It’s not often that Pierre Poilievre is at a loss for words. But on the morning after his first federal byelection as Conservative Party of Canada leader, one that saw his candidate in Mississauga-Lakeshore get shellacked by Liberal Charles Sousa, Poilievre’s social feeds were uncharacteristically quiet. Clearly, this was not the first impression with the general public he was hoping for.
Mississauga-Lakeshore is a suburban Ontario riding the CPC won under Stephen Harper’s leadership in 2011 and Poilievre absolutely must win if he wants to form the next federal government. This time, his side lost by 14 points — more than double the six-point defeat it suffered in the 2021 federal election. The CPC’s poor showing is all the more striking in light of the current political environment, one that’s dominated by inflation, rising interest rates and other economic dynamics that should hurt the incumbent party. “Yup, the Poilievre message is really resonating in suburban Ontario,” Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne tweeted sarcastically.
As former Trudeau pollster Dan Arnold noted, the Liberal vote share was higher in the byelection (and remember, byelections tend to be terrible for incumbent party candidates) than in 2021, 2019 or 2015 — and higher than Sousa, a former Ontario Liberal finance minister, ever got in a provincial election. “As for Poilievre,” Arnold wrote, “he did succeed in collapsing the PPC vote, but will come in with lower vote share than (former CPC leader) Erin O'Toole did in 2021. He's right around (former CPC leader Andrew) Scheer's 2019 total.”
If there’s any good news here for Poilievre, it’s that this miserable result gives him an opportunity to learn from his mistakes. The next federal election is almost certainly still two years away, and this outcome — as embarrassing as it is — will be long forgotten by then. Wars aren’t won or lost in the first battle, and he can use this defeat to adjust his tactics accordingly.
Chief among those is the reality that what works for a leadership race — a steady diet of well-seasoned political red meat — doesn’t suit the appetites of the general electorate. YouTube videos about lumber and cryptocurrency may fire up his young male supporters within the Conservative Party of Canada, but they seem far less effective at motivating less ideologically strident voters. Not everyone is on Twitter or YouTube, and page views aren’t the same thing as votes — especially when many of those views can come from outside our borders.
An even bigger lesson revolves around his approach to dealing with the mainstream media. Picking fights with the media may fire up the base, delight your donors and help you control your message, but they also make it much harder to reach people who aren’t already invested in your politics. And yet, Poilievre seemed determined to ice out major media outlets in the course of campaigning for Mississauga-Lakeshore.
As the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hebert wrote last week, even his one major press conference in Toronto was news to them and their audiences. “If that’s the first you’ve heard of it, that’s because the city’s major media outlets, be they print, radio or TV, were not invited. True to his belief about the mainstream media, Poilievre is campaigning off its radar.”
This sort of narrowcasting media relations strategy may have worked in an internal party race, especially one where hatred of the “mainstream media” is practically an article of faith. But as the byelection blowout shows, it’s far less effective when you have to contend with non-conservative voters and the media outlets they rely upon.
The big question now is whether he and his team are capable of learning the lessons they were just taught. It will be tempting for them to blame the mainstream media, attack the subsidies those outlets receive from government and suggest the solution lies in defunding news organizations and the CBC. The Liberals, for their part, probably wouldn’t mind seeing the Conservatives go down this road, given that it looks an awful lot like the same intellectual dead-end Scheer proudly steered into during his last speech as CPC leader.
Pierre Poilievre's candidate in the Mississauga-Lakeshore riding got shellacked by Liberal Charles Sousa, causing the #CPC leader's social feeds to go uncharacteristically quiet. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver #opinion #cdnpoli
If Poilievre’s people don’t want him to become the second coming of Scheer, they’ll need to find a way to engage more constructively with people outside their partisan bubble. That will almost certainly mean opening him up more to the mainstream media and the Parliamentary Press Gallery and finding a way to turn a toxic relationship into a conventionally adversarial one. If they don’t, they risk turning Justin Trudeau into a four-time prime minister — perhaps even one with a new majority mandate.