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Poilievre gets his first crack at Trudeau in Mississauga, but it’s no election preview

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Monday’s federal byelection in Mississauga-Lakeshore, located in the Peel Region of Ontario, will be the first ballot box skirmish between the Pierre Poilievre-led Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals, but will it be a preview of the next full federal election? 

Charles Sousa, the former Ontario Minister of Finance, is running for the Liberals, while Ron Chhinzer, a member of the Peel Regional Police Service, is running for the Conservatives, in a race that also includes 38 other candidates—34 of whom are running as Independents.The high number of candidates is due to a protest by electoral reform advocates who are trying to draw attention to what they consider to be issues with the first past the post system.

Robert Martin, a data analyst with Mainstreet Research, says even if the Liberals lose this byelection, it does not necessarily mean Poilievre’s relentless criticism of the government on inflation and speaking to Canadians’ current economic anxieties will be effective in the next federal election. 

“We have zero idea what will happen in terms of inflation…house prices could be anywhere from half to double in 2025,” says Martin. “We have no idea if what Poilievre is even talking about right now are still going to be issues.” 

Other factors like the December weather may distort the mood of voters in Mississauga-Lakeshore. 

According to Nelson Wiseman, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto, many voters may decide they’d rather stay home if given the option on a mid-December day in southern Ontario. Studies suggest that weather does affect voter turnout, albeit by modest margins. 

Wiseman says other factors can have a more powerful impact on voter turnout and in turn lead to lower turnouts even in warm months, like last June when a smaller percentage of Ontarians voted in the provincial election than ever before in Ontario’s history. 

“Are people really upset? Do they really want to change? When that’s the case, then you do have a tendency to have higher turnouts,” says Wiseman. 

While predicting the Liberals will retain the riding on Monday, Wiseman agrees that it is no indicator of what will happen in the next general election. 

“I think the Conservatives are really well positioned to win the next general election, and they’ll be in a good position to win this riding, I just don’t think right now,” says Wiseman. “There is anger, there always is, and that really motivates an opposition party, and I think the Conservatives have that going for them.”

Martin says all of Mississauga’s ridings have voted for the same party in every election except once in 2008. 

“Generally any Mississauga byelection is a good indicator for how Mississauga is going to be voting at any given time,” says Martin. “That’s six crucial seats federally…it’s important for any government or opposition to be able to win that in one shot.”

The Harper-led government swept every single Mississauga seat in the 2011 election when it was re-elected with a comfortable majority, while Trudeau’s Liberals have swept Mississauga in every election since. 

The last three federal elections have seen the Conservatives lose ground to the Liberals in suburban areas across the country, most punishingly in the Greater Toronto Area in places like Mississauga. 

The Mississauga-Lakeshore riding was created in 1979 and has been held by the Liberals ever since with the exception of a four-year stretch between 2011 and 2015. 

In 2021, the incumbent Liberal MP Sven Spengemann won by 3,523 votes out of a total of 56,259 votes cast. In every one of the riding’s six contests since 2004, the victor has won by double digits just twice. 

Although usually more closely fought than other typically Liberal ridings, Martin does not believe it is essential for the Conservatives to win Mississauga-Lakeshore in a federal election to form a government. Martin points out that Harper’s Conservatives were able to win two general elections, albeit minority victories, in 2006 and 2008 while only winning a single Mississauga seat between either contest. 

Martin says the more recent trend of centre-right parties gaining traction in working-class areas while progressive parties find more success in wealthier suburban areas suggests the relatively affluent Mississauga-Lakeshore riding will be even tougher to win for the Conservatives. 

“This is generally a riding you’d expect Left-leaning parties to win… this isn’t necessarily a riding that you’d expect conservatives to be gaining in,” says Martin. 

The Mississauga-Lakeshore byelection takes place on Monday, December 12, 2022.

Has Pierre Poilievre’s social media output made him the first influencer in Canadian politics?

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Is Pierre Poilievre Canada’s first “influencer” politician? 

Influencers are online celebrities with large social media followings that promote anything from sneakers to lip gloss to hunting products, with the intent of convincing their audiences to buy them.

