ANATOMY OF AN ELECTION
THE VIEW FROM THE TRENCHES
During the last 10 days of the 1988 election campaign, as critical votes slipped from their grasp, Liberal campaign planners delivered a heartfelt plea to their leader, John Turner. Call Jean Chrétien, they urged, in a final attempt to convince Turner to involve his former leadership rival in the campaign. Turner flatly refused—as he had from the start. Discouraged, the strategists tried another tactic. Call Pierre Trudeau, they pleaded, in one last bid to involve the former prime minister in the campaign. Then, despite a previous refusal to
approach Trudeau, Turner agreed. A senior Turner aide called Trudeau in Montreal, and he said that he would deliver a forceful speech attacking free trade. But, Trudeau added, if journalists asked him about the Meech Lake constitutional accord, he would likely repeat that he opposed it. And Turner, who supported the accord, was unwilling to take the risk. The Liberals continued their slide. On Nov. 21, the Conservatives secured their second straight majority victory—and the Liberals’ dreams of power died.
The campaign of 1988 was replete with drama—episodes of bad judgment and good luck, of good judgment and bad breaks. There
were shouting matches, awesome miscalculations, arrogant refusals to compromise, crucial polls that were misinterpreted or fatefully ignored. But there were also instances of political brilliance, often overlooked at the time, which eventually determined the course of the campaign, the standings in the 295-seat House of Commons and perhaps the nation’s history. The final tally left the Conservatives with 169 seats, the Liberals with 83 and the New Democratic Party with 43. From extensive interviewing, Maclean’s has reconstructed the behind-the-scenes developments that shaped that historic campaign:
The stage was set during the summer, when, in the parlance of political strategists, the parties “positioned” themselves for the campaign, designing their images and defining their policies. The Conservatives were perhaps the most crafty. Through the late summer, Mulroney toured the regions, controlling his partisan tongue and his temper, emphasizing his prime ministerial status. Meanwhile, between May 20 and late September, his ministers announced more than 70 federal projects, totalling more than $8 billion. The Tories wanted the voters to view the spending spree, which ranged from $250 million for the film industry to $110 million to fight illiteracy, as evidence of good government. Said operations director Harry Near: “We wanted people to say, ‘These guys have a plan.’ ”
Private Tory polling by Decima Research Ltd. of Toronto provided a fascinating glimpse of the national mood. Throughout the summer, the Conservatives moved relentlessly from second place into first place, from the 34-to-35-per-cent range of support among decided voters to 42 to 43 per cent. As
0 well, in an important measure of A confidence in the government,
1 more than 75 per cent of Canadi5 ans said that they were better off \ in September, 1988, than they had
been in 1984. Still, the polling showed a lingering anxiety about the future, an unspoken fear of another recession. The Conservatives devised their theme accordingly: they brought prosperity, they could maintain prosperity, they could manage change. In the week prior to the election call, Decima privately told Mulroney that he could expect to win 180 seats.
The Liberals, in contrast, were in trouble. In July, Turner had announced that he would ask the Senate to delay passage of legislation to implement the free trade accord until Mulroney called an election. It was a brilliant ploy because it distinguished the Liberals from the New Democrats, who also opposed the deal. But it was not enough to compete with the onslaught of Conservative spending announcements. Throughout the last three weeks of September, the Liberals dropped eight points in their private polls. On Sept. 28, in a futile bid to halt that slide, Turner unveiled his entire 40point policy program for the campaign, ranging from income supplements for the working poor to a 50-per-cent Canadian ownership policy on oil and gas. There was no price tag.
In the wake of the election, the Liberals would become divided about the worth of that S program. It was “an albatross,” argued one | senior strategist, a collection of costly projects, 1 targeted to appeal to scattered interest groups. î
Other Liberals, such as Martin Goldfarb, chairman of Goldfarb Consultants of Toronto, a prime proponent of the package, countered that the theme of social and economic justice united the platform. “It was a salable platform,” he said. “Some of the ideas were pretty revolutionary: profit sharing, equal pay for work of equal value. But we could not get the press interested.”
