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SHACHI KURL: As we move closer to election day, beware the backups

Maxime Bernier left the Conservative Party of Canada last August to sit as an independent MP and launch a new federal party, the People’s Party of Canada. He visited The Telegram on Friday to answer questions about his views on many issues, including equalization and immigration.
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier - SaltWire File

OK, can we talk about backups? Everyone’s got them: your backup vacation home checker, in case your first choice has a record of drowning house plants. Your backup babysitter when brother-in-law wants a night off. Your backup dogwalker when Fido has trust issues with the designated primary. Your backup date to that wedding at the cottage later this summer, just in case your current, nascent romance doesn’t quite last that long.

In an online, app-based world when our relational and consumer choices are endless and never quite locked in, to be a backup is an important position. In party politics, it could be everything.

It was indeed everything to Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals in the summer of 2015. The leader who began the campaign season in third place slowly, winsomely crept to power as the backup. While Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats and Stephen Harper with his Conservatives faced off as the perceived primaries, Trudeau was content to just be on our contact lists, waiting for the call when things fell through. And fall through they did. As Thomas stumbled and Stephen staggered, there was Justin, looking better than ever.

That was then, this is now. In this campaign, the former underdog is no longer free from the pressures of expectation. Four years ago , the Liberals and NDP were tied as voters’ second choices. Now, the situation is far more diffuse. New backups are on the scene, making the path to victory for both the Liberals – and the Conservatives – more complicated.

Soon to be released public opinion data from the Angus Reid Institute shows that the Liberals’ unprecedented freefall appears – at least for now – to have come to a stop. Additionally reassuring, the Conservatives are suspended where they have been for some time: well ahead of Trudeau’s party, but with the victory zone stubbornly just out of reach.

But as the left-of-centre splinters, the Liberals are going to have to convince New Democrat-leaning voters to return to the fold. Today, however, only one-half as many voters overall list the Liberals as a second choice as four years ago. Elizabeth May and the Greens have overtaken them.

The Conservatives, under Andrew Scheer, can take a little more comfort in this long observed truth about Canadian politics: the CPC has the most committed base. How committed? Consider that their voters are more than twice as likely as Liberal and NDP supporters to say they have no second choice. What keeps them up at night, however, is a new backup.

In the summer of 2015, Maxime Bernier was an (outwardly) happy CPC warrior. The People’s Party of Canada was not a thing. The hard-right wing of the party had nowhere to go – so it stayed put. Now, nearly one-fifth of decided Conservative voters say their second choice would be the PPC. Remember, the CPC needs to grow its base in order to re-take power. Scheer and company can ill afford to see Bernier – now leader of the PPC – strip away a single Conservative voter.

Of course, the backup only becomes essential if he or she can demonstrate they’re suitable for the top spot. You’ve got to like them, trust them, and think they’re competent and responsible enough to handle the job. Trudeau ultimately did this in a series of strong debate performances and bold policy pivots (remember the “run deficits and pay for infrastructure” idea?). Thus, while the party leaders jockey for first place in our hearts and minds this summer, they’d do well to remember they’re simultaneously auditioning for the all-important position of second place. Stealthy, below-the-radar campaigns may seem less sexy, but are just as effective once all the ballots are counted.

Shachi Kurl is Executive Director of the Angus Reid Institute, a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research foundation.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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