The products that influencers promote are often niche and appeal to a specific audience. Poilievre does not promote $975 sneakers, but he is certainly selling promises and principles. 

Long popular with the Conservative base for his stern questioning and rhetorical attacks on the Liberal government, Poilievre’s brand skyrocketed during the party’s leadership race following Erin O’Toole’s ousting in February. 

YouTube is a favoured outlet for Poilievre. He has released dozens of short to medium-length videos on the platform and received millions of total views. The videos are marked by grabbing slogans like “Remove Gatekeepers” and “Justinflation”, targeting issues affecting Canadians like the rising cost of living, or more specific topics like delays at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

Ginny Roth, who is the national practice lead for government relations at Crestview Strategy and who worked on Poilievre’s leadership campaign, says Poilievre’s audience is far too broad to be properly classified as an influencer. 

“Where influencers are looking to sell something to a niche group of people through a marketing channel…Poilievre is trying to build a movement that’s really broad,” says Roth. “He’s doing it through a variety of different channels, and he knows that a lot of Canadians are on social media, and they’re casual users…they’re not niche expert users.” 

Others have different opinions.

In March, Ben Woodfinden, Poilievre’s freshly-hired director of communications, and former Hub contributor, described the then-Conservative leadership frontrunner as having an “influencer kind of vibe”. 

“In many ways, yes, there’s an influencer part to his discourse,” agrees Vincent Raynauld, associate professor of communications at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. “But there’s also a populism part to his discourse, and I think this is where social media is really pushing politicians to become ever more populist in their approach to political communication.”

Poilievre is frequently described as a populist, an assessment Raynauld agrees with, but notes that the Conservative leader is not alone in his approach. 

“When you talk to folks, they often associate populism (with) your political ideology, but increasingly you can look at populism as a form of political communication,” says Raynauld. “An everyday, charismatic person talking about associating themselves with the people, and so making sure that they connect on a more personal level.”

In the recent U.S. midterm election in Ohio, Democratic senate candidate Tim Ryan released a video of himself throwing footballs at television screens showing the phrase “Defund the Police”, and politicians who Ryan accused of signing bad trade deals with China and selling out Ohio workers.

This contrasts with more conventional campaign ads from 10 years ago produced by other U.S. politicians, like Republican presidential nomination contender Rick Perry, who stood in front of a camera to outline his political principles in a 30-second, single-take monologue.

According to Raynauld, Poilievre is also bringing politics back to what Raynauld refers to as “kitchen table politics.”

Fittingly, Raynauld points out a Poilievre video titled “Breakfast with Justin”, where Poilievre eats breakfast at a diner while listing the rising costs of his meal due to inflation.

“He’s really trying to connect on a more personal level with members of the public and he’s trying to take a more informal way to reach out to the people,” says Raynauld. 

Raynauld mentions another video where Poilievre tours his childhood neighborhood in Calgary, and how his upbringing made him well-suited to become prime minister. 

“These are all things that I think are meant to be personal, they are meant to be, in some ways, private,” says Raynauld. “They are really meant to foster this sort of intimate connection between the social media user on one end and Pierre Poilievre on the other.” 

Poilievre is a controversial politician due to his promises to fire Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, defund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and most recently, his critiques of drug-addiction policies in British Columbia. 

Furthermore, Poilievre’s lack of engagement with members of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa, in favour of reaching out to smaller community papers read predominantly by Canada’s many immigrant communities, has led to additional criticism.

Writing in the Toronto Star, commentator Chantal Hébert asserted that Poilievre’s momentum has stalled due to his communications strategy of avoiding the press gallery and unfavourably compared him to former Conservative leaders who made more time for mainstream media outlets.

Poilievre is routinely criticized or praised in traditional newspapers, but Roth says those publications’ influence has declined since their heyday.

“People get their news and information and content from a variety of sources now, and they don’t inherently trust the mainstream media in a way that they used to,” says Roth. 

Recent surveys suggest Canadians’ trust in the “mainstream media” has declined to historic lows of 42 percent in recent months. 

Susan Smith is the co-founder of Bluesky Strategy Group with experience working on Liberal Party campaigns. 