Meanwhile, the New Democrats were making the fateful decisions that would doom their campaign. Private polling throughout the summer by NDP pollster Victor Finger hut, of Fingerhut/Madison Opinion Research in Washington, D.C., indicated that the free trade issue was a negative one for the NDP. Voters viewed it as an economic and managerial issue, an international issue—and they did not believe strongly in the NDP’s ability to manage the economy or international affairs. Said Brian Harling, the NDP’s Ontario provincial secretary: “We tried every message that we could think of, tested dozens of themes, but no matter what we tried, it was a Liberal issue.”
As a result, as a bitter senior strategist later recounted, the party decided to run a serene campaign, aloof from the political fray over free trade, using theme words such as “fairness” instead of the more socialist-sounding word, “equality.” The party would make little mention of free trade; it would introduce modest programs, carefully costed, in such areas as the environment; it would talk frankly about going for power. And it would devote sizable resources to Quebec, even though the party had won less than 10 per cent of the vote in a June 20 byelection in Lac-St-Jean.
THE FIRST THREE WEEKS
With the election call on Oct. 1, the three parties wheeled into battle. In a slick and tightly controlled campaign, the Conservatives crisscrossed the nation, packing a policy message into each gruelling day. The party wanted to manage the agenda, to control the news. As a result, Mulroney stuck to a rigid script: he would tour a factory or a school in the morning to provide photo opportunities to accompany the reading of the policy text at noon; he would give an interview to the local media in the afternoon before heading to a rally for partisans in the evening.
Each policy announcement was geared to a second Decima discovery: as the economy improved, Canadians ignored it, focusing on programs that improved what they saw as the quality of their lives. As a Decima report to its clients concluded: “For federal political figures to be seen as relevant, they will need to be able to demonstrate that they are capable of helping solve issues which occur on a community, neighborhood or family level.” As a result, Mulroney turned to such issues as the environment, announcing a plan to spend $75 million to clean up the Great Lakes and $10 million per year for community environmental projects.
Members of the media complained about Tory efforts to control coverage of the campaign and place limits on access to the Prime Minister. But the formula worked beyond the Tories’ wildest dreams: three weeks into the campaign, their polls indicated that they would win more than 200 seats if the election was held then. At Conservative headquarters, the Tory brain trust was elated: the insiders calculated that they had received as much media
THE ROLLER-COASTER CAMPAIGN WAS HEARTBREAKING FOR THE LIBERALS
time as their opponents had, but the Tories had controlled the agenda. Free trade was merely part of the overall vision, part of the theme that the Conservatives were a competent government that could manage change. As Decima president Allan Gregg told Maclean’s: “We had a beautiful campaign planned, lovely ads, we were just going to dance to the polls.”
The only note of caution came from Mulroney. With eerie foresight, he kept telling press secretary Marc Lortie that the campaign was going to become a close race, that free trade was going to become the main issue. When he heard glowing predictions by aides, he would insist,
“That does not correspond to my reality.” Still, at the request of his skilled tour manager, John Tory, Mulroney curbed his partisan instincts, sticking to his written speech texts. Conservative strategists began to feel vaguely nervous: the campaign was going too well.
The Liberals did not have that problem. For four brief days, they had dominated the campaign agenda: they had concocted a lively campaign kickoff at Liberal headquarters in Toronto; they had unveiled a well-crafted plan to provide $1.6 billion in tax breaks for Canadians saddled with crippling rent or mortgage payments.
Then, on Oct. 5, the first of many disasters struck. Quebec Liberal organizers argued that Mulroney had successfully linked free trade and Meech Lake in the public mind: free trade appealed to the Quebec desire for economic sovereignty; Meech Lake appealed to the Quebec desire for political sovereignty. They said that Turner should open a second front on social welfare to win Quebec votes. The rent and mortgage tax breaks were not enough, they added, because housing was not a major issue in Montreal. Instead, they pushed Turner to advance a planned child care announcement to attract Quebec voters.
Only hours before his Oct. 5 news conference, Turner examined the day care program drafted by Montreal MP Lucie Pépin. Liberal officials had affixed a price tag ranging from $4 billion to $8 billion to the package. In her proposal, Pépin said that if journalists asked
about the cost, Turner should say: “If the NDP can create 200,000 spaces in half the time of the Conservatives at less than half the cost, then cost should not be an issue.” Turner was appalled at the cost—and the recommendation—and he said that he would not mention a price tag at the news conference where the program was to be announced.
