How the Conservative campaign got it so spectacularly wrong

From the niqab to C-24 and the Ford brothers, the Conservatives couldn’t put a foot right

Conservative party leader Stephen Harper walks off the stage from Calgary, Alberta on Monday, October 19, 2015. Harper will resign as Leader of the Conservative Party after his government was defeated in the 2015 general election. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Conservative party leader Stephen Harper walks off the stage from Calgary, Alberta on Monday, October 19, 2015.  (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

The mood in Markham–Stouffville, a riding northeast of Toronto, began to change as summer turned to fall.

It was in late September that news broke of the federal government’s efforts, under new legislation, to strip the citizenship of two individuals convicted of terrorism offences—in one case, as first reported by Maclean’s, for a Canadian-born citizen. First-generation Canadians in the riding expressed concern. “They feared the implications of the policy,” says Paul Calandra, the incumbent Conservative candidate. “I would have people calling me and say, ‘What if my child is convicted of drunk driving? Does that mean they’re going to strip his or her citizenship and send the whole family back?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, no, absolutely not, how would you get that?’ And then you’d get to the extremes. ‘What if I’m convicted of terrorism, does that mean my whole family’s got to go back?’ Well, why would you be convicted of terrorism, right?”

The Liberals capitalized with mailouts into the riding. But it was not just that. Two weeks earlier, on Sept. 15, the Federal Court of Appeal in Ottawa ruled against the government’s attempt to ban the niqab during the citizenship oath. And it was on Oct. 2 that the Conservative party dispatched two cabinet ministers—Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander—to promise the creation of a hotline for the reporting of “barbaric cultural practices.” Individually, Calandra says, those policies might not have amounted to much. But in the confluence, Calandra’s campaign began to lose support. “All coming at the same time just led to confusion and fear,” he says. “They were just very difficult policies to explain to people and it got us away from the economy.”

Calandra was subsequently defeated on Oct. 19.

Paul Calandra stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday, May 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Paul Calandra stands during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Friday, May 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

In that regard, Calandra was hardly alone. After winning 166 seats in 2011, the Conservatives were reduced to 99 last week with the conclusion of the 2015 campaign. The losses included several cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister quietly resigned as leader. An interim leader for the diminished caucus will be chosen next week and a full leadership contest will follow. The lessons of the 2015 election will no doubt be explored and debated in that process, but the autopsy began almost immediately, including various reports of internal strife within the national campaign. The old adage has it that victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan, but in the case of the Conservative campaign of 2015, failure can be linked to many and varied sources, from a simple desire for change to the niqab to Rob Ford to Justin Trudeau to a relatively obscure amendment to citizenship law.

Winning even a plurality of the country’s 338 seats was probably always going to be a significant challenge for the Conservative party after nearly 10 years in office. As Kory Teneycke, the campaign’s official spokesman, is quick to point out, no party has won four consecutive mandates with the same leader since 1908 (when Wilfrid Laurier led the Liberals to a fourth majority). But a particular fatigue with Stephen Harper, never particularly loved by the electorate, seems to have taken hold.

“Fundamentally, the problem was this: after basically 10 years in office, people were tired. Some of it was just ordinary ‘time for a change’ and some of it was [that] people were unhappy and they directed that very personally at the Prime Minister,” says Brad Trost, a Conservative re-elected in Saskatchewan. The Conservatives had spent more than a decade building their leader’s brand—famously restyling the federal government as the “Harper government”—but that asset became a liability. “People weren’t considering the candidates. It was the much larger issue of how the campaign unfolded and the successful ability of the other parties, and in part the media, to demonize the leader,” says Steven Fletcher, defeated in his Winnipeg-area riding by 6,000 votes after winning it by 15,000 in 2011. Adds Trost, “To a certain degree, we built that brand and that brand, in the end, swallowed us.”

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The emergence of the niqab as an election issue was perhaps a fluke of the judicial calendar, but the Conservative campaign still seemed to embrace the debate, distracting from its core message of economic and personal security. “When you’re going after big game, don’t chase squirrels,” Fletcher says. Consider one anecdote: Shortly before Labour Day, Steve Shanahan, a Conservative candidate in Montreal, ordered some campaign posters. “There was a screw-up, they couldn’t get them to me until right before the election, so I said to the party, ‘Give me your most popular handout and we’ll send it out,’” Shanahan says. In response, he received 10,000 flyers championing the Stephen Harper government’s efforts to ban the niqab from citizenship ceremonies. For Shanahan, it made the party all the more difficult to sell in the downtown riding. “We as a group allowed [the niqab issue] to become a distraction. I think it was the right policy, but it wasn’t the policy. We had so much more that was interesting, but I think by the applause meter that we heard, we just kept talking about it,” he says.

