer, accused O’Toole of kowtowing to the gun lobby and failing to keep families safe.

Later that day, O’Toole clarified his position, pledging to preserve the Liberals’ cabinet order banning “assault-style” weapons until a review was completed. The party took the unusual step of amending its platform to reflect the change.

The Conservatives hadn’t anticipated the attack. “We didn’t really start thinking about this that much until the Liberals started making this an issue. And then, we started thinking about how to clarify our position,” one senior adviser said.

The Conservative platform had become, in the words of one Liberal strategist, “a bit of a noose.”

8Week four: The race in Quebec

The campaign in Quebec was fought on a different front.

At the outset, the Liberals believed they could pick up five, maybe seven seats more than the 35 they held at dissolution.

In the months leading up to the campaign, lots of attention had been paid to the province. The federal government announced sweeping reforms to the Official Languages Act, attempted to pass popular changes to the Broadcasting Act, and Liberal MPs even recognized Quebec’s unilateral right to amend the Canadian constitution to recognize the province as a francophone nation.

Despite a rocky personal relationship, Trudeau and Premier François Legault announced several big projects: $100 million for an electric vehicle battery assembly plant in Saint-Jérôme; $826 million to connect 150,000 Quebecers to high-speed internet; $20 million to build an aquatic complex in Laval; $685 million to support jobs in Quebec’s aerospace sector; and, just before the writ drop, a federal transfer of $6 billion over five years to ostensibly strengthen the province’s early learning and child-care system — in reality, an agreement with no strings attached.

The Liberals felt there was an opening. Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet was no longer the fresh face of 2019: he had a propensity to be arrogant (something the Liberals hoped to highlight), and, at the beginning of the race, there were no identity debates for him to exploit. The problems of past elections, Bill 21 and the niqab, for example, were not issues percolating in the province.

As they had in the last two elections, the Liberals designed a separate strategy for the province. Their ads featured well-known MPs and star candidates. They organized a regional tour to compete with the Bloc’s with familiar cabinet ministers, such as Pablo Rodriguez and Melanie Joly, as well as Francois-Philippe Champagne, Marie-France Bibeau, and Steven Guilbeault. The Liberals were ready to show Quebecers they could “deliver the goods” for the province, with a message focused on shared priorities such as climate change and child care. The Quebec team was better organized, better funded and more autonomous than in previous campaigns.

Unlike the race in the rest of Canada, the Liberal campaign in Quebec got off to a pretty good start. Blanchet found himself beating back questions from reporters — and his own candidates — about his support for a controversial tunnel linking Quebec City and Lévis, a city on its south shore. His spotty record as Quebec’s former environment minister put him on the defensive. He was criticized for his autocratic nature and unwillingness to let his female candidates speak.

“We didn’t have much to do. We pointed journalists in certain directions, and (Blanchet) would dig himself in,” said one Quebec organizer.

For about three weeks, things went well. The Conservatives’ growth in public support might have been hurting the campaign elsewhere, but in Quebec the feeling was the Grits were on their way to picking up most of their target seats.

Their leader was also solid. Trudeau performed well on Radio-Canada’s “Cinq chef, une élection,” a grilling with the network’s top anchors. His team felt he’d knocked it out of the park during the TVA French debate, and was energetic during the second French debate, where he accused Blanchet of not having “unanimity on Quebec” and of claiming the federal Liberals’ record as his own. Liberal troops were feeling so pumped that Olivier Duscheneau, a senior adviser for Quebec, turned that evening to his colleague Andrée-Lyne Hallé, who had been working with him on French debate preparation, and told her, “Our work here is done.”

The next day, things collapsed.

First, to the Liberals’ surprise, Legault emerged on Sept. 9, the day of the English-language debate, to call for a Conservative minority government, suggesting the three other federal parties would be bad for Quebec.

Nobody knew what it would mean, but “whether you like it or not, he’s the most popular politician in Quebec,” said one insider.

Some strategists pondered whether it could help the Tories. “If they only go up a few points, it will be fine. If a wave starts though, that will be a problem.”

But that wasn’t the problem. The response from focus groups suggested people didn’t like the premier telling them who to vote for.

What really changed the dynamic was the English-language debate.

