Election post-mortem, Part 1: A Conservative insider explains how his party got it so wrong

ANALYSIS: TVO.org speaks with a senior Tory official about bad data, bad assumptions — and why leader Andrew Scheer should have gone to Pride
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 23, 2019
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer delivers his concession speech in Regina on October 21. (David Stobbe/EPA/CP)

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This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 2; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

On Monday, Canadians voted in a federal election. Much attention had been paid to the Greater Toronto Area as a key battleground. In the end, the Liberals essentially held their “Fortress Toronto” — despite losing the popular vote nationally, Liberal strength in and around the city allowed Justin Trudeau to maintain a strong minority in Parliament.

In this three-part series, TVO.org will ask experts and stakeholders for their thoughts on what happened in and around Toronto. First up, a Conservative party official who held a senior role in the GTA campaign. (In order to speak freely and candidly, the official asked for, and was granted, anonymity.)

Matt Gurney: Well, we’ll start with a basic question. We’ve all seen the results, both nationally and locally. But, from your perspective, as someone who was working the campaign in Toronto, what happened on Monday night?

Conservative official: [laughs] A lot of things! And there’s a lot of ways to interpret those things. But I think my main takeaway was that we didn’t correctly interpret what was happening on the ground.

Gurney: Okay, sorry, I’m interrupting you already. Bad form. But what did you think was happening?

Conservative official: Short answer: we thought we were doing better than we were. There were specific ridings we really thought we were going to win. We can talk a lot about polling. The industry has taken a beating of late. And the overall national number actually was pretty accurate — the polls caught the top-line number. But something went wrong trying to project that onto the city of Toronto and the 905 ridings. We really did expect to do better. To me, that shows me that, while the national data was good, we didn’t have good enough local data. And we thought we did.

Gurney: I guess this brings me back around to the opening question, then. What happened?

Conservative official: One thing that was obvious, and we did see this coming, was that the NDP bounce wasn’t a thing. [NDP leader Jagmeet] Singh did run a good campaign. And, I mean, look back. We didn’t say a word against him or the NDP. We wanted an NDP surge! [laughs] We would have been donating to them and knocking on doors for them if it was allowed! We really needed a good showing by the NDP in some ridings, and we didn’t get it. But that was actually one place where our data was good. We knew there was no huge NDP surge in the GTA. So some vote splits we needed just didn’t happen.

Gurney: So that, again, was data. But what about at the ground level?

Conservative official: I spent weeks knocking doors. And people didn’t want to talk about the election. It was remarkable. I’ve done a lot of campaigns. People normally want to tell you how they’re going to vote. We didn’t get that this time. There wasn’t anger; there was just fatigue. People were annoyed and disgruntled by the election.

Gurney: From my very different perch, that was my sense, too.

Conservative official: Right? It was a toxic election, and I think people were ashamed and embarrassed by the whole thing. They just wanted it to be over.

Gurney: Okay, it’s early. The parties are going to need to take some time and really examine the data they’ve collected. I grant that. But I’m still going to ask you this — what should the Conservatives have done differently in the GTA?

Conservative official: We should have dragged Scheer to a Pride parade. That hurt us in the GTA. Abortion hurt us in Quebec; same-sex marriage hurt us in the GTA. I also think the affordability narrative — we’re going to help people who are struggling — wasn’t really a hit in the GTA. I think that played well out West, where we kicked ass. But I remember one day, I was knocking on doors in a suburban 905 riding, and our entire pitch was about affordability, and I suddenly realized that every single door I was knocking on opened up into a million-dollar home. Or $2 million, in some areas. We were knocking on the doors of all these people living inside gold mines and telling them we have a plan to help them with their economic anxiety. A lot of those people probably could use some help and might be living hand-to-mouth — I’m not saying affordability isn’t a problem in Toronto. But as I went from million-dollar-house to million-dollar house, I started to worry that this narrative just wasn’t going to work in the Toronto area the way it would in Calgary. These people didn’t feel vulnerable; they felt lucky. If nothing else, it needed to be tweaked for Toronto. We didn’t do that.

Gurney: I have to ask — what about the Premier Doug Ford factor?

Conservative official: It was there, but we were too afraid of it. Ford needed to go away until his popularity bounced back. But that didn’t mean the entire campaign. And we could have used his team. There are still people in the Ontario party that could have helped us do better because they know how to win in the 416/905, but, when we decided to break from Ford, we broke from all of them. Yes, there were staff and volunteers who helped out. That was great. But we didn’t need to go as far as we did. And after the educational-workers’ strike was avoided, we could have re-evaluated engaging Ford. But we didn’t. And we didn’t pick up even one of the seats Ford won in the GTA. That speaks for itself.

Gurney: Were you surprised by the result?

Conservative official: Yes. The result surprised me. Right up until the results started coming in, I thought we’d do better. I saw us 20 seats higher nationally, and I expected 10 of those from the GTA.

Gurney: So what’s next? How do you do better next time, keeping in mind that, in a minority, next time can come at any time?

Conservative official: The party needs to have a tough conversation with itself. We need to look in the mirror and ask how we’re going to do better next time. But Scheer doesn’t want that conversation. His team is selling this as a step toward victory. There’s going to be a convention and leadership review early next year, and they’re going to be 100 per cent focused on surviving that, not on winning the next election. And that’s bad. If we’re going to make changes, we should make them now. Immediately.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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