Justin Trudeau showed nerves when he bounded on stage Thursday night, missing the moment to bask in delegates' cheers by rushing into his speech. It didn't matter. There was another moment planned, a video call to his pregnant wife Sophie Grégoire and his kids playing in their pyjamas.
It's part of the flair for creating moments that the Liberal Leader and his advisers have displayed, from suddenly booting senators out of caucus to visiting Quebec Premier Pauline Marois to be the first to trash her plan to bar religious symbols in the public service. The attention-grabbing stagecraft has helped push a star-image leader to the top of the polls. There's more at this week's Liberal convention in Montreal, with glitzy visuals and star-candidate speeches, to portray the party as a reviving force.
Behind the curtain, however, this is still a Liberal party struggling to build itself into a modern political machine.
The delegates are bullish. Things are better than the depths they have dredged. PEI MP Lawrence MacAulay said it feels like 1992, when Liberals smelled a return to power as Brian Mulroney's Tories crumbled. But this Liberal party's support is still soft, and its core is still leagues from the red machines of decades past, or the modern one they need now.
On Thursday, when the party played a video on 2013 successes to introduce Mr. Trudeau, there was surprising applause for a statistic: the Liberals raised $11.2-million in 2013. It was a party happy the glass is now half full. Their fourth-quarter fundraising almost caught the Conservatives', but over the year, they raised less than two-thirds of the Tory haul.
It is a turnaround. Two years ago, the party feared a financial "death spiral," one Liberal official said. After falling to 34 seats in the 2011 election, they worried banks wouldn't lend the party enough to finance the 2015 election campaign. That would force the Liberals to save, staying silent when the Conservatives launched pre-election advertising campaigns. Now, with better polls and fundraising, the Liberals are at least in the game.
But there are also few boots on the ground in several places, and a gap in a key tool of modern politics – data.
Barack Obama's assistant campaign manager, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, told Liberal delegates Friday that data drove the U.S. President's wins, with a 2012 campaign that featured a floor of people working through Facebook, and databases of cataloged contacts for fundraising appeals and targeted campaign messages. In Canada, Stephen Harper's Conservatives have used databases of hundreds of thousands of contacts, sliced into niche markets such as gun owners, to draw key advantages in volunteers and money.
The Liberals are working to catch up, a senior Liberal admitted. They now have the software and tools to reach potential supporters, but still lack the big data – the hundreds of thousands of names, e-mails and details – that fuel modern political machines. They know they need it. That's why Mr. Trudeau's events, even a stop at a park in Nelson, B.C., to meet 200 people, include five young Liberals following with sign-up sheets – to beat the bushes and fill the database.
People are coming in. Two hundred have signalled they'll run for nominations in Quebec, a half-dozen in some ridings, said Pablo Rodriguez, the chief organizer in the province. But another party official conceded that beyond Montreal and some other spots, there are large parts of rural Quebec with few live Liberal members – just as there are in swaths outside the metro areas in Manitoba and B.C.
This is a party that boasted 400,000 members when Paul Martin won the leadership in 2003. Even with Mr. Trudeau's star appeal, the party had 50,000 when he became leader – and 300,000 in a new category, supporters, who didn't have to pay the $10 fee. Now the party is trying to convert supporters into members, using the right to vote in nomination races as the lure.
"We have a tremendous opportunity to data-mine that, and get those 300,000 supporters to become members, and become volunteers, and become donors," said Arif Khan, a candidate to be the party's membership secretary. "It's not a sexy job. It's the way to do politics now."
The stagecraft is sexier. Crafting attention-grabbing moments with a star-image leader has Liberals feeling on top again. But those nerves Mr. Trudeau displayed had better be about more than performance, because they still haven't completed the foundation under the stage.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.