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John Ivison: Barack Obama — the man who won the Canadian federal election

Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama: The former president said he was proud to have worked with Trudeau, “a hard-working, effective leader who takes on big issues like climate change.” - Reuters

The unsung story about the 2019 general election campaign is how vital Barack Obama’s endorsement was to Justin Trudeau’s victory.

That’s a pretty broad statement, given there were so many twists and turns in the 40 day campaign. But if there was the turning point that secured the win, it was the former president’s backing of Trudeau five days before Canadians went to the polls, according to a number of senior members of Team Trudeau.

The Liberals in the war-room entered the Thanksgiving weekend, just 10 days before election day, in despondent mood. The key strategists – Gerry Butts, Tom Pitfield, Jeremy Broadhurst, Brian Clow, Kate Purchase and Katie Telford – had opted for a narrative that positioned Trudeau as a stark contrast to Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer.

But an ad that compared the Liberal tax cut plan with a similar Conservative offering was failing to move the needle. The Liberals were stalled, as voters dismissed both contenders for prime minister as liars. Worse, Jagmeet Singh’s impressive performance in the English language leaders’ debate suggested the NDP might be on the move, creating vote splits that could have seen Scheer win the election by default.

We ran with it

That outcome was made less likely by Scheer’s decision to unveil the Conservative platform in almost covert fashion on the Friday before the long weekend. The Conservative policy offering contained enough cuts to public services to allow the Liberals to pounce. “It was an error on their part, maybe an unavoidable one. But it was a confusing message: ‘It’s time for you to get ahead’ but we’re going to cut your services,” said one senior strategist.

The Liberals pumped out ads about the platform on Facebook and Twitter, even as it was being released, branded with the hashtag #scheercuts. “That made people swing back and take a second look at Trudeau,” said the insider.

The campaign team had no time to direct its advertising agency to produce any glossy attack ads and was forced to produce content in-house, featuring Scheer and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, hands aloft in triumph, over the headline “Stop Conservative Cuts”.

The ad tested well with focus groups, lifting the Liberal vote share nearly three per cent among NDP and Conservative voters. “We knew with confidence this could work,” said the digital strategist. It was released Canada-wide on high rotation in targeted ridings where the NDP’s growth threatened to profit the Conservatives. The effort was all but imperceptible in the public opinion polls but was important in starting to reverse the slide in Liberal fortunes.

However, the real shift in momentum came the following Wednesday, the 16th, five days before election day, at 1.58pm, when a tweet from Barack Obama exploded on the election like a grenade. The former president said he was proud to have worked with Trudeau, “a hard-working, effective leader who takes on big issues like climate change”. Obama said the world needs Trudeau’s progressive leadership. “I hope our neighbours to the north support him for another term.”

It proved to be the road to redemption for Trudeau. Campaign insiders said there was a “general agreement” between the two men that Obama would offer his support “but you never know until you see the text”. On the morning of the 16th, the Liberal war-room was on tenterhooks, waiting for the wording to arrive. “It was meant to come in the morning but it didn’t arrive until noon,” said one strategist. “People felt really good. There was a genuine sense of concern and sadness, a weird heaviness to that point. But the Obama thing was a taste of that hopeful thing. If we felt it, so did the public. And what we did is we ran with it.”

The team’s response was almost as important as the tweet itself, which received 325,000 likes and 45,000 retweets. Traffic to the Liberal Facebook page soared 1,300 per cent and the party spent thousands of dollars pushing the endorsement out to its supporters.

“It recharged the base – those people who had been embarrassed by Trudeau’s behaviour (in the ‘blackface’ scandal). Obama gave everyone the re-assurance that Justin was a great guy and not a racist,” said one campaign staff member.

In marketing terms, this was the cognitive dissonance moment, when people who had supported Trudeau, but been confronted with facts contrary to their beliefs, found a way to resolve that contradiction to reduce their discomfort. If someone of Obama’s stature was supportive, it allowed people to feel better about voting for Trudeau.

The team continued to pump out the endorsement on all of Trudeau’s social media channels, and the response was in a different order of magnitude to anything else that was put out during the campaign, including the blackface apology.

The effect on the Liberal leader was palpable. I was on the road with Trudeau and noted that on Wednesday morning he appeared to have shaken off his lethargy and seemed fired up. By that evening at a big rally in Montreal, he ditched his teleprompter, after a flat performance the night before in Halifax. Just before he took to the stage, he turned to staff and said: “I’m going to give ‘er.”

Trudeau got stronger as the crowds grew bigger on the last weekend of the campaign.

The shift in sentiment allowed the campaign team to ditch the “Stop Scheer” strategy, in favour of the more hopeful narrative that digital strategist Pitfield had wanted to push all along. The final ad was aimed at closing the deal and reminding progressive voters why they voted for Trudeau in the first place.

Shot at the giant campaign event in Mississauga where Trudeau was forced to wear a bulletproof vest because of a security threat, the footage set out to portray the leader as a fighter. “Andrew Scheer wants you to think this election is about me. This election isn’t about me, it’s about you,” he bellowed.

The ad tested well, improving Liberal fortunes four per cent with NDP voters, and in the last three days of the campaign, the Liberals spent $1 million promoting the slot. It appears to have been money well spent. One post-election survey by the Angus Reid Institute suggested nearly two thirds of voters didn’t make their minds up until the final week, with 35 per cent waiting until the last couple of days before reaching a decision.

Few campaign professionals would ascribe any election victory to one incident or event. There are many, many variables – from the canvassing program to the advertising; from the opposition research to the performance of the leader.

But Obama’s backing appears pivotal. The significance of the endorsement was not just that it was made, but that the Liberals were seasoned enough to take advantage.

• Email: jivison@postmedia.com | Twitter:


Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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