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Trudeau playing with Tories? Grit leader may benefit from pummelling

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a 2015 federal election campaign stop in Saskatoon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards


Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks to supporters during a 2015 federal election campaign stop in Saskatoon. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2015 (1819 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

We're only two weeks into the campaign, but national opinion polls all seem to be telling us the same story: this is likely the closest three-way electoral race in Canadian history.

In general, the NDP seem to lead most polls, with the Conservatives in second and the Liberals close behind in third. In most of these polls, there are only five percentage points separating the three parties, which is near or within the margin of error.

However, as we approach the end of the second week of the campaign, there has been a small but important uptick in Liberal support. In some polls, it has been a significant change in Grit fortunes. It's a trend most pundits believe is a result of Trudeau's performance in the first televised leaders debate.


To be fair, it was hard to pick a single winner from the first debate, hosted by Maclean's magazine. Nobody made any serious mistakes or scored any direct hits.

And yet, it seems now a good number of poll respondents found something positive in Trudeau's performance. It's an odd reaction, given the fact Trudeau rushed through many of his arguments and was muddled in his delivery. Nonetheless, the public was impressed, if only modestly.

This phenomenon has to come as a great disappointment to both the NDP and the Conservatives, but particularly the latter. The Tories have been hammering away at Trudeau for more than two years now, launching wave after wave of attack ads designed to portray him as a youthful, impetuous fool who has neither the political experience nor intelligence to govern.

You could see this strategy in action on Wednesday, when Conservative Leader Stephen Harper touched down in Winnipeg for a very brief campaign rally. Harper talked about both Trudeau and Mulcair, but the gross majority of his disdainful jabs were pointed at the leader known in Tory circles simply as "Justin."

Every time Harper says Justin, you can imagine he's really saying "Junior." It's a clear attempt to amplify the "just not ready" theme from the Tory television ads into every Harper message.

With the modest uptick in Liberal support, however, the Tories may be coming to realize that rather than dampening interest or enthusiasm about Trudeau, the attack ads may be backfiring.

Two specific dynamics could be at work here.

First, having worked so hard to portray Trudeau as unqualified to be prime minister, it could be voters are realizing that he just isn't as bad as the man portrayed in those attack ads. This seems to be part of the response to the debates -- Trudeau wasn't great, but he sure was a lot better than the Tories said he would be. This is an impression that is being cemented every day on the campaign trail.

The Liberals do not have the financial resources to fire back at the Tories with their own attack ads this early in a 78-day campaign, the longest federal election campaign in 140 years. But the campaign does afford Trudeau abundant 'earned media,' the term used to describe the intensive news coverage that comes with a live campaign. And in every interview, scrum and speech, Trudeau is demonstrating he is much more capable than the character he plays in Tory attack ads.

It could also be the barrage of Tory attack ads and relentlessly disrespectful commentary from Harper are actually generating some sympathy for the youthful Liberal leader.

By now, even the most disengaged voter has seen the tsunami of anti-Justin attack ads on television, radio and the Internet, and is aware the Conservative party has a hate on for Trudeau and the Liberals. It is possible soft Conservative and NDP voters may come to believe Trudeau is being unfairly victimized by this ruthless attack.

Back in 2013, concerns were raised in Tory ranks about the same phenomenon after the first wave of anti-Trudeau ads hit the airwaves. The concerns were exacerbated when Trudeau's popularity continued to go up, even as the ads increased in intensity. And because the Liberals reported a sharp increase in donations partly in response to the Tory attacks.

In the current election campaign, some Conservatives are only too aware they may be unwittingly playing into Trudeau's hands. One senior Tory source said that for some time, it has been thought Trudeau actually prefers to play the underdog in this election. It's a position, the source said, that allows him to exceed voter expectations with a minimum of effort.

As evidence of this penchant for playing the underdog, the source recounted the 2012 story of Trudeau's charity boxing match with Tory Sen. Patrick Brazeau, currently facing criminal charges for improper expense claims and for sexual assault.

Initially, Conservatives were, quite frankly, thrilled at the prospect of having the skinny Trudeau in a boxing ring locked up with the heavily muscled, abundantly tattooed Brazeau. The senator was experienced in mixed martial arts and had been a former Canadian Forces reservist. Brazeau looked, in every possible way, to be the favourite.

Brazeau brashly predicted he would knock the newly minted Liberal leader out cold. Federal Tories were giddy at the prospect of Brazeau laying waste to the great Grit hope and leaving him bloodied and battered.

Except it didn't quite turn out that way. Trudeau, who has boxed for some time, pummelled Brazeau relentlessly. The referee had to stop the fight several times to allow Brazeau to regain his faculties, ultimately awarding Trudeau a TKO in the third round.

Almost all media reports on the match described it as an upset. Tories know now Trudeau was the favourite all along and played the underdog well enough to lower expectations. Expectations he not only met but also exceeded with an impressive, violent flourish.

Although many will be tired of reading this caveat, it is still too early to identify the meaningful dynamics in this election.

However, early trends suggest Trudeau's role as the Conservative whipping boy, along with his third-place positioning, may be exactly what he wants at this stage of the campaign.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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