News & Views

7 lessons from the Conservative loss in the 2015 Election

Torch's President, Hamish Marshall, wrote an analysis of the 2015 Canadian Federal Election campaign for clients, media and political contacts. It was also published on The Rebel.

1. Branding Justin Trudeau as “Not ready” was a strategic mistake.

After 10 years in government the Conservatives were facing a change election. Change was always going to be the ballot question for many voters. Playing on Trudeau’s looks and ineptitude actually helped to make him look different from the status quo. Being unready is also code for “new” (as compared to Harper’s “experience”) which is what change-seeking voters were looking for. The weakness with “not ready” is that it can be disproven with time. Expectations were set low for Trudeau, and by beating those low expectations he proved he was ready. “Readiness” is not a fundamental character flaw, like Dion’s lack of leadership skills or Ignatieff’s ego and selfishness – it is a resume flaw that can be fixed with time.

2. No Conservative Platform
The Conservative platform was essentially the 2015 budget with no new promises. The party was content to run on its record. With no big idea from the government the election was going to be fought on change and with a focus on personalities. With the PM’s public persona having a net negative impact on party support this was a risky strategy. The PC’s won the 1988 election by making it a referendum on a big idea: Free Trade – this made the election about different visions for the future – not their record and personalities. The Conservatives ought to have promised something big – on the basis that the now balanced budget made it possible.

3. Consequences of a Liberal victory came far too late
The last week of Harper and the Conservative paid advertising were good and they may have staved off more seat losses (the Conservatives did out-perform the final polls). In order to convince people that Trudeau was not just unready or unserious, but dangerous to their personal finances, the message needed to come far earlier. It should be have been rolled out in June or August not October.

4. The Conservative coalition is actually quite strong
Despite losing 89 seats the Conservatives only got 235,000 votes fewer than in 2011. Harper’s team got 5.6 million votes. In this election the Conservatives got more votes than in 2008 and 2006. 5.6 million votes is an incredible base to build from. What defeated the Conservatives more than the loss of votes, or the collapse of the NDP to the Liberals was the huge number of new voters. Turnout will be in the range of 69%, with 3 million more votes cast than in 2011. The vast majority of those new voters supported the Liberals.

5. Chinese voters stayed Conservative
The two suburban seats that bucked the trend and stayed Conservative – Markham-Unionville and Richmond both have something in common. They are the only two ridings in the country where Canadians of Chinese descent make up more than 50% of the population. Other ridings with significant numbers of Chinese voters in both Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto saw far less of a drop in Conservative support. Other ethnic groups followed the general swing to the Liberals.

6. The media narrative can only accommodate a two-horse race in the final week
Like the 2015 Alberta election the final week the media focused entirely on two parties. Even though not all polls showed the NDP in complete free fall – they simply fell off the map. Segments and articles about them got shorted and vanished altogether. I’m sure the NDP had some decent fight back messages in the last week, but I have no idea, as I never heard them. This is important to understand from an election narrative perspective – the final week will always be a binary choice and so your campaign must be ready for that.

7. Candidate recruitment matters
I am not generally a believer in star candidates, but Conservative candidate recruitment was sorely lacking in this election. With many incumbents in good seats retiring there ought to have been more of an effort to present new faces that would reinvigorate a government about to enter its second decade. Think back to 2011 when candidates like Chis Alexander, Joe Oliver and Michelle Rempel helped present new faces that could freshen up the ministry. The one exception in this election was Dianne Watts whose personal popularity certainly saved a seat which would have been lost by a lower profile candidate.