Nova Scotia’s Peter MacKay was in front of a Washington, D.C. crowd Wednesday afternoon when he was asked about his reaction to the failure of Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party to knock off Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.
“It was like a having a breakaway on an open net — and missing the net,” MacKay said, neatly providing the most Canadian of metaphors to his American audience in describing what many Conservatives have been muttering to themselves in the wake of last week’s election.
The results of that election saw the Conservatives win 22 more seats and the popular vote, but alas for them, fail to move the Scheer team to the government side of the aisle in the House of Commons.
There has been much been grumbling like this in the Conservative ranks since the election. One Tory told me, post-election, that a win by the Scheer team should have been — to use a sports metaphor that might have made more sense to an American audience — “a lay-up.”
In Quebec, that grumbling has almost become a roar. Montreal-based newspaper Le Devoir reported Monday that Quebec Conservative Senator Jean-Guy Dagenais believes it might be best if Scheer stepped aside. Dagenais, as a result, became the first member of the Conservative party national caucus to publicly call for a new leader. That national caucus meets for the first time post-election on behind closed doors on Wednesday.
But Dagenais is, at least so far, all by himself in this regard. No other member of the national caucus, as of Wednesday evening, had publicly called for Scheer’s head.
Scheer’s senior caucus leadership concluded two days of meetings in Ottawa Wednesday convinced that while there will be a full and frank airing of grievances at next week’s caucus meeting, caucus will emerge into the glare of the TV news cameras to declare their unity of purpose and their faith in Scheer.
“I’m not going to be distracted by all the chatter,” Conservative caucus veteran James Bezan said during a telephone call earlier this week.
“We’ve got a weak PM right now with a Parliament that’s going to be on edge.”
And yet, with MacKay’s musings Wednesday in Washington, some disgruntled Conservatives, be they in Quebec or elsewhere, now have an alternative to Scheer upon which they might focus their thoughts of de-throning Trudeau. MacKay, for his part, published a tweet at 1 a.m. ET on Thursday morning waving off anyone who would fix the leadership hopes on him.
But those Conservatives who believe that a mere switch in leaders will vanquish the Liberal foe will likely want to face some other realities, the most important one being that the much-vaunted ‘ground game’ that helped propel Conservative electoral machines from 2006 through to 2015 has rusted and is in dire need of an overhaul.
- In the Greater Toronto Area, local Conservative campaigns had not done their homework by August to identify their committed support while Liberals had, in fact, done just that. Identifying your support is a crucial and critical job of all local campaigns. Multiple Conservative sources who worked on GTA campaigns say the pre-writ work was simply not up to previous standards. Jenni Byrne, the veteran of Harper-era Conservative election war rooms, is on the record saying the ’supporter’ lists in the GTA had the kind of numbers on it that the party had in its first election in 2004. That meant that the 2019 version of the Conservative party gave its opponent a significant head-start in this crucial battleground.
- There was a significant mid-campaign malfunction of the software that manages the national Conservative voter identification database. The Constituent Information Management System or CIMS (pronounced ‘sims’) has been a key part of Conservative campaigns for more than a decade. But in this election, data collected at the doorstep by Conservative campaigners using a mobile “CIMS-to-Go” app went missing in transmission from the doorstep to the servers at national HQ. As a result, the door-to-door work of thousands of volunteers was not being captured and used properly by the central campaign. For the local campaigns, that also meant they had to re-do many canvasses and thus wasted precious time and resources during a writ period.
- At some point in the campaign, local campaigns were asking the CIMS database at HQ for lists of what Conservatives call “likely accessible voters” — the key group of persuadable voters any campaign wants to focus on. But it quickly became apparent to many campaigns in the GTA that what local campaigns received from headquarters in Ottawa was not lists with thousands of names of “likely accessible voters,” but was, in fact, lists of avowed Liberal or New Democrat supporters. So at some point, Conservative campaigners were either wasting their time, or worse, were actually pulling the vote for their opponents. CIMS had to be shut down or curtailed as a result, leaving local campaigns with a huge data blind spot that would prove to be fatal for some campaigns.
After losing in 2006, many Liberals thought all they needed was a new leader and they’d be right back into government. As it turned out, the campaign run in Stephane Dion’s name was a disaster. Local campaigns felt they had little or no direction from head office and it showed in the results.
Meanwhile, the data-drive Conservative campaign improved its minority in the 2008 campaign.
But Liberals, once again, figured a new leader was all they needed, and in came Michael Ignatieff who, in 2011, took the Liberals to the worst loss that party had ever experienced. The Liberal over-reliance on an ‘air war’ played perfectly into the hands of the Conservatives who, at this point, were bragging about the efficiency and effectiveness of CIMS and their ground game.
But at that point, Justin Trudeau and his key advisors, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, recognized that databases and the organization of an overwhelming ground game were crucial to victory and they and others spent months convincing other Liberals that they had to build those systems and then went ahead and did just that.
That work paid off with Trudeau’s majority win in the 42nd general election. And it paid off again this month as the Liberals were best among all parties at identifying their supporters and getting their vote to the polls, an attribute that helped overcome or mitigate the perceived failings of the party leader.
So the lesson for Conservatives — or for New Democrats or Greens — as they look ahead to the 44th general election, is that the challenge may be less about the leader and much more about party organization, databases, software, and the all-important ground game — particularly in the Greater Toronto Area.
— David Akin is the Chief Political Correspondent for Global News.