At the English-language debate, moderator Shachi Kurl suggested Quebec had a problem with racism.

In the preamble to one question, moderator Shachi Kurl suggested that Quebec had a problem with racism. The Liberals’ Quebec organizers were livid.

Unsurprisingly, Legault lambasted the attack, and staunchly defended his Bill 21 (a law that prevents those wearing religious symbols from working in certain public-sector jobs) and Bill 96 (legislation that would curtail anglophone rights) as legitimate, democratic and popular.

He said Blanchet had done a good job defending Quebecers at the debate, and repeated his call for voters to park their ballot with the Bloc or the Conservatives.

“What I’ve been asking Quebecers since the beginning of the election campaign, is to consider the interests of the Quebec nation,” he said. “And right now, we have three parties who want to decide for us our priorities, in our powers. So what I’m asking Quebecers is please consider this fact in your choice.”

For the Liberals, the timing was unfortunate. Advanced voting had just begun that day.

“We heard anecdotally that people showed up angry at the polling station and voted for the Bloc,” said Mathieu Bouchard, the Liberals’ co-chair for Quebec. “They were pissed off and they wanted to send a message.”

“If the controversy had occurred a week earlier,” he added, “it probably would have had a negligible impact on the vote.”

Outrage was shared across the province, with the National Assembly unanimously condemning “Quebec-bashing” and demanding an apology from the debate’s organizers.

Few Quebecers, however, seemed to blame Trudeau for the question and by the following Wednesday, the Bloc’s numbers had dropped and the Liberals’ were creeping up.

Even so, the pivotal moments in the Quebec campaign put roadblocks in the Liberals’ expected growth path. By the third week, “the hemorrhaging had stopped” in the Liberals’ national campaign, but the lift that would be required to get back up to 170 seats was, although still theoretically possible, increasingly unlikely.

Not that the Conservatives saw much benefit. O’Toole, who had courted Legault since his leadership win and took several steps to please Quebec voters throughout the campaign, failed to break through. On election night, the Conservative won 70,887 more votes in the province than in 2019 but kept the same number of seats, 10.

The Liberals received 104,118 fewer votes, and also won all their incumbent ridings. ​​

Despite the Liberals’ failure to pick up any new seats, there was — unlike in 2019 — no unhappiness among the troops about the way the party’s Quebec campaign had run.

“There are events you control, and there are events you don’t control, and this is part of the category of events you don’t control,” Bouchard noted.

9The last week

While the Liberals were playing catch up in Quebec, their leader was pounding the pavement in Ontario.

Liberal strategists had deduced O’Toole’s pathway to victory and knew the election would be fought in Ontario. The Tories could make gains in Atlantic Canada, and in B.C. but O’Toole would only become prime minister if the Liberals failed to hold on to the “905 fortress.”

“The only place they could cause a double-digit swing was in Ontario, and that was clear,” said Stickney.

By then, Liberal support had crept back up, but there was an unusually large number of tight races.

As volunteers and resources were moved around to capitalize on any bounces or intelligence gathered from the field, different versions of digital ads were being pushed to target ridings, with motivating and strategic voting messages.

The Liberals were also pounding away on guns. An ad featuring Bill Blair — which had come together by happenstance when the former Toronto police chief showed up at the Ottawa campaign office one day — was turning out to be their most efficient. Scripted and voiced within 15 minutes, it decreased Conservative support by five percentage points in some regions, Liberal research suggested.

But the Liberals were also preparing to shift their message to a more hopeful, optimistic tone; their data suggested the contrast ads were depressing support from NDP voters, and they needed to rally progressives to their side.

With the race so tight, the Grits used the leader’s tour to hit crucial media markets. Throughout the campaign, Trudeau was absent from key battlegrounds in Ontario for no longer than three days. Newmarket, Markham, Richmond Hill, North York, Mississauga and London were visited and revisited.

“There are 50, 60 seats in greater Toronto,” Stickney told the Star, “and the Tories want to take 20 of them. Of course, we’re going to fight them here.”

On the Sunday of advanced polls, for example, the Liberals held a big rally at a drive-in in Oakville, featuring their two local candidates as well as incumbents from Burlington, Milton and Mississauga. The location was dressed, and Trudeau’s speech deliberately designed, so the event could be used in a campaign-closing ad that they hoped would drive voters to the polls. (It began airing two days later.)

