From Dimples McCheery to Angry Andrew: what’s behind the Conservatives’ pivot

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OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer jokes in his stump speeches that one of the few criticisms he gets is that “I smile too much.”

But in the opening moments of the English-language leaders’ debate last Monday, there was no sign of his famous dimples as he turned to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, beat his palm up and down in Trudeau’s direction, and spoke with acid in his voice.

“Mr. Trudeau, you are a phony and a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country,” Scheer said, before turning back to face the camera dead-on with a frown.

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Scheer’s tone was so hard that a few people in the live audience — warned they needed to be quiet — gasped.

The moment was no accident.

For days, Scheer’s advisers had been working with him to trade his pleasant countenance for something with a bit more gravitas. 

The Liberals and Conservatives had been deadlocked in the national polls since the Sept. 11 election call, and with the campaign about to shift from persuasion mode to motivation mode, from convincing voters of the Conservative plan to exhorting supporters to vote, everyone needed Scheer to step it up.

“We needed him to deliver, and he finally did,” said one candidate, granted anonymity to speak freely about campaign strategy. 

But can Scheer continue doing it? What’s at stake is not just his party’s electoral fortunes but his own.

Advance polls are this weekend and they can be key to an election result. In the 2015 campaign, 20 per cent of all ballots were cast in advance polls, thanks to aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts by all the competing campaigns.

“If the Conservatives are playing to win, they will need their vote efficiency to over-perform the polls,” said Andrew Brander, a senior consultant at Crestview Strategy and former Conservative staffer.

“The ability to mobilize supporters this weekend will likely make the difference for who comes out on top on election day.”

The Conservatives aren’t held back by money: after years of successful fundraising, they have more cash than any of their opponents. But this time around, there is a divide among Conservatives over whether their legendary ground game, which depends heavily on volunteer labour, is as strong as it has been in the past.

Party spokesman Simon Jefferies said things are better than ever.

“The Conservative campaign has knocked on more doors than in any other campaign in our party’s history,” he pointed out.

But door-knocking is also labour-intensive. In Manitoba, for example, campaigns are struggling to recruit volunteers thanks to burnout from the recent provincial election.

In one riding, a party volunteer, not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign, said the Conservative team just doesn’t have the bodies to make door-knocking work. They can get to a part of a riding maybe once or twice, the volunteer said, but that’s not enough. If people aren’t home when canvassers go by, the party gets no sense of where those voters’ support lies.

Campaign director Hamish Marshall, and others, believe door-knocking is more reliable than phone calls in identifying supporters because people don’t answer calls from unknown numbers or just don’t have landlines. That’s part of the reason the party is focusing on foot canvassing this campaign — the campaign’s leaders feel the data is stronger.

But some are fearful there just isn’t enough of it. Many campaigns — including in Atlantic Canada, where the Conservatives are hoping to pick up at least 15 seats in a region that went entirely Liberal in 2015 — are now digging into their campaign funds to hire phonebankers to make the calls.

The polls might suggest the Conservatives are running neck-and-neck with the Liberals, but it’s hard to know for sure without the numbers, said a longtime Conservative organizer in Ontario, also given anonymity to speak about internal matters.

“My gut feeling is that the polls are giving us a false sense that we are more competitive than we are,” the organizer said.

Scheer’s pivot from “Dimples McCheery,” as he was once called, to “Angry Andrew,” as some referred to his debate persona, began after a bruising third week of the campaign.

It included a weak performance in the TVA French-language debate, and revelations that a line on his resume about having been an insurance broker wasn’t entirely accurate.

Then came the news that he holds American citizenship, which consumed hours of airtime. 

While his citizenship itself wasn’t considered a problem by campaigns or candidates, the fact it cropped up as a mid-campaign surprise, after Scheer had two years as party leader to deal with it, was an irritant.

Conservatives like to talk about campaign issues as “swords” or “shields.” Swords, they use to attack their opponents. This campaign, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s record, gave them a full rack.

Shield issues place them on the defensive. Scheer’s socially conservative views were long known to be one of those, and the fact it took Scheer so long to state plainly he is pro-life is seen as a misstep. His refusal to answer the question directly infuriated his socially conservative base, while to moderates, the dodging just felt like bad strategy.

The citizenship issue — known to the party but not Canadians at large — became another.

In both cases, campaigns reported frustration that muddled messaging from Scheer and campaign headquarters on the shield issues was hurting at the doors, and behind them. 

So the Tories decided it was time to return to a few strategies from elections past to re-energize the team.

First, a round of aggressive attacks against the Liberals. Press releases insisting a re-elected Liberal government would impose a tax on home sales, even though the Liberals insisted that was false. Another, raising innuendo about why Trudeau left a teaching job at a Vancouver private school almost 20 years ago, raised eyebrows: it had no basis in fact and when asked why he’d let the party put it out, Scheer suggested there was nothing wrong with it.

The goal: get the conversation back to Trudeau, not Scheer.

The campaign had also planned to skip large-scale rallies this campaign, saying they were a drain on local resources better used on door-knocking. But at the end of that difficult week, organizers changed course.

A regional campaign manager was instructed to rally as many local supporters as possible, with less than 48 hours notice, to get them to converge at a central event space in the Toronto area. The email fell into Liberal hands and the Tories’ opponents made it public. Stern in tone, it told party workers to abandon door-knocking for the night and get to the venue no matter what.

The party wanted at least 1,000 people at the rally, in a show of force. Several hundred showed up, but not 1,000.

A week later, on the night the party released its platform, another massive rally. This time, hundreds of supporters — if not more than 1,000 — gathered at Krause Berry Farms in Langley B.C., in the riding of a longtime social conservative, Mark Warawa, who died this year.

Scheer’s tone, the press releases, the rallies, all to get the party’s base energized and excited about casting a ballot, preferably this weekend.

And they all kick off a week where Scheer will campaign by laying out what he’d do as prime minister in the first 100 days.

But what if he loses?

Talk abounds now about the potential of a minority government, though Scheer ducks the question about how that might affect him. The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh says he would never prop a Scheer government up.

Scheer’s own party might not, either.

By the terms of his party’s constitution, if Scheer fails to form government on Oct. 21, he’s subject to a leadership review at the convention scheduled for next year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 13, 2019.

Stephanie Levitz, Mia Rabson and Andy Blatchford, The Canadian Press

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