Since becoming leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau has made it a priority to keep his message positive. He has kept that promise and seen a huge bump in the polls – helped by many factors – putting him ahead of both the Conservatives and the NDP. While the short term effects are working in his favour, it won’t do him any good come election time in 2015.
A positive message does indeed raise approval ratings, but it does not bring votes. Trudeau is benefiting from the fact that, still two years from an election, people don’t want to stomach harsh abrasive attacks yet. They much prefer Justin’s classroom talks, his cellphone-filmed messages of hope and working together – while sporting cargo shorts. It also helps that Trudeau is still in his honeymoon period, where he gets an artificial advantage in the polls just for being new.
Yet Trudeau and his team would be foolish to think this effect will last, and equally so if they think the Conservatives are tripping over their shoelaces when it comes to handling the new opposition. Harper’s team knows exactly what they’re doing and they’re planning a long-term strategy that will bring them another majority in 2015. The Conservative message machine is well oiled and has been working the last ten years perfecting strategies to combat opponents like Trudeau, Mulcair, Dion, Ignatieff, and Martin. Rather than being frightened, the Conservatives knew the ads would leave a sour taste in the public’s mouth, and they would lose a few percentages in the polls. They know how the game works.
For the Conservatives, those early television and direct-mail attack ads were crucial in setting the tone. Before Justin even had the time to define himself, the Conservatives were setting the tone, creating his image. He was inexperienced, unprofessional, and unworthy of his position. They were in control of the message. You’ve probably heard that Justin Trudeau is “in over his head” so many times now that it’s permanently lodged in your brain. No matter what you think of Trudeau, this message will stay with you subconsciously until Election Day.
The first few bitter ads set the general tone, and soon the Conservatives will be rolling out a new message. Instead of basing it on image and character, these ones will look at his platform – as soon as he develops a comprehensive one worth attacking, that is. Slowly the attack ads will backfire less, and put more criticism on Justin himself. This will slowly happen over the next two years. When the ads start becoming more substantive, Trudeau will no longer be able to ignore them, he’ll have to respond. Attacking his policy will put him on defence.
And no one ever won an election playing from defence.
Sure, people may like still like Trudeau if he continues on a positive note, but there will be no incentive for them to go out and vote for him. His positive campaigning won’t inspire people to act. What he needs to do is give his supporters and those on the fence about him some red meat. They need to rally behind him. In politics, hatred is a more powerful emotion than love. Only depicting your opponent as dangerous for the country and a bad leader will push people to make time in their day for you. His last ad claiming that he will work hard for Canadians, while sounding nice, means nothing in the end. Continuing this rhetoric will do nothing for him come 2015.
The BC NDP’s fresh wound should be proof enough that a positive message won’t get the job done. NDP leader Adrian Dix tried to keep a positive message during most of the 2013 provincial election campaign, with some limited attacks on his Liberal opponents. Polls showed him as the favourite to win the May 14 election, yet the final results proved to be a great upset, with Premier Christy Clark winning another majority. Clark’s negative message of the NDP destroying the economy and breaking up families proved more effective.
Skewing the polls greatly was a low turnout rate. About 52% of eligible BC voters turned out to vote. Had more people showed up to cast their ballots, earlier polls may have been more accurate. A majority of people may in fact have preferred Dix as their Premier, but they had no incentive to go out and vote. It shows the importance of Get out the Vote campaign and rallying the troops, often by inciting anger towards the opponent.
The takeaway for Justin Trudeau should not be to resort to Conservative-style attack ads that target non-political traits. He’s been in the spotlight for over ten years, the public is already familiar with Harper it won’t work the same way it does against Trudeau himself. Instead, Trudeau needs to attack Harper’s strongest point: the economy. While he has been doing that in the House of Commons, only avid politicos will be aware of it. He needs to bring those criticism on a larger scale and reach more Canadians via advertisements.
Just saying he will be a positive change for the better is not good enough.