Not your father's Liberal Party

Canadian parties that used to bridge social cleavages now exploit them

Watching the pundits after last Monday’s election, you may have noticed something odd.

Many of them talked about the election as though the political parties were bystanders to the affair.

Like the pollsters who talked about changes in what voters thought was a big issue. They might have said people responded to issues in the news but no one talked about how some changes were tied to what parties were talking about in their campaign ads and media statements.

COVID was a big part of the Liberal reason for calling an election, for example.  They wanted to cash in at the ballot box for the strong way people felt about the way Canadian governments handled the crisis.  In Nova Scotia,  voters turfed the Liberals for other reasons.  COVID couldn’t save them.  But for the federal Liberals there wasn’t either the anger or alternative

So, the Liberals talked a lot about COVID.  If a poll showed an uptick in mentions of COVID at the time the election all came,  a chunk of that jump had to do with the way Liberals started talking about COVID.  And if it wasn’t the Liberals,  then it was the pundits who Liberal insiders prepped with some off-the-record talk here and there about Liberal strategy and the role of COVID. 

Some of the uptick came from the news and the increase in cases, but you cannot ignore the impact of political communication in it.  The Liberal campaign reinforced interest in the issue and  - in some cases –  may well have increased mentions of it in people for whom COVID was less of an issue initially. 

You see, an opinion is formed in response to a stimulus  - like an ad, a news story,  or a pollster’s question - and a context, like say news stories,  an ad,  or local events that help to give meaning.

Political communication offers both.


Public opinion polling can pick it up. Because pollsters are looking for the opinions influenced by many things, including political communication.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, folks should know this. Danny Williams and the provincial Conservatives boosted their political communications during the weeks they knew their pollster was collecting data. They wanted to influence polling results done like clockwork four times a year by the only polling firm news media paid attention to. The provincial used the same pollster so Williams and his team knew when the pollster would be in the field.  They timed government communications to deliberately skew the poll results. Then they pointed to the poll results to silence their critics.  Williams was popular because he was right, they said, and right because he was popular.  Their deliberate action to manipulate polls made it look that way and most people believed them.

Lots of people scoffed at the idea.  The telling moment, though, was when radio talk show host Randy Simms asked Williams about the news story that prompted his call and the idea of influencing public opinion polls.  Oh no, said Williams.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If we wanted to influence polls, he volunteered, we would have started last week before the pollster started calling.  Simms didn’t pick up on the fact the government *had* started a flow of big positive news the week before with an announcement by NALCOR.


If you didn’t notice the polling,  you might have noticed the mentions of an urban-rural divide.

For example, CBC ran an opinion piece that blamed the split in seats – the Liberals dominated urban centres and the Conservatives held mostly rural seats – on the electoral system.  The fact that the candidate with the most votes wins the seat somehow means that mostly blue seats were in rural places and red seats were in urban places. The writer didn’t explain how those two disconnected things supposedly worked, but hey,  as CBC policy looks at it, it’s just an opinion, anyway.  No need for it to make sense, too..

In another piece, this time at ipolitics, a former Liberal candidate and current director at a major journalism school described beautifully the seat split between the two major parties.

This increased polarization and ossification in voting patterns can’t be good for our democracy. Ideally, there should be some realistic possibility of a turnover from election to election, rather than predictable and set voting patterns. To be blunt, that very pattern of polarization, marginalization, and frustration in rural and small-town America led directly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

But aside from just stating the blindingly obvious, even someone with the experience of a journalist and of having run in an election couldn’t explain why things red seats were urban and blue seats tended to rural.

That’s not surprising for the people who want proportional representation.  They are obsessed. Prop Rep is their answer to everything, no matter what.  Sweeping majorities with no fringe parties?  Blame the voting system.   Uptick in cancer rates?  Must be caused by first-past-the-post.  The solution:  proportional representation.  You get the idea.