But his principal secretary, Peter Connolly,
did not tell Pépin and Liberal MP Raymond Garneau that Turner was not going to talk about the price. As a result, at the news conference, under the merciless gaze of the cameras, Pépin tried to talk about the price. To stop her, Turner put his hand over the microphone and whispered, “You cannot give a precise amount.” To add to the embarrassment, Connolly speculated that the total cost “could be $8 billion, it could be $10 billion.” Four days later, Liberals admitted that the plan might cost $10.1 billion, underscoring their lack of preparation. Said Goldfarb: “[Turner] never lived that down. Politics is cruel.”
A litany of problems followed. CBC TV carried a report on The National that senior Liberal planners at a strategy meeting had seriously discussed what might happen if the party
changed its leader. A scholarly book by Goldfarb and Liberal strategist Thomas Axworthy said that Turner had “blurred” the party’s image. Private party polls suggested that only nine per cent of Canadians believed that Turner was competent to be prime minister. Party strategists calculated that they would win only 28 seats.
On the road, Turner delivered passionate speeches, concentrating almost exclusively on free trade. He gamely ignored the severe pain that he was suffering from a pinched nerve in his back. But, in private, alone with his aides, he was aloof, locked in introspective silence. Before each event, he wandered off, by himself or with an aide, making a visible effort to collect
his thoughts. His aides wondered if he could maintain the campaign pace: he often managed only two events each day and, during the first week, he took an afternoon off in Toronto for a suit fitting.
Meanwhile, the New Democrats were sowing more seeds of future problems. Heeding their polls, but without consulting their strategy committee, NDP Leader Edward Broadbent and chief of staff George Nakitsas dropped all reference to free trade during the opening news conference. Journalists noted the omission—and Broadbent was put on the defensive for several critical days. Finally, after several penitent days of mentioning free trade, the party recovered its serene course, competent but not dynamic, almost oblivious to the other campaigns: every day, Broadbent made an
announcement, vowing in Winnipeg to scrap supermailboxes, promising in Windsor, Ont., to increase family allowances.
But, along the way, there was a telling mistake. In Hamilton on Oct. 11, Broadbent predicted the demise of the Liberal party, a prophecy that galvanized Liberal partisans and brought funds streaming into Liberal coffers. Broadbent himself recognized that mistake: moments after the interview, he said to an aide, “I guess we are going to be in trouble on that one.”
Initially, few NDP strategists worried about their lacklustre campaign because the party was making slow progress in the polls, edging into second place in the high 20s. Then, during the Oct. 20 to 22 weekend, party strategists came to a stunning realization: the Conservatives were heading toward a massive majority; as the official opposition, the NDP would have only 40 to 50 seats.
THE TV DEBATES
For the three leaders, the televised debates— in French on Oct. 24 and in English on Oct. 25—were critical: an estimated six million viewers would scrutinize their gestures, their answers, their characters. The Conservatives did not undertake trial runs of the debate. Instead, Mulroney received a special briefing book that set out the issues, the likely questions and the suggested slogans. Then Tory aides and a parade of experts, including former deputy minister of finance Stanley Hartt, briefed him. The result, said a senior strategist, was that the Prime Minister “drowned in facts,” losing his focus, his fire. When the debates began and he was subjected to repeated hammering from Turner about the free trade deal, he could not collect himself, marshal his facts or muster his passion.
The NDP also decided that Broadbent required no rehearsals for the debate. Instead, they too assembled a briefing book that included details on complicated issues, memorable lines that might score debating points and a reminder: keep repeating that the NDP is on the side of the ordinary voter. Broadbent did not use the lines and, with the exception of the opening statement, he rarely mentioned the ordinary voter. Instead, he appeared querulous, ill-tempered, almost petulant.
It was left to the long-maligned Turner to win the debates—after two gruelling days of taping rehearsals and studying briefing books. With breathtaking passion, he concentrated on the free trade issue, raising questions about provisions for social security programs, for banks, for investment policy. When he glared at Mulroney and charged, “You have sold us out,” he reversed the course of the election.