The next day, Trudeau was in Vancouver to announce he’d make it a crime to block access to health-care facilities. That night, he held a rally in Surrey; on Tuesday, he pitched his climate-change plan in Richmond, B.C., and highlighted the recent endorsement of former B.C. Green leader Andrew Weaver (which was proving to be quite popular with Green and New Democrat voters in B.C.).

Then, although he was headed to Halifax, Trudeau stopped in Brampton for an evening rally with former prime minister Jean Chrétien. “It was almost like a whistle-stop tour because we didn’t want to be out of Ontario for four days straight,” said Stickney.

Meanwhile, O’Toole was doing telephone town-hall meetings that night from a dark studio in a ballroom at the Westin hotel in Ottawa. The Conservative leader had spent 14 out of 31 days — nearly half of the campaign by then — cooped up in his TV studio. It had been rented in January — designed with pandemic campaigning in mind — and was up and running by March. O’Toole’s advisers believed it offered them more flexibility, and freed up a lot of time normally spent travelling. They could produce professional-looking videos on a dime, identify tens of thousands of potential supporters through their telephone town hall meetings, screen calls to avoid any potential embarrassment, and free up volunteers and staff from organizing time-consuming rallies and local events, leaving them time to knock on doors and identify supporters.

Whether that was a wise strategy or not is being reviewed, two Conservative strategists told the Star.

In some ways, it was emblematic of a campaign that tried to keep its leader away from unscripted events. Not only was O’Toole choosing to stay physically apart from voters while Trudeau rubbed elbows with anyone close to him, but he was also staying tightly scripted. O’Toole read his remarks off a teleprompter, and kept strict message discipline to ensure the Conservatives’ chosen clips would be played on the evening news.

On Wednesday, O’Toole headed out for his last campaign blitz. He flew to Jonquière, Que., and then to Sherbrooke for an evening rally where he received the endorsement of former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Quebec candidates were thrilled. “A lot of people who vote for the Bloc Québécois are former Conservative voters,” Quebec incumbent Pierre Paul-Hus told the Star that night in Orford. “They voted for Mr. Mulroney. They still love him.”

The move angered hard-line Conservatives, but O’Toole’s camp believed they would vote for the party anyway. O’Toole’s closing message later that week focused on rallying anyone who wanted to see Trudeau defeated — including People’s Party of Canada supporters. He told them that a vote for any other party would lead to another Liberal government.

As O’Toole was leaving Mulroney’s side, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was beginning an address that would further hamper the Conservative campaign.

The COVID-19 situation in Alberta was no longer tenable, the premier told the province as he announced the introduction of a vaccine passport, the return of mandatory masking and physical distancing, and new restrictions on restaurants and indoor activities.

Many blamed the mounting COVID-19 case counts in Alberta on Kenney’s lax public health regulations. George Chahal, the Liberal candidate in Calgary-Skyview, was already making that case to voters through a social media ad that featured old footage of O’Toole praising Kenney’s handling of the pandemic. The Liberals repackaged the ad and sent it to key ridings in Alberta and B.C.

The next day, O’Toole was peppered with questions about his previous support for Kenney’s management of the pandemic. He refused to criticize the premier.

Kenney had brought the pandemic back to the front burner.

10The last push

Senior Liberals had spent the past several weeks looking at battleground ridings, shifting targets when the data warranted. Several times each week, they re-evaluated where resources should be deployed, which ridings would get which types of targeted advertising, where bodies would be moved, and where the leader would go.

Their first move had been to help protect incumbent seats. But, at various points, there were between 180 and 190 ridings in the Liberals’ sights.

As they had done in past elections, they had ranked each riding’s winnability on a scale of diamond, platinum, gold, silver, bronze, steel or wood. Winning all the gold ridings would give them government, while two-thirds of the silvers would land them a majority. This is where they had planned to spend 80 per cent of their time.

Unlike the NDP or the Conservatives, who mostly stuck to their initial plans, there was a nimbleness to the Liberals’ campaign, especially with regards to the leader’s tour.