What they can’t do is explain why the system they claim only turns up sweeping majorities and shuts out minority groups and opinions now turns up the kind of results they want.  No more sweeping majorities with only a couple of parties in the federal legislature.  Now we have lots of minority governments and raft of fringe groups, small parties, and independents.

Well, what everybody misses is that the rural-urban split is the result of how political parties run campaigns these days.

Gerald Butts is a former senior advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office and still a close confidant of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  As he explained on Twitter last week, what the Liberals got in 2021 is exactly what they wanted and what they have wanted consistently since 2015. He also explained how they got it.

Campaigns are a ruthless optimization exercise: where will your incremental investment drive the maximum return in real time, especially at the end. [Elections] 42 and 43 were amazing. But the more I look at last night’s returns the more I’m awestruck

In Butts’ lengthy threads,  he included this reference to a comment by columnist Andrew Coyne about declining turn-out.   “What you see here is a long term optimization trend, or a response to political market forces. If elections were a popular vote contest, this graph would be inverted. Incentives work. We count seats, not votes, so smart campaigns focus on delivering them.”

“Vote efficiency isn’t accidental,”  Butts added.  “All three Trudeau Liberal campaigns were among the most efficient in history. The unsung team of super geniuses put together and led by Tom Pitfield at Data Sciences deserves a lot more credit than they’ve ever received.”

Ignore Butts’ self-congratulation.  He just told you how insiders at the top of the Liberal campaign looked at the campaign. It was all about efficiency. Vote efficiency is the idea that you only get enough votes in each seat to win.  Everything beyond the minimum is a waste to this way of thinking.

People who think like Butts also told you how they think about the democratic system generally.  Voter turn-out matters to people who see it as a sign of citizen engagement.  For people like Butts, they don’t want anything from voters beyond their vote.  If people don’t vote, then folks who think like Butts don’t care as long as enough people did vote for his candidates. That’s why he sees declining voter turnout as proof that efficiency works.

A key part of this efficiency system is using large databases and sophisticated computer programs to target specific groups.  That’s the reference to a company called Data Sciences, the private company that has helped shape the strategic direction of the past three Liberal campaigns.

Political parties have always relied on information about voters to drive their campaigns.  A long time ago,  key party organizers in each poll knew the people in their neighbourhood personally.  They kept the information in their heads.  Later on, organizers started using index cards to track supporters.  When computers came along, they switched to spread sheet programs. 

These days they are called contact management systems or CMS (pronounced See Emm Ess).   Fund raisers, sales businesses, advertising companies, public relations firms, and anyone like them use CMS to track clients, donors, and people they want to influence.  The information in the CMS helps the operators in those businesses identify targets,  keep in touch with them, and line them up with whatever campaign the operators are running.

Susan Delacourt touched on this in her 2013 book Shopping for votes. In Canada, the newly-unified Conservatives developed their own CMS they called the Constituent Information Management System or CIMS (pronounced simms).  With an external market research company,  CIMS allowed the Conservatives to develop a large pool of information  both from party sources and from the commercially and publicly available pools.  That pulled together not only donations to the Conservatives but also information on income, age, education, and even Internet use.  The Conservatives could use that to develop a detailed picture of voters, their beliefs, and their actions. 

Political parties in the United States tend to lead in finding new ways to influence voters. They have used CMS for years but by the early 2000s, they had their own versions tailored for politics.  What the Conservatives did was target voters the way Americans did, using what they described broadly as “data”.

Sasha Issenberg wrote about data and the use of science in American campaigns in his 2012 book The victory lab.  In American campaigns, local city council candidates can use something as simple as the local voting record to see who voted and who didn’t in every poll in the city.  Together, with information about voters,  a campaign can pick a pool of people likely to support a candidate.  A simple letter from the candidate – as low-tech as it gets – can start the campaign by thanking people for voting the last time. 