“People are influenced by their families and peer groups, and by others in the social media and news funnels that they live in,” says Smith. “The traditional media are just one voice in the cacophony that accompanies a campaign.” 

Smith says that if the endorsements of traditional publications do have an effect, it is only towards the end of the general election, and among older demographics. 

While Poilievre’s videos don’t necessarily attract millions of views on an individual basis like a celebrity or influencer, they are far more popular than the average Canadian politician’s media output.

For example, among Justin Trudeau’s twelve most recent videos published on the prime minister’s official YouTube channel, the most viewed video garnered less than 8,000 views. By comparison to Trudeau’s channel, Poilievre’s most viewed video among his last twelve released, titled “The Message”, has been viewed just shy of 100,000 times. Others, though, like his leadership campaign launch video, have reached numbers well into the hundreds of thousands.

“Poilievre is unencumbered from the responsibilities, realities, and the experience of governing so has more time to film rants on his topic-du-jour,” says Smith. “Less scripted is better for Trudeau. I expect you’ll see more of that in the weeks and months to come.” 

The Liberal Party’s official YouTube account’s videos typically garner a similarly low view count to Trudeau’s.

“I think people are now their own curators of what’s true, and what’s interesting, and that’s compelling to them,” says Roth. “The benefit of that is that people with a strong message don’t need to be filtered through those outlets necessarily, they can speak to people directly on social media.” 

Raynauld says the use of social media in political communication has radically changed over the last two decades, listing the campaigns of viral U.S. political figures like Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, and Donald Trump in 2020 as exemplifying instances of this shift. 

Of those three candidates, only Dean never became president. Raynauld also singles out 2006 as a Canadian election year where personal blogs became prominent in Canadian politics, contributing to the change in communications. 

YouTube itself launched in 2005, providing a popular platform for video blogs, better known as vlogs.

“Campaigning has really evolved over the past years, and I really think that Pierre Poilievre probably is one of the few first ones in Canada that has adopted more of an informal tone when it comes to the approach to political campaigning online,” says Raynauld. 

Poilievre is not the only federal party leader attempting to harness the power of social media to grow their presence. 

New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh frequently uses Tik-Tok as a platform to try and connect with younger voters by taking part in dance trends, and also shared a Twitch stream with prominent American progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

However, Singh’s strategy appears to have had little effect on his party’s fortunes, with the NDP making only marginal gains in the last election. 

“I think Mr. Singh is really mimicking trends and other people are innovating, and that gives him some reach, but not the same kind of reach as Mr. Poilievre,” says Roth. 

Noting that Singh’s Tik-Toks backfired, Smith says Poilievre’s strategy is effective at targeting politically conservative and youthful demographics, with some surveys suggesting the latter prefer the Poilievre-led Conservatives. 

Yet Smith says that by taking a non-traditional route, Poilievre, like Singh, is missing out on communicating with large swathes of the public who want to see him tested outside his bubble. 

“Poilievre is giving lots of voters an opportunity to explore on their own time whether they like or dislike him,” says Smith.

Raynauld says that people have different expectations for traditional print media and more modern mediums like YouTube. 

“When you open up a newspaper…you have different expectations than for example, when you are on the metro…and you open up your Facebook account, or you open up your YouTube account, and you start looking at videos that have been posted by politicians,” says Raynauld. 

Roth states Poilievre is not the first politician to utilize social media, saying the federal Liberals have successfully used targeted paid advertising on Facebook during general elections.

Prior to his ouster, Erin O’Toole also published videos on his YouTube channel to try and connect with voters but reached vastly smaller audiences. 

“What makes the Conservative leader (Poilievre) different is he, I think, has understood from day one that the kind of content that people engage with in a YouTube environment is just good content,” says Roth. “That sounds simplistic, but good communication [is using] compelling communications that actually deliver a message that people can connect with, and speaks to real concrete issues with real concrete solutions, and words and phrases that connect with people, that they can understand, that they could see themselves using.” 

Influencer or not, the biggest test of Poilievre’s communications strategy will be the next general election. Jagmeet Singh found little electoral success with Tik-Tok the last time Canadians went to the polls. Can Poilievre do better?