With so many ridings so close, decisions were being made at the last minute. “The math was really changing,” one Liberal said. “We had taken ridings off the map and then we were putting them back on because of a new vote split on the right,” said another adviser.

Trudeau’s final weekend itinerary, for example, wasn’t finalized until Thursday. His advisers didn’t want to concede any ground in the GTA or Niagara, even if that meant Trudeau left the GTA one night only to fly back the next morning.

“The ability to be nimble on tour, it’s a pain in the ass, and it drives everybody crazy, and it can lead to additional costs — but I think it was good,” another official offered.

At rallies, Trudeau had pivoted his pitch to Greens and New Democrats, urging them to vote for the Liberals, not only because doing so would stop the Conservatives from forming government but also because his party had the best progressive policies. This was the party’s response to the NDP’s attack that the Liberals and Conservatives were cut from the same cloth. Trudeau was irked by the critique, which he said was untrue and “cynical.” The Grits were proud of their progressive platform and felt it gave centre-left voters no reason to turn away.

Trudeau would appear at 17 events over the final three days, finishing with a sprint across four provinces in 24 hours. O’Toole would do six events. He spent the last day in the GTA visiting two safe Liberal seats, where longtime Grit incumbents won with more than 52 per cent of the vote.

The mood on the Conservative bus suggested those aboard felt they had already lost — although advisers insist they were still holding out hope.

The mood on the Liberals’ tour suggested the Grits weren’t certain they were going to win — although Bains, who was on the bus for part of that weekend, described the feeling as “more optimistic.” The regional organizers Telford was speaking with during campaign stops were reporting positive results, but back at headquarters some were truly worried.

The night before the election, the Liberals’ internal numbers gave the Conservatives a 30 per cent chance of winning. It was too close to call.

“I hope I’m wrong,” said one senior adviser, reached Sunday night. “I hope Frank Graves is right.”

Graves, the EKOS pollster, was trumpeting on Twitter the Liberals would win a minority.

The Liberals’ internal seat projection stood at 140.

11Election night

The election was a disappointment for everyone. The Liberals did not get the majority they wanted but hadn’t asked for. They lost four seats in Atlantic Canada — including longtime incumbent Scott Simms — and three female cabinet ministers. And they failed to win more seats in Quebec.

But there were several bright spots for the Grits. They won two GTA ridings they tried to flip unsuccessfully in 2019: Aurora—Oak Ridges —Richmond Hill and Markham—Unionville. They won the traditionally NDP seat of Hamilton Mountain, two seats in Alberta, and four new seats in B.C., including the riding of Richmond Centre, which was completely unexpected.

They won the most seats despite taking only 32.6 per cent of the popular vote — less than the Conservatives’ 33.7 per cent share.

They also won most of the closest ridings. Of the 36 ridings with a gap of less than four percentage points between the winner and the runner-up, the Liberals won 21, and came in second in nine. (In six, Liberals were not competitive.) The Conservatives won seven of those races, and came in second in 18.

“The way we won is we pulled our base out,” said Pitfield. “We have expanded it over the years. We have solidified it and invested in it. And then, when we needed it, we knew how to find them. We knew how to get them out, and we got them out efficiently.”

This is what the Liberals — and their opponents — mean when they talk about the party’s voter efficiency. The Liberals target their spending and their resources on the seats they know they need to win, and the voters that will get them there. The other parties might get growth, Pitfield explained, “but it’s just general growth. In federal elections, you have to make sure that your work to gain support is targeted to exactly where your voters are.”

The Liberals’ data strength continues to be the envy of its challengers.

On any given day during the campaign, the Liberals say they reached between 1.5 million and 3 million Canadians with thousands of different ad variations on Facebook and Instagram.

Pitfield ran a team of about 70 at Liberal headquarters overseeing the campaign narrative, the ads, research on their ads, the overnight tracking polls, social media monitoring and all the content creation, as well as analytics on all the data coming into its platforms — through social media, or canvasses, for example — which guided the party’s resource allocation, nationally and at the riding level.

While the data guides decisions, and the content helps mobilize people to the polls, the Liberals are very proud of their ground game and the years spent cultivating a team of motivated volunteers — who made more than 15 million door-knocks and calls this year — and field officers who know how to read their ridings.