C-24, the bill that allows the federal government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens if an an individual is convicted of treason or terrorism or takes up arms against Canada, was a similarly problematic issue, unexpectedly raising concerns for immigrants and their families. “Somehow we missed stuff, because I would have been 100 per cent behind it,” says Trost, “but for some reason people who should’ve understood that it wasn’t [directed] at them were a little bit insecure.”

In the Montreal riding of Mount Royal, a Liberal stronghold long targeted by the Conservatives, it was hoped that the Conservative government’s pro-Israel bona fides would help rally Mount Royal’s sizable Jewish community, while a surging NDP would help cut into the Liberal party vote. “We certainly felt three weeks ago that we had it. Our numbers were very solid,” says Robert Libman, the Conservative candidate. Yet the situation began to change for Libman in early October as the campaign became incrementally more negative. “We could’ve been a little bit more positive in highlighting the positive aspects of the admin over 10 years,” he says. As well, support for the NDP began to slip as the anti-Harper vote began to coalesce behind the Liberal party and its Mount Royal candidate, Anthony Housefather. “The wave of Trudeaumania was starting to crystallize. We felt it. There’s no doubt about that.”

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, centre, accompanied by wife Renata, left, leaves a campaign rally following a speech from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Harper hasn't directly addressed whether having Rob Ford's very public support - given his past and the party's anti-drug policies - is a contradiction for the Conservatives. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, centre, accompanied by wife Renata, left, leaves a campaign rally following a speech from Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

In Toronto, the Prime Minister made two appearances in the company of the Ford brothers, Rob and Doug, but according to a national Innovative Research poll conducted shortly after the election, that did far more harm than good. Almost 10 times as many potential Conservative voters were less likely (49 per cent) than more likely (6.4 per cent) to vote Conservative because of Harper’s appearance with the Fords, who have practically become a worldwide monument to bad behaviour. “It’s hard to see a more self-destructive move by a campaign,” says Innovative Research owner Greg Lyle. This was a bigger turnoff for these voters than the trial of disgraced former Conservative Sen. Mike Duffy (30 per cent), the party’s negative ads (26 per cent) or its anti-niqab stance (23 per cent.)

In the immediate wake of last week’s result, no less than Jason Kenney, perhaps the second-most significant figure in the Conservative party, suggested that the party needed a “sunnier” disposition and the style of the Harper era will no doubt be cause for reflection. “In previous elections,” says Fletcher, “we did a pretty good job of pointing out pride in our nation and all the great things that Canada is and can be and I think that is where we will go in the future, if we’re going to be successful. People are always looking forward. ‘Okay, thank you for the income-splitting, but what’s next?’ The future needs to be something to look forward to.”

Related: Paul Wells’ 20,000-word recap of a remarkable election

That the Conservatives should come away from the 2015 election sounding as if they wished they were a bit more like Justin Trudeau—he of the “sunny ways”—is perhaps testament to the leader and the campaign that just bested them. Indeed, for all the effort put into questioning Trudeau’s credibility, it did not keep voters from turning to him. “People were not scared of Trudeau,” Trost says. “We would have loved to have them scared of Trudeau, but people weren’t. That’s just the reality.” A desire for change thus found an acceptable outlet.

When Calandra was re-elected in 2011, his margin of victory over the second-place Liberal candidate was nearly 21,000 votes. But that election was a historic low point for the Liberal party (and a historic high point for the NDP). Four years later, Calandra won 43 per cent of the vote, but lost the redrawn riding by 4,000 votes, part of a Liberal sweep that remarkably took all but two ridings in and around Toronto. Asked to reflect on his defeat, Calandra was quick at the outset to credit the victors. “I don’t think it’s as much what went wrong with our campaign as much as how good was the Liberal campaign,” Calandra says. “I think it was one of the best campaigns I’ve ever seen.”

Suffice it to say, the Conservative campaign of 2015 will not be remembered as such.


How the Conservative campaign got it so spectacularly wrong

  1. It was not the campaign…….people wanted to get rid of Harper long before the campaign started…..and they waited until the last minute to show their hand.

    • A lot of us have had our hand up for 8 years.

  2. They must have failed to lissen to that maven of marketing, the ayetolleh of electioneering rock’nrollah, the swami from down under and kingmaker deeelux Lynton Crosby. Hard-earned donations wasted.

