Team Trudeau has always quietly assumed that it would take two elections to make the new Liberal leader prime minister. But the Conservatives are in such doldrums at mid-term that party insiders are beginning to wonder whether victory might be possible in 2015.
Victory is possible. But first the Grits must overcome two obstacles. And it won’t be easy.
Justin Trudeau inherited the Liberal leadership in April with one great asset and several liabilities.
The great asset is that the party is united. Mr. Trudeau’s senior strategists came from the Ontario provincial wing and played no major role in the civil war that stretched from John Turner to Michael Ignatieff. Offers of help from veterans of the Chrétien/Martin fight, in particular, were politely rebuffed.
As a result, Mr. Trudeau is the unchallenged leader of the entire party – what’s left of it. For he inherited a mess: moribund riding organizations, an inadequate fundraising operation and a painfully small footprint in the House of Commons.
Team Trudeau has set about the task of rebuilding by targeting winnable ridings and building on the base of support generated by the leadership campaign.
Drawing heavily on the experience of the Democratic machine that twice made Barack Obama president, organizers are identifying different potential voting blocs within key ridings. The goal is to craft individual messages for each voter, based on their particular interests or concerns. Initial efforts are encouraging.
This – and not the transitory kerfuffle over speaking fees – is what will matter in the next campaign.
Still, a third-place party can’t reasonably expect to unseat a majority government in one election. A more realistic outcome would be for the Liberals to vault past the NDP in 2015 by taking seats from the NDP in Quebec and from the Conservatives in suburban Ontario, resulting in a minority Conservative government with the Liberals once again the Official Opposition.
If that happened, both Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair might well have to step down as leaders, given their respective parties’ dismal showings. A weak Conservative government would stagger along for a year, with both the Tories and the NDP distracted by divisive leadership campaigns.
Justin Trudeau would enter the next election as a seasoned leader with an excellent shot at becoming prime minister.
This remains the most probable path to victory for the Liberals. But the Senate expenses scandal, the possible failure to conclude a trade agreement with Europe and other disappointments could so damage the Conservative brand that a one-election victory could be within reach.
But there are two big – no, gargantuan – challenges.
The first is to persuade federalist Quebec voters to abandon the NDP. Mr. Mulcair is a fierce and experienced competitor who has made retaining the support of federalists (or at least non-separatists) in Quebec his most important priority. He will not easily be displaced.
And winning Quebec simply means winning opposition. The province hasn’t given a governing party a plurality of seats since 1988. Middle-class swing voters in the swollen suburban ridings of the 905 area code outside Toronto choose the government.
They will vote for the leader they most trust to protect their jobs and their communities while keeping taxes low.
They will not switch their vote from the Conservatives to the Liberals simply because they want change. It will have to be change they can trust. Justin Trudeau’s greatest challenge is to earn that trust.
It’s a daunting task, given the Liberal Leader’s lack of experience inside or outside political life. As one 905-er put it in a recent conversation: “He’s been a drama teacher and a motivational speaker. And he wants to be prime minister of a G8 nation? Really?”
But team Trudeau is convinced they can win that voter over, in two elections. Or maybe even one.