Polls already suggested that more Canadians opposed the free trade deal than supported it: a Gallup poll released on Oct. 25, for one, showed that 42 per cent opposed the deal; 34 per cent supported it. Turner became the magnet for that opposition. Private Goldfarb polling after the debates asked if the leaders did better or worse or the same as expected: in Quebec, after the French-language debates, 37 per cent
said that Turner did better than expected while 10 per cent said that Turner did worse than expected, for a net rating of 27 per cent; Broadbent’s net rating was three per cent; Mulroney’s was zero. The next night, after the English-language debates, Turner received a stunning rating of 44 per cent.
OCT. 26 TO NOV. 10
The next 15 days belonged to Turner. Invigorated, infused with new hope and new pride, he barnstormed the nation, campaigning against free trade. He seized on the fact that, during the English debate, Mulroney said that the trade deal could be cancelled with she months’ notice. As Goldfarb said: “Mulroney trivialized
free trade; he was prepared to sell it out if it was politically opportunistic. It reminded people: does he really have convictions? In contrast, Turner looked, for the first time, committed, dedicated to a concept. He did not need notes to speak from the heart.”
That message was not lost on the voters. The Liberals moved ahead of the Tories in their private polls, gaining enough support to form a minority government. More important, Turner’s rating on competence shot from nine per cent to 30, just below Mulroney’s. The cochairmen of the Liberal transition team, Senator Jack Austin and strategist David MacNaughton, the chairman of Public Affairs •Resource Group, a consulting conglomerate, hastily conducted their first two meetings in Austin’s office in Ottawa. MacNaughton began
to outline a structure for a future Prime Minister’s Office, to examine the constitutional options in a minority situation. Meanwhile, although Turner tried to curb his pleasure, he remarked to an associate that he would remove former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Macdonald, an advocate of free trade, from his post as Canadian high commissioner in London.
Aware of the party’s momentum, the Liberal strategy committee attempted to exploit it. Goldfarb polls suggested that few Canadians knew about the Tory policy for a national sales tax. But 75 per cent of the voters who understood the tax disliked it. As well, Goldfarb polls showed that 90 per cent of the voters had never heard of the Liberals’ 40-point program.
Among the remaining 10 per cent, most could identify only the housing proposal, the antifree-trade stand and the botched day care announcement. As a result, the strategy committee urged Turner to open a second front, to attack the sales tax, to praise the 40-point program. Halfheartedly, Turner agreed. But, perhaps because of his lack of passion on those topics, perhaps because few journalists paid attention, his campaign remained centred on free trade.
Meanwhile, the Tories were scrambling to recover. In the immediate aftermath of the debate, Gregg, campaign chairman Senator Norman Atkins, chief of staff Derek Burney and policy platform chairman Senator Lowell Murray said that Mulroney performed well. Only campaign spokesman Hugh Segal was
AS THE TORIES REGAINED THE LEAD, MULRONEY TONED DOWN HIS RHETORIC
upset. Twenty-four hours later, Gregg said, as the Decima poll results reached headquarters, “we knew we were in big trouble.” Belatedly, the Conservatives realized that they had done a terrible job of selling free trade: they had spent $24 million in taxpayers’ money to produce background papers for supermarkets and post offices when they should have used television and radio ads. When Gregg told Mulroney about the difficulty, the Prime Minister replied: “I am a big boy, and if we have a problem, it is my doing. I will go out there and fix it.”
Because Turner’s competence rating had increased, the Liberals attracted those voters who were vaguely anxious about their economic future: the fear that Decima had detected last summer. As well, Decima asked voters if they believed that Turner was truly opposed to free trade or was using free trade to save his campaign: initially, 55 per cent of the respondents said that Turner was sincere; 40 per cent doubted his motives. Said Gregg: “We saw that the bridge that joined the growing fear of free trade and the growing support for the Liberal party was John Turner’s credibility. So we had to get all the planes in the air and smash the bridge and blow it up.”
The Tories went on the attack against Turner, denigrating his competence so that voters would not believe his claims about free trade.
Mulroney unleashed his partisan tongue, berating the Liberals, arguing that they were spreading “deception, distortion and deceit.” Ministers joined the fray: Tory headquarters wrote a speech that Finance Minister Michael Wilson delivered to an Ottawa luncheon, attacking Liberal “lies.” The business community blanketed Canada with pro-free-trade ads; the Tories distributed five million copies of a pro-free-trade tabloid. Finally, on Nov. 4, two new Tory television commercials aired, questioning Turner’s competence and his team’s strength. In an unusual move, the Tories even bought afternoon TV time during the soaps and children’s programming. Said Gregg: “We bought The Young and the Restless. We were in Romper Room.”