    Or, maybe they did and he turned out to be just another ponce.

    Jay for the capn’s chair! Full steam astern!

  3. There’s a lot of un-branding to be done by the Conservative party now. As long as Stephen Harper continues to sit in Parliament it is hard to see how it might convincingly become “not the Harper party”. Perhaps even more importantly Mr. Harper’s devotees sitting in the front benches, and back benches, and back rooms might not be easily de-programmed. Cult worship can be a difficult thing to eradicate.

  4. The Con’s excuses are “the dog ate my homework” of politics. Sure they did okay on the economy if you were already wealthy and that’s pretty much it. Sure a lot of people thought Harper was a self-centred asshole because he was. If the Cons continue to think that, like them, everyone’s concerns begin and end at their wallet, they will remain in opposition.

    • Yes, you’ve nailed a big part of the problem. The Con mantra of “taxes bad” just doesn’t resonate with people who understand that we need taxes to pay for infrastructure, health care, old age security, etc. Aside from the niqab (non)issue, the most aggravating part of the campaign were the ads at the end with Harper talking about keeping taxes low. I make a pretty good living these days & I don’t mind paying taxes – they support many of the things I care about in this country.

      • Agreed on the taxes. Taxes are needed and are not a bad thing.

      • I do not mind paying taxes as long as our taxpayers money are used wisely and responsibly by democratically elected Governments.
        I do mind when Governments in power use my money for self promotions, advertising, giving money to super rich Corporations as subsidies, giving money based on religion affiliation or fighting court cases up to the Supreme Court of Canada when they know from the beginning that they were wrong. (Example: Supreme Court of Canada versus Harper Government 12 to 1!!) The cost to taxpayers: … I do not know but they wasted millions our money!!

  5. Sayeth the article:
    “the bill that allows the federal government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens if an an individual is convicted of treason or terrorism or takes up arms against Canada, was a similarly problematic issue, unexpectedly raising concerns for immigrants and their families”

    How in the world would this concern have not been obvious the minute the legislation was suggested? Obviously, anyone who has dual citizenship would wonder if this was the beginning of an ever-widening net of offences that could result in loss of Canadian citizenship and subsequent deportation. Not to mention that it would seem to be targeted at immigrants and their families. Sheesh.

  6. These two passages make me wonder if a little more soul-searching is in order:

    “It was the much larger issue of how the campaign unfolded and the successful ability of the other parties, and in part the media, to demonize the leader…”

    This seems to demonstrate the reflexive conservative (large and small c) tendency to blame the media for everything. I’m sure it’s satisfying to portray yourself as a poor downtrodden David versus an evil Goliath media, but when A) a good chunk of the media is on your side, B) you tend to stonewall and bypass the media anyway, and C) “the media” is struggling on many levels, maybe look a little deeper.

    “…but for some reason people who should’ve understood that it wasn’t [directed] at them were a little bit insecure.”

    Here Trost mildly blames people for failing to understand that they should trust the government with the awesome power to strip citizenship because, “hey, no, that’s not you, that’s *other* people who weren’t born here. Trust us.” People either fail to understand because the message wasn’t communicated to them, or they understand everything perfectly. In this case, it was likely the second one. Maybe a lot of first and second generation immigrants thought that maybe once the precedent of removing citizenship was established, it might not be that hard to make the scope of applicable offences a little wider. And then wider still.

    • If you are going to use the biblical metaphor, from when he was first elected leader of the LPC, it was Trudeau who was David going up against the conservative Goliath. It always amazes/amuses me that when people use the D vs G metaphor, they forget that David won.

  7. “A relatively obscure change to citizenship law”? I love how the Conservatives can’t understand why constituents didn’t get it, when in fact we understood it very well, as a fundamental threat to everyone’s citizenship. Their denseness is fairly pathetic. They just didn’t have any cover anymore. After four years of a majority government, no one had to raise the spectre of how far they’d go. We’d seen it. They’d always benefited from a low voter turnout, too, which they made clear in their Fair Elections Act.

    The results are pretty decisive and don’t suggest people were waffling at all. Those weren’t thousands of votes decided in the polling booth. The mainstream media might spend some time thinking about how they contributed to the Conservative Party’s complacence, too. For years I’ve been reading how Harper had revealed a country that’s more right-wing than we thought, that he had some phenomenal strategic powers, that what he was doing couldn’t be undone, that he’d decimated the Liberals, that opposition from citizens was knee-jerk, ill-informed and ineffective, and that the economy would trump everything else.

