Chairman's Desk

For campaign clues, watch where the leaders go

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on September 15, 2019.

With the prime minister’s visit to Rideau Hall on Wednesday morning, Parliament was formally dissolved and the summer’s so-called “fake” election campaign, mercifully, brought to an end.

And with it, Canadians began to hear not just the noise of the campaign messaging but the noise of the parties’ campaign buses and planes as well.

It is that noise, the noise of the leaders’ tours, that is in many ways the canary in the coal mine when it comes to understanding how the election is unfolding.

Watch leaders visit ridings that pundits would describe as unwinnable and you’ll know the party thinks they are on their way to victory. Watch them hold a rally in a “safe” riding and you will know the party’s war room is in full-scale panic.

In 2015, for example, many observers could not believe some of the far-flung places Justin Trudeau was choosing to visit, rather than focusing on ridings with strong Liberal potential in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces. What those observers missed was that Trudeau could afford to visit Canadians from coast to coast because he didn’t need to shore up votes. The tour, for those who were watching, foretold the election results.

So, here are some things to watch for in election No. 43.

After his remarks on Wednesday, Trudeau headed to Vancouver-Kingsway for his first rally of the campaign. Historically, the federal Liberals have not been especially competitive in B.C., but in 2015 they did unusually well. This time out you can bet they will be laser-focused on nailing down those seats, especially given the momentum in the province of Elizabeth May’s Greens.

So, no surprise that the prime minister chose B.C. for his kickoff. However, if we see him lingering around the west coast throughout the campaign, that may be a sign of trouble in other Liberal strongholds.

While the prime minister spoke from Rideau Hall, Andrew Scheer was en route to Trois-Rivières to make his case in the Quebec riding, which has not elected a Conservative since 1988. Over the next few weeks, I expect we will find Scheer in similar ridings across Quebec, attempting to capitalize on Jagmeet Singh’s weakness in the province.

Later in the day, Scheer descended on the GTA, another essential battleground for him. If he can manage to secure a sufficient number of 905 ridings, he may have a shot at forming government.

To do so, he will have to deal with the headwinds coming from his provincial cousins at Queen’s Park. A teachers’ strike this fall, for example, could pose more than just a messaging challenge for him. It could require Scheer to spend more time in the province than he otherwise might have planned.

For Jagmeet Singh, worrisome trends from pre-summer polling have not abated and Elizabeth May seems poised to eat the NDP leader’s lunch in B.C. and parts of the Atlantic provinces. The Greens have spent the past year presenting themselves as a viable third option for voters at the expense of the NDP.

If you hear Singh talking about May rather than Trudeau or Scheer, it means he is more focused on saving the furniture, as the cliché goes, than gaining ground. If Singh is forced to spend his time fending off incursions from the Greens rather than swiping seats from the other two parties, that would spell serious trouble for the NDP.

For May, who Canadians seem to have finally grown comfortable with as a political actor, the thing to listen for is yet another apology. If she is caught in another gaffe, Canadians may well be reminded of their past fears of the Greens. And that bloc of voters may then turn back to one of their traditional choices.

The campaign will, of course, bring with it many unpredictable twists and turns that will be impossible to unscramble until Election Day.

That said, watching the leaders’ tour itineraries will provide you with an insight into the thinking of campaign strategists, if nothing else.