In the three Conservative leadership races and nearly seven years that have transpired since Stephen Harper took his drubbing in the 2015 election, the prevailing formula for those trying to replace him has been the same: campaign on the right to win the leadership, then pivot to the centre in time for the general election.
Both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole tried this approach, and it took them within spitting distance of forming government. But Scheer couldn’t quite sell the pivot, and O’Toole pivoted so abruptly that he ended up bleeding support from his “true blue” backers to the People’s Party.
For months now, political watchers have been trying to figure out exactly when and how Pierre Poilievre will start making a similar move. Could he even manage that pivot back to the middle after he’d embraced the “Freedom Convoy” and traded in conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum?
The answer, as is now becoming abundantly clear, is that he never intended to even try. Instead of trying to win over current Liberal voters or Red Tories, his campaign is building a new kind of conservative coalition — one that bridges the right with younger voters on the far left.
This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. As Eoin Higgins wrote in The Atlantic last year, there’s a significant population of anti-vaxxers on the political left — ones who might be attracted to Poilievre’s pro-freedom, anti-mandate message. “These crunchy anti-vaxxers are coalescing into a loose political group that is targeting COVID health measures and restrictions as indicative of governmental overreach and medical tyranny,” he wrote. “They’re also, predictably, falling down far-right rabbit holes.”
Deliberately or not, Poilievre’s campaign is drawing on something called the Horseshoe Theory, which suggests the extreme left and right aren’t actually at opposite ends of a linear spectrum but instead bend towards each other at their extremes. After two years of a pandemic, one that has weakened trust in government institutions and expertise on both the right and the left, it might be the perfect time to test that theory.
The most recent results of a regular Abacus Data poll back that up. It showed an 11-point swing in Conservative Party of Canada support among 18- to 29-year-old voters, with most of that change coming at the expense of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP. While the party dropped from 31 per cent support in that demographic back in January to just 21 per cent in July, the CPC surged from 20 to 31 per cent (support for the Liberals only dropped a single point to 29 per cent).
This could be statistical noise, that rare outlier poll that crops up roughly once in every 20 times. But it’s far more likely that Poilievre’s relentless messaging about economic freedom and opportunity — and particularly his line of attack on housing prices and the people allegedly responsible for them — is resonating with a generation that feels like it can’t catch a break.
Partial credit for this unexpected political realignment belongs to Singh, whose own willingness to trade in populist rhetoric seems to be backfiring. Like Poilievre, he’s been talking a lot about inflation lately, and like Poilievre, he’s more than happy to blame “elites” for it. “Ottawa elites are enraged by the NDP proposal to send inflation relief to struggling families, but silent when billions in corporate welfare are handed out,” Singh tweeted recently.
But this is like trying to bring people to a party someone else has been hosting. Poilievre owns the inflation issue, and he’s been hammering harder and more effectively on the cost-of-living concerns that more Canadians are feeling lately than the NDP, which is theoretically supposed to be the party representing working class and lower-income voters. As the National Post’s Sabrina Maddeaux wrote in a recent column, the Poilievre camp is “stealing left-wing populists from an NDP more interested in performative social justice than real economic justice. When it comes to winning over younger generations — who now make up the largest share of potential voters — this may just be the ticket to 24 Sussex.”
Opinion: One thing should be abundantly clear by now: Pierre Poilievre is playing to win, and he’s not to be taken lightly, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver
If there’s one thing about young voters, though, it’s that it can be difficult to get them to actually show up and vote — just ask the federal NDP. There are no guarantees Poilievre’s horseshoe strategy will continue to pay dividends as COVID-19’s most onerous restrictions move further into our collective rear view, or that progressive politicians can’t win those young voters back.
But one thing should be abundantly clear by now: Pierre Poilievre is playing to win, and he may have found a new way to do it.