    Paul Calandra’s graciousness is a surprise, though. He’s the only Conservative I’ve ever heard say positive things about the opposition and he also acknowledged that Trudeau’s campaign was incredibly well-run, which the media seemed to ignore — and also miss — for years. A campaign like that wasn’t improvised in the last four weeks. Also Calandra looks great, like losing an election is some kind of youth elixir.

  8. Almost every day Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair said “The Conservatives should not be making the niquab an election issue.” and the media reported this. So it was Justin Trudeau, Tom Mulcair and the media that made it an election issue – not the Conservatives. But voters bought it anyway.

    On the other hand however, the moment the Liberal party chose Justin Trudeau as its new leader, Stephen Harper’s days were numbered. Justin Trudeau had as much impact on average voters as Jack Layton had in his time. I suspect that if the election was decided by one referendum question “Which party leader would you most like to invite over to your next BBQ.” you would have had similar results to what we saw on October 19th. 2015 In 2011 it would have been Harper then Layton and very few would have wanted Ignatieff. In 2015 it was Trudeau and, if we had to invite Harper or Mulcair we would seriously consider cancelling the BBQ.

  9. Hoist by their own petard. These days, issues tend to be what parties make them. Forget the silly ‘how much will the other guys imaginary budget cost’ issue which was so much random fiction writing, all parties decided was an issue and which did none of them any good. Consider the Conservative’s decision to make party leaders the issue, something that started with Justin well before the election and which evolved into tedious ad hominem attacks in the form of ersatz focus groups then all the cut and paste ersatz Trudeau sound bites giving Trudeau more face-time with the public than the Liberal party ads; somewhere in there the issue, as defined by the Conservatives, became ‘which leader do you like the most’; Harper? not so much; Mulcair not so cuddly either.
    To some extent, the Conservatives can blame the media: by playing up the hijab and other citizenship nonsense, refugees, and the cultural rat line plus broadcasting choice Chris Alexander sound bites and Kory Teneycke blusters, they managed to make the Conservatives look crass and venal. The line ‘nice hair though’ which fast became a comedy meme did nothing but reinforce that impression.
    As for Mr Calandra, perhaps his constituents simply heard too many of his obtuse and fantastically off-point answers which was too easily portrayed as low comedy. In spite of his apparent lucidity, his question period buffoonery may have stuck.

    • The normal bunch of Liberal drivel. The most read newspaper in Canada-the Star-and our publicly funded CBC, which are both so left they could gag maggots, were on a vendetta to get rid of Mr. Harper and, unfortunately they were successful. As an example, Harper poses with Ford, an addict who now is in recovery, and who is a cancer survivor-both amazing accomplishments-and the Star makes it look like he’s wallowing with the devil. That’s about as low as journalism can go!!
      When Trudeau makes Canada as bad as Ontario-our home grown version Greece-everyone will wish
      the Conservatives hadn’t been displaced. I can only hope Trudeau is more honest than Wynne.

      • Yeah, he just posed with a guy with “amazing accomplishments”.
        The kind of guy you give the Order of Canada and a Senate seat to. A hero.


      • Methinks you give the media too much credit. Who reads the Star outside of Toronto? And everyone knows that CBC’s audience is well north of 50 and everyone “knows” that seniors “naturally” vote conservative. Speaking as a western Canadian senior citizen; Harper took our vote for granted. Seniors have time to read and observe, we ARE on facebook, we use the internet. Seniors, immigrants, and the youth/aboriginal vote were either discounted or taken for granted by Harper.

  10. Amazing. Calandra is actually capable of talking like a real person and not just a sock puppet controlled by the PMO. But if they really cannot accept that their negative attitudes, negative advertising, negative legislation, non-answers, make believe programs like the job creation and economic action plan, fake lakes and million dollar gazebos all contributed to their downfall, then they deserve to spend at least ten years in political purgatory. Unfortunately Skippy survived, but then he does have some entertainment value, and if he can keep the Harper credo alive in the party, he can ensure political obscurity for the party for a longer period. Way to go Skippy, really looking forward to your next vanity video. And maybe Kory can help you with a really gory ISIS snuff video, just to keep his hand in. Anyway for a review of the Conservative faux pas that contributed to their downfall, visit heaveharper.ca

    • By the way, we should all give thanks to Skippy for the (un)Fair Elections Act. It was so blatantly abusive that it caused hundreds of thousands of Canadians who otherwise would not have bothered to vote to turn out in droves. So it accomplished exactly the opposite of what Skippy and his puppet masters had counted on. So thank you Skippy, you really did something right, however inadvertently.

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