Not voting for anyone, since that information is secret.  Just voting.  Research into human behaviour suggests that the simple thanks creates in some minds an implicit obligation that the person can and often will repay with support in a cash donation and a vote.  That’s the simple use of science.

There’s more to it than a simple thank you letter, though.  The largest, most complex political campaigns in the world are American presidential campaigns.  Barak Obama’s 2008 campaign is now legendary for its use of data and targeted communications to build a wide coalition of voters that made him the first African American president in United States history.  To show how those massive database can help identify voters and tune the message to reach them, Issenberg used the example of a bus ad on one major Ohio city.  The Obama campaign aimed specifically at a group of voters in one neighbourhood who used a specific bus route but didn’t target their neighbours. That’s how data allowed a national American campaign to target messages with astounding precision.


As Delacourt noted, the Liberals watched the Conservatives unseat them in the 2006 federal election and then win again and again.   They recognized the value of how the Conservatives campaigned and built their own version of CIMS, which they called Liberalist.  It was, line—of-code for line-of-code, the Obama system but with Canadianised labels.

Liberal Party insiders initially didn’t use the system the same way the Conservatives used theirs.  Outsiders famously claimed the Liberals campaigned from the left and governed from the right, but the reality was much more complex.  Through the 20th century, the federal Liberal Party had been phenomenally successful by being a broad tent under which many people could live. The party itself mirrored Canadian politics by accommodating diverse and sometimes sharply conflicting opinions. Initially, Liberal strategists tempered Liberalist’s output with geography, local culture, and historic knowledge. They thought about things like participation rates.

Liberals weren’t ideologues. In power or the few times they were in opposition, Liberals could position shift as needed either by changes in popular opinion or shifts in what the country needed for effective government. The party had people from the ideological left and the right under the tent.  The party had members connected to key interest groups across the country.   For example, a prime minister might be more popularly identified with social issues but not be popular with the people who ran the country’s finance industries.  No problem. There was someone with strong ties to Bay Street to take finance.

That all changed with Justin Trudeau and the people around him like Butts. They decided that the way to defeat the Conservatives was to be like them.  They decided to bring not just American technology but also American thinking north of the border.  That’s what Butts was talking about. 

When Stephen Harper was Prime Minister,  frustrated Liberals frequently talked about uniting the left the same way Preston Manning and Stephen Harper had united the right. But as much as the Conservatives had been able to defeat the Liberals and take government,  the challenge of bringing together two parties with wildly different political cultures turned out to be an endless source of internal headaches for the Conservatives. 

The old Progressive Conservative Party was a lot like the Liberal  Party.  It was a big tent, under which people with widely differing opinions lived.  The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance after it were defined more by ideology.  They liked the people around them to think like them. Reformers were similar in many ways to American Republicans.  They were part of what many call the Conservative movement, which itself extended beyond political parties.  It included think tanks like the Fraser Institute and political advocacy groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, all of whom took money from many of the same American sources. They repeated the same ideas as the Reform Party, the Alliance, and then the Conservatives with the same words and phrases. 

With the internal Conservative fights as an example, the Justin Trudeau Liberals decided to unite the left without the organizational problems.  Aside from taking power, the goal was to collapse the NDP vote and make the Liberal Party the only choice for so-called progressive Canadian voters.  They made the Liberal Party an ideologically-based party, in other words.  That’s one of the reasons why the JT party shunned anyone connected to the party before Justin.  There was no room for different ideas.  This wasn’t his father’s party.

That ideological shift coupled with a drive for efficiency in vote gave the Liberals an urban focus.  They’ve pursued it relentlessly through three elections.  The results are the noticeable split everyone sees.  You need to look at a map  - especially an interactive version - to appreciate the extent to which Liberal support is concentrated in Toronto and Vancouver with smatterings everywhere else.  The Liberal concentrations in Atlantic Canada, chunks of northern Ontario and western Quebec, and in the western Arctic regions are the last vestige of the old Liberal Party.

