2021 Election: Erin O’Toole building momentum, Trudeau and Liberals playing catch-up

Election 2021

As polls in the current federal election campaign pull tighter between the Liberals and Conservatives, I can’t help but be reminded of the classic Roadrunner cartoons.

The formidable genius Wile E. Coyote was always doing his best to scheme up the best way to catch his speedy nemesis, with some precarious results from consulting firm Acme Co. if you ask me. I digress.

The Roadrunner always knew the coyote was going to shoot himself in the foot, he just needed to buy enough time for that to happen.

This self-defeatist strategy toward opponents has basically protected Justin Trudeau in campaigns and relegated the Conservatives to the opposition for six years now.

The Liberals have known if a particularly poignant social issue brought itself to light, say abortion or same-sex marriage, the Conservatives would tie themselves in knots trying to appease all members of the giant tent that is the Conservative Party of Canada.

The thought being the Tories couldn’t appease both moderate swing voters and its base at the same time without looking like an uncomfortable piece of uncooked spaghetti on TV.

And largely, the Liberals were right.

So it may explain why the party looks so unprepared for the current campaign, as it looks like the greatest hits are drying up; the abortion question was handled skillfully by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. He’s distanced himself from the anti-vaccine, anti-mask, anti-lockdown, anti-thought crowd and with Trudeau facing unacceptable security threats at rallies, he’s condemned that, too.

The Liberals thought the campaign would be based largely on their pandemic record but so far they’ve been defending the decision to call the election itself, during a parliament that even though was a minority one, was still functioning. They’ve struggled to explain to Canadians why.

That decision has led to a “recoil effect,” as veteran pollster Nik Nanos puts it, but has also allowed the other leaders, particularly O’Toole, to show off their profile to a wider swath of potential voters. 

“But the reality is that before...the election, the Liberals dominated the news and they were able to kind of respond to the pandemic,” Nanos told me on CFRA Live this past weekend.

“They look very proactive. And once the election was called, it basically created equal time, especially for Erin O'Toole and Justin Trudeau. So we got, like a stock market and a bit of a technical correction.”

Nanos added O’Toole has been able to connect with a more broad range of voters unlike party leaders of the past, while maintaining focus on key issues.

“So I think a lot of that has to do with what's transpired and gone right for Erin O’Toole, who said that he had a plan and has basically been hammering away at that plan and advancing it and talking about what he would do if he was Prime Minister if the Conservatives form government for Canadians.”

Essentially, two weeks into the campaign, O’Toole has managed to not drop the anvil on himself.

Outside of a buffoonish Willy Wonka-inspired cartoon ad to start the campaign, he has largely focused on policy and away from typical right-wing divisive issues. He’s left the abortion and same sex-marriage debates behind, it would seem, and is using his ads to speak to working-class Canadians.

So with the Conservatives and O’Toole keeping the party firearms in the cabinet to protect themselves, the Liberals have panicked and it shows.

Caught off guard by the Conservatives’ platform release, the Liberals have worked to respond and react to announcements for things like housing, looking to match popular policy points from O’Toole.

And perhaps most surprising to the Liberals, is that the Grits’ platform could easily be there’s, with a focus so far on health care, mental health and housing affordability. With the recent PC election win in Nova Scotia, on a left of centre platform that included increased health care spending, the federal Conservatives might have been taking notes. Whatever the case, it’s lead to a bump in support and momentum in a short campaign.

“It's too early to call this one,” Nanos said. “But I think we can definitively say, based on the research that's been done over the last couple of weeks, that the Conservatives have been rewarded so far and that they're in the game in terms of what happens.”

Aside from O’ Toole, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is also a thorn in Trudeau’s side so far, running a strong campaign that has targeted the Liberal leader on a wide array of issues including social justice and economic disparities. Issues the Liberals would consider bread and butter under Trudeau. Singh has also been viewed as a very likable leader to Canadians, according to Nanos.

After thinking this election was in the bag, the Liberals are only now catching up to speed and the irony is, perhaps they’d have more time to recover if not for such a short campaign.

While far from over, the Liberals have work to do to catch up to the momentum of the other two main political parties. But it certainly feels like they’ve been taking Acme’s calls.