Ginny Roth: Being ‘boring’ isn’t in Poilievre’s DNA—And thank God for that

Broadening Poilievre's appeal is not the same as softening his image
Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre, centre, rides a horse with his wife Anaida Poilievre during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, Friday, July 7, 2023. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

As Conservatives descended on Quebec City late last week, coming together in advance of Parliament’s fall sitting, lots of people had similar advice for leader Pierre Poilievre: Be boring. The going wisdom these days is that the Liberals are floundering, Justin Trudeau’s star is sinking, and events are conspiring to give the Conservatives a major, sustained lead in the polls. According to this received wisdom, the best thing Pierre Poilievre can do is shut up and keep his head down, letting nature run its course. Or as Rudyard Griffiths put it on the Hub Roundtable a few weeks ago, he should sit back and just watch the sunset.

But this advice is flawed for a few reasons: sitting back didn’t work for Poilievre’s predecessors; it’s not what will motivate many people in his voter universe; and perhaps most importantly, he’s an authentic leader and hiding away hoping to escape notice just isn’t who he is.

Last Thursday, the Conservatives unveiled a new logo, scrubbing away any lingering mark left by previous leader Erin O’Toole. After running on a “true blue” leadership platform, O’Toole tacked to the centre, compromising—both in substance and tone—on important conservative issues to chart a path to electoral victory. He was the embodiment of the received wisdom, making the last election a helpful counterfactual example of its application. After all, it wasn’t written in the stars that O’Toole would be voted out by his own caucus. 

What if O’Toole were still the leader? What if the Conservatives were still explaining a complicated carbon savings account scheme, accepting the Liberal framing that consumers ought to pay for emissions out of their own pockets, as the cost of gas and groceries skyrocketed this past year? What if the party was avoiding issues like guns and crime, worried Liberals would attack them? What if they had vilified the Canadians concerned about their personal freedoms during over-used COVID lockdowns, sending them running to Maxime Bernie’s PPC in droves? What if they had absolved the Liberals and the Bank of Canada of any guilt in exacerbating today’s crippling inflation, avoiding any uncouth critiques of Canadian institutions in favour of vague worry and hand-wringing?

Poilievre didn’t win his party’s leadership in a landslide by bowing out of big fights, ceding major public policy territory to his opponents, and hoping the media wouldn’t notice him (or that they wouldn’t find him too offensive). We don’t have to imagine how the Conservative party would fare if it tried to avoid big important fights—we already know. It would linger in opposition, as it has this last decade. 

Part of the reason the play-it-safe approach didn’t work is because of how it approached a potential Conservative voter universe. The Boring Conservative strategy targets a narrow pool of voters. It assumes all Poilievre has to do is convince some reticent Liberals to consider voting Conservative by being inoffensive, and not “scary”. But as we learned in the last election, even if a quiet approach gives some Liberal voters permission to consider voting Conservative, timidity is a recipe for failure.

We know from the data that in the last election, a lot of Canadians who had previously voted Conservative stayed home, and we know that some of them voted PPC. And we know now, from polling, that Poilievre’s growing voter universe is coming from a variety of sources, drawing on some Liberal, NDP, and PPC support, but most importantly, from Canadians who didn’t vote in the last election. The bold strategy Poilievre took in the leadership, to appeal not only to stalwart members but draw new people into the movement—many of them young and new to politics in general—worked like a charm. Now, he’s deploying the big voter universe strategy to the next general election, and it’s putting the Conservatives as high as 40 percent in some polls.

Finally, telling Poilievre to be boring betrays a complete misunderstanding of who he is and why he’s so attractive to so many voters in 2023. The people suggesting Poilievre tone it down tend to be the same ones who felt he was too angry, his edges too sharp, and his policies too radical to pivot from success in the leadership to success with the broader electorate. They’re also the people who are gob-smacked, shaking their heads in befuddlement, at his success with Gen Z and Millennial voters.

But many of us are not surprised. When comfortable Boomers heard Poilievre sounding too angry, working Millennial parents heard a guy who finally understood that their weekly grocery bills were making them literally weep. When press gallery media bristled at his edginess in press conferences or gasped at his willingness to criticize the Bank of Canada, 30-year-olds living in their parents’ basements heard a guy who was finally willing to speak up for them, against a broken system other politicians refused to question. And when pollsters and columnists insisted young voters would never support a politician who wouldn’t “price carbon”, those same young voters showed up to rallies in droves to axe a punitive carbon tax that only Poilievre would commit to cancelling. 

All of this is not to say that Poilievre and the Conservatives haven’t done great work increasing their appeal with the electorate, or that they shouldn’t continue to do so. The party launched a series of ads introducing the leader, his wife, and his priorities to Canadians on a more personal level, and there’s no question the party has spent more time talking about cost-of-living issues, and less time on some of the narrower concerns of the party membership. But broadening his appeal is not the same as softening his image, no matter what every headline on the ad campaign says.

When change happens, it can be tempting to assume that it was inevitable. What seemed impossible to many a few years ago—that Canada’s Conservatives would be dominating the public opinion polls, even leading among young voters and in tricky regions—is starting to feel like the natural course of things. If you’re a self-confident analyst, it’s easy to convince yourself you saw it coming, that it’s happening because Poilievre tempered himself just as you advised, and that the best thing for him to do now is to duck his head below the parapet and pray. Fortunately for Conservatives and Canadians, being boring isn’t in Poilievre’s DNA. 

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