That likely won’t last much longer. 

On election night, both CTV and CBC pundits talked about the Conservative breakthrough in central Newfoundland by talking about the 2008 federal election.  A local political science professor raised the ABC campaign as well the next day.  What that showed was how little Canadian pundits pay attention to Newfoundland and Labrador and how much the many  myths from 2008 linger despite the evidence.

To understand 2008 and the so-called Anything But Conservative campaign, you need to know how Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have voted in federal elections since 1949.  It’s been Liberal in most parts of the province most of the time.  The exception has been the two easternmost ridings, which also contained a large voting cluster of anti-Confederates who tended to support the Progressive Conservative Party.  In 1949, the Confederates became the Liberals and everyone else became PCs.  A handful linked up with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the New Democrats.

There have been exceptions.  In the 1980s,  the northeast coast riding that covered Bonavista, Trinity, and Conception Bays went PC.    There have also been provincially-rooted aberrations like 1968, when the province went blue while the country went red or 1997 when die-hard Tory Bill Matthews won on the south coast in another wise Liberal seat.  The trend is so strong that   Matthews switched parties as soon as the local mood shifted but never changed his real political stripe.

In 2008,  Danny Williams launched a campaign that he initially claimed would be a national drive to destroy the Prime Minister and the party who Williams claimed – entirely falsely – had broken a promise on Equalization. It didn’t turn out that way.  Except for a single billboard on the Gardiner Expressway,  Williams spent the election pee’ing in his own kiddie pool while the Conservatives won the federal election. He had no impact on the federal result.

Williams also didn’t change the local results either, except in his own riding of St. John’s East.  The federal turnout and results in Newfoundland and Labrador tell the story.  Williams suppressed federal Conservative votes and campaign workers in seats that normally went Liberal anyway. They just went more strongly Liberal.

In St. John’s East,  the collapse of the federal Conservative organization coupled with a disastrous Liberal candidacy allowed Jack Harris to take the seat.   Williams endorsed Harris, who was his former law partner and a faithful supporter of Williams’ administration while Harris was the lone New Democrat in the provincial legislature.

But in St. John’s South- Mount Pearl, the story was different.  Officially, Pea Seas were supposed to vote for Siobhan Coady.  Conservative deputy premier Kathy Dunderdale and others went door-to-door with Coady.  But Tory voters in St. John’s South-Mount Pearl went for the firebrand, blow-hard former reporter Ryan Cleary instead. Coady won but just barely. He beat Coady in the next election. Most importantly , though,  the shift to Cleary was as much a thumbed-nose at Williams as it was a vote for a candidate who trafficked in all the anti-Confederate mythology that hard-core Tory voters in that riding loved.  The shift was helped by the local understanding that blue voters in the two eastern Newfoundland ridings – rooted in 1949 anti-Confederate feeling – find it easier to go orange than red when the blue option isn’t available.

Plenty of people talked about the damage Williams did to the federal Conservatives but it wasn’t enough to keep the Conservatives from winning in Labrador three years later.  The seat was a traditional Liberal bastion. They voted in Peter Penashue - a former head of the Innu Nation -  who became intergovernmental affairs minister and President of the Privy Council.  He lost in a by-election after a controversy about campaign contributions but there was no doubt Penashue beat the Liberals in a Liberal stronghold.

The real damage from Williams’ petulant campaign was to his own party.  The feud cut the provincial Conservatives off from the campaign expertise and CIMS technology that was changing the face of campaigns.  In by-election after by-election and finally in the 2015 general election, Williams and his successors were easy pickings for the provincial Liberals who used Liberalist.

They may not have used it properly but it was enough, for example, to win the seat vacated by Williams’ former lieutenant Jerome Kennedy in 2013.  Initially distracted by their own leadership contest, the Liberals rolled into the by-election with 10 days left to go and crushed the Conservatives. Some local Liberals were amazed to see people they considered hard-core Tories  - but who unbeknownst to them had contributed to the federal Liberals -  troop to the polls and vote for the Red Team. 