“This was the big red machine, in its finest in a lot of ways,” said Ishmael, who, as the party’s national director, is widely credited for investing in the Liberals’ system of data analytics.

Broadhurst suggested that in this election experienced eyes and ears on the ground made a big difference.

“We relied on that kind of intel more than we had in the past, and it proved to be in many ways more accurate than a lot of the polling that we were seeing,” he said.

“This was the big red machine, in its finest in a lot of ways.”

With the Liberals’ projections so far below the 160 seats they won, several advisers suggest the party’s modelling — which was not able to properly account for the rocket-ship rise of the PPC and the collapse of the Green party — may need tweaking.

“These models are based to a certain extent on trend analysis through multiple elections, so that when there’s a totally unique event happening in your election, it really doesn’t compute for them,” Broadhurst told the Star.

On the Conservative side, there are many opinions on what went wrong: from COVID-19 re-emerging as an issue, to O’Toole’s performance, to questioning the fundamentals of his campaign strategy — his push toward the centre.

Within his team, there is general agreement that controversies should have been neutralized more quickly, though there are disagreements on whether it was the right idea to amend the platform. “That is something that we need to to look at and reflect on,” a senior campaign adviser said.

The Tories and the NDP both say the Liberals’ gun attack on O’Toole never registered in any of their focus groups. But at the Conservative caucus meeting this week, O’Toole’s camp acknowledged the gun issue hurt, as did a perceived weakness on LGBTQ+ issues.

One adviser said he believes the real damage inflicted by the firearms flip-flop was that it stopped the campaign’s momentum. “We lost it because of that,” he told the Star. “It wasn’t a vote-driving issue, it was just an issue we were talking about.

“We weren’t talking about the issues we needed to talk about in order to win.”

The Conservatives plan to look inward, engaging in a “very, very large post-election research project” they hope will tell them why they lost. A preliminary analysis suggests the huge swath of support for the People’s Party “cost somewhere between four and nine seats.” Then there’s the Yukon, where Smith, the booted candidate ran as an independent, and split the Conservative vote giving the Liberals a win.

But it’s defeats in the GTA and in B.C.’s Lower Mainland that have many Conservatives worried their party is now more white and rural and less reflective of the country.

There are also some positive take-aways. Although O’Toole failed to win new seats in the suburbs, the Conservatives increased their vote share in many of those ridings.

“I know it doesn’t look that way in terms of the seat count, but we came very, very close” to breaking into the suburbs, one adviser said. “If we don’t do it, we’re just going to become the party of rural Canada — and, you know, that’s a recipe for winning an election once a generation and nothing more.”

For the NDP, there is introspection as well. The party spent approximately $11 million on advertising — as much as it spent on the entire campaign in 2019. For that, it won just one additional seat and failed to make breakthroughs in Ontario target ridings.

Jennifer Howard, the NDP’s campaign director, told the Star the party will review the campaign over the next couple of months to see where it can improve.

“We had a plan at the beginning and we followed the plan pretty closely,” she said. She says she is proud of Jagmeet Singh’s message discipline and the campaign’s ad strategy, which promoted the NDP leader while heavily attacking Trudeau. But despite the added resources, an NDP wave never materialized.

Still, the NDP was the only party to see its popular vote rise, with 133,007 new voters.

“The thing that we have to figure out between now and the next election is how to turn those votes into more seats,” Howard said.

For all the parties, the PPC and Greens included, the 2021 campaign offers many lessons.

Martin Masse, the senior adviser to the People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, said his party is here to stay. It’s now better funded and organized. On election night, its five per cent of the vote total was exactly in line with its expectation. The wild card for the PPC is how to maintain growth once anger over COVID-19 lockdowns has dissipated.

The Greens have already entered a period of self-reflection after a devastating loss that saw them take just 2.3 per cent of the popular vote, their worst result since 2000. Leader Annamie Paul has quit, and a leadership selection process is expected to follow.

There may be time now for all of the parties to fix any leadership issues and learn from their election mistakes.

As one Liberal told the Star, “I don’t think you’ll see us calling [an election] early …

“There’s a lot of people who are interpreting this as a mistake, that you don’t volunteer to do this again.”

Althia Raj is an Ottawa-based national politics columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @althiaraj
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