By Karen Kelly
The 2019 federal election campaign has officially begun! But the campaign advertising had already started, with Justin Trudeau riding a bus, Andrew Scheer (seemingly) at a cottage, and Jagmeet Singh playing soccer.
Ads are a nuisance for many of us. For Bill Cross, it’s all in a day’s work. Cross has been watching elections since 1979—when a young Joe Clark staged his upset win—and now studies them as a Professor of Political Science.
With the federal election just over a month away, Cross says the amount of uncertainty among voters is remarkable.
“The Liberals and Conservatives are essentially tied and most voters still aren’t sure about the party leaders. While many are disenchanted with Trudeau, they don’t really know Andrew Scheer or Jagmeet Singh and neither has resonated with voters,” he says. “That leaves it to the campaigns to define these candidates for us.”
But the warm and fuzzy introductions won’t be around for long. Cross predicts we’re about to see a very negative election campaign.
“To some extent, this will be a referendum on Trudeau. Governments tend to lose elections rather than the opposition winning them,” says Cross. “So expect to see the Conservatives highlighting the SNC Lavalin scandal, the botched trip to India, and generally depicting Trudeau as a political lightweight.”
In fact, Cross’ research has shown a very deliberate and predictable pattern to election campaign attacks.
“If the leader is unpopular, that’s where the opposition will focus their advertising,” wrote Cross in the article Negative Personalization: Party Leaders and Party Strategy, which he wrote with Carleton PhD graduate Scott Pruysers. The pair drew on a study of press releases and television advertisements produced by the various political parties during the 2014 Ontario election campaign.
“Within a multi-party electoral arena, parties make strategic decisions about which opposing leaders to negatively personalize and which brands to attack,” they reported. “In 2014, we found that the PCs targeting of [Liberal leader] Wynne was relatively sophisticated in that it responded to shifting public opinion and targeted the leader the most when her approval was lowest.”
With the Prime Minister’s approval rating around 30%, Cross says Trudeau is an obvious target.
“With SNC Lavalin and the reneging on electoral reform, he’s also facing disgruntlement on the left, so his opponents will certainly capitalize on that,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Cross predicts the Liberals will “paint Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as a right-wing extremist.”
While so-called negative personalization has been a common practice in the U.S., where candidates are “treated synonymously with their party,” it is traditionally less common in Canada.
“Personalization arose from…the adoption of leadership primaries, the introduction of televised debates, and the predominance of the horse-race frame,” says Cross.
A Crucial Campaign
Cross cites a long debate in political science over whether campaigns matter. He says this year, as in 2015, the campaign will determine Canada’s next four years.
“In 2015, the Liberals started the campaign in third place. To a large extent 2019 will depend on who votes. Younger voters tend to vote on the left, if they go to the polls,” says Cross. “Older voters tend to vote Conservative, and more importantly, they do go to the polls.”
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