In a by-election to replace former Premier Kathy Dunderdale,  Danny Williams took it as a personal challenge to install his candidate and stop the collapse of his party.  Liberals at the time spoke of visiting confirmed and likely supporters , some here,  a few there, gleaned fro Liberalist while the Pea Seas trooped from door to door methodically trying to figure out who might vote for them.  On election day, according to some insiders,  Danny Williams was holed-up with a list of Tory supporters pleading with them to turn out.  Others were doing the same thing, often calling the same people.  It didn’t work and revealed to anyone who wanted to see, the disorganized mess Williams had made of his own party from 2008 onward. The Liberals just worked their lists.

Lester Pearson (right) with cabinet ministers Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chretien. Each led the Liberals, Canada’s most successful political party during the 20th century.

You can see the Liberal strategy at work in Newfoundland and Labrador as well over the past six years.

The Liberal win in 2015 looked like almost every other federal election since 1949.  The Liberals got most of the seats, except for the one Jack Harris held for the New Democrats.  But in 2019,  the Conservatives produced a dramatic increase in their vote in Long Range Mountains and in Bonavista-Burin-Trinity.  In Long Range Mountains,  the Cons didn’t even have a candidate, just a name on the ballot, and doubled their vote.  In Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, they came within 2500 votes of the Liberal, who held the seat just vacated by heavyweight Liberal Judy Foote.

In 2021,  the Liberals lost a seat they had held for most of the past 40 years, first by George Baker and for the past 17 years by former broadcaster Scott Simms.  The switch came as a shock to most but in public comments after the election, both voters and candidates talked about issues that reflect the Liberal shift toward voters in major Canadian urban centres and away from issues – like resources industries – that affect voters across rural Newfoundland and Labrador.   

The most dramatic change was in Long Range Mountains where a candidate who won the seat by 25,000 votes in 2015 scraped by with a margin of 1800 votes in 2021.  In both Long Range Mountains and Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, the gap between the Liberal winner and second-place Conservative was less than five percent of the total votes cast in each riding. In 2015,  the Liberals took Long Range Mounts with a gap of 62% of total votes cast and Bonavista-Burin-Trinity with gap that was 71%.

St. John’s East got the most media attention because the seat is closest to news media in the province. The Liberal victory there  is most important because it put the three urban/ suburban seats in Newfoundland and Labrador firmly in the Liberal grip. It flipped the historic vote pattern in Newfoundland and Labrador and could deliver three if not four seats in Newfoundland and Labrador to the federal Conservatives next time. That was the national Liberal plan at work.

It was also the NDP strategy, too.  Like the Liberals,  the NDP decided to go urban and abandon rural New Democrats.  The difference is that the Liberals beat the NDP in many urban centres while losing rural seats to the Conservatives.  Saskatchewan, the birthplace of the CCF, is now solidly blue. Election 2021 featured orange to blue shifts in other parts of the country as well. Emotional showers should be a thing among more New Democrats than their lightweight leader.    

The result is that the Canadian political landscape these days is dominated by an unprecedented number of parties and minority parliaments.  The latter doesn’t stand out because someone arbitrarily picked a period of time to examine. It stands out because the make-up of the legislature is connected to wider political trends and what political parties do.

Any society contains things that divide people along different lines.  In Canada, political parties used to bridge the cleavages.  It was a conscious political approach. These days, political parties reinforce the differences.  Again, it’s a conscious political choice.

The result - to paraphrase one veteran political insider with experience at the top of both provincial and national campaigns - is that Canadian parties these days don’t split along left-right ideological axes but urban versus rural, establishment versus antiestablishment, or clusters of regional grievances.

Next Monday: Choice and Consequences

A fundamental re-alignment of Canadian politics comes from choices and those choices have consequence.