Skip to main content
opinion

John Duffy is a Principal at StrategyCorp

For the new Trudeau government, Friday's Speech from the Throne marks the beginning of workaday Ottawa life – another passage in what many observers expect to be an inevitable slide from postcampaign highs to the morning-after grind of governing.

Not so fast. Ottawa's honeymoon deathwatch crowd may be in for a long wait. That's because they are focused on what might break up the romance between Justin Trudeau and voters, and not on who is actually up there in the heart-shaped tub with the PM.

It's a key question. Last month, Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, introduced Obama campaign supremo David Axelrod to a policy conference in Ottawa. Mr. Butts shared an Axelrod admonishment: "The most important piece of advice and the most difficult piece of advice to follow in politics is: Remember who sent you to office and why they sent you."

So who are these voters whom Mr. Trudeau must remember, and whose reasons for voting for him mustn't be forgotten? The answer is new voters. Viewed through this lens, the government's honeymoon, its priorities and its ultimate prospects look very different than they do from inside the Commons chamber.

First, how do we know that new voters are so critical? By looking at the election's actual raw vote. Nationwide, the Liberal vote in October rose to almost seven million from about 2.8 million in the 2011 election. The Conservative vote held pretty steady between the two elections. The NDP vote slid from 4.5 million in 2011 to about 3.5 million in October. Turnout went up in 2015 to 17.5 million from 14.8 million in 2011.

So what does that mean? A little caution here; it's tricky to track the movement of voters from one election to another, and usually takes months. Among the politicians and strategists who organize governments, however, a prudent wait for voter analyses must often give way to the need to get a working handle on who voted for you. Such is the case for a fast-starting government preparing a Speech from the Throne, among other things.

So, with all due caution, the rough-and-ready strategic equation is as follows. The Liberals' victory was delivered in part by about one million voters who switched from the NDP to the Liberals between 2011 and 2015. It is likely that many of these were "returning Liberals" who had tried Jack Layton's NDP in 2011 but came home to Mr. Trudeau.

A much greater boost – three times as great – seems to have come from the almost three million people who voted and had not done so previously, the great majority of whom probably voted Liberal. That's right, new voters were probably three-times as important to the Liberal victory as vote-switching 2011 New Democrats. And they likely outnumbered the folks who voted Liberal in 2011. So the Liberal constellation is composed of new Trudeau voters first, continuing true Grits second and voters returning from the NDP a distant third.

Early evidence suggests some unusually high turnouts among indigenous voters, young people and Muslims. Expect more policy shout-outs to these constituencies. But the scale of the turnout surge means it was broadly based. And keeping these new voters on board requires a lot more than just satisfying some specific agendas. The Trudeau campaign understood that political disengagement was their enemy, and worked hard to create and promote an offering that could overcome the aversion to politics that had hit the Liberal voting contingent hardest. That offering is summed up in Mr. Trudeau's basket of catchphrases, notably "positive politics" and "sunny ways." This is more than just tonal bonhomie; it's sophisticated messaging, targeted at a vital voting block.

As long as this promise of positive politics holds, the new Trudeau voters should remain engaged in politics, and wed to Trudeau. Breaking up this romance will take a lot more than conventional Opposition politicking and Press Gallery accountability. The new Trudeau voters likely don't follow politics all that closely. Minor deviations from specific platform line items may not matter as much. What certainly matters is the bond of trust they have formed with Mr. Trudeau. Shatter that bond, and the whole episode may turn out as a one-term Las Vegas wedding. If that bond is maintained, however, this could be a marriage made in political heaven.