The strategy slowly began to work. On Nov. 2, 50 per cent of Canadians surveyed by Decima believed in Turner’s sincerity. By Nov. 12, that number had dwindled to 27 per cent. Meanwhile, on Nov. 2, the Conservatives stopped their slide in their polls. On Nov. 10,
they regained a statistically significant lead.
By contrast, the NDP was sinking fast. Although free trade had become the issue after the televised debates, Broadbent stuck to his own agenda, calling for increased pensions for the elderly and a minimum corporate tax. At an emergency meeting on Nov. 1, strategists agreed to attack free trade as a corporate ploy—and to dismiss both Mulroney and Turner as corporate apologists. Although that material reached the Broadbent plane on Nov. 2, that approach was not used until Nov. 7. Meanwhile, the NDP brain trust decided to concentrate upon Turner. More crucial days passed before Broadbent followed those direc-
tions. Said former national secretary Gerald Caplan: “By then, the Liberals had positioned themselves as progressives. By the time Broadbent started to attack Turner, it was already too late.”
Then more bad luck dogged the NDP. On Nov. 4, seven NDP candidates in Quebec issued a controversial constitutional policy statement implying that only Quebec would be allowed to use the so-called notwithstanding clause to override the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect French language and culture. The effect was to give special powers to Quebec that were denied to other provinces. In the ensuing controversy, Broadbent was forced to concede that there were “differences, nuances” between his position and the candidates’ position. Last week, two senior NDP strategists told Maclean’s that Nakitsas reviewed the candidates’ statement before they released it. Nakitsas countered that he had merely spoken to the candidates
about the party’s general policy.
Whatever happened, members of the NDP strategy committee were badly rattled. At a tempestuous strategy meeting on Nov. 6, they decided that Broadbent would visit Quebec only in controlled circumstances. NDP deputy campaign director Robin Sears and Nakitsas apparently paid scant attention to that decision: on Nov. 10, Broadbent went back to Quebec City—and encountered trouble again. He told reporters that as “an outsider” he could not decide whether Quebec’s controversial French-only language legislation was necessary—although he had criticized the government of Saskatchewan for failure to expand French-language services.
As well, at the Nov. 6 meeting, strategists clashed over how they should deploy the leader. Events manager Robert Mingay and executive assistant Anne Carroll wanted to send him to more nonpartisan events such as talk shows and high schools. They argued that Broadbent’s fire and passion were lost in comfortable surroundings. Sears, federal secretary William Knight and media coordinator Julie Mason wanted to restrict Broadbent to appearances before partisan audiences. Otherwise, they argued, the risk of trouble was too great. Those favoring partisan events won.
NOV. 11 TO NOV. 21
In the final 10 days, the fullscale Conservative attack began to work: nightly polling indicated that majority government was again within reach. On Nov. 11, the Tories’ sampling showed them to be five points ahead of the Liberals. On each successive night, they were eight to 13 points ahead. During the week prior to the election, those surveyed selected Mulroney over Turner as the most honest and trustworthy politician by 12 percentage points. Gregg coolly predicted 170 to 180 seats.
With victory on the horizon, the Conservatives moved away from free trade onto the theme of continued economic prosperity. Mulroney cooled his rhetoric, toning down his attacks upon Turner. With devastating effectiveness, he began to charge that the Liberals’ 40-point program would add $300 to each taxpayer’s annual bill. As operations director Near recalled: “We had the agenda back. People were questioning John Turner and his motives; they were looking at him and Mulroney and their competence, and there was no contest. Once the Liberals lost the free trade issue, they had nothing else left.” The Liberals were dismally aware of that fact. As pollster Goldfarb explained, “They degraded Turner in their ads, with their speeches, with their spokespeople—to the point that people would not trust him.”
In retrospect, the Liberals are furious about the massive, expensive intervention of the business community. As well, the Conservatives themselves spent $2 million on ads during the last campaign week. Although the Liberals had a $3-million campaign budget for ads—and they actually reduced their debt during the campaign because of increased donations— they could not compete. Said chief financial officer Michael Robinson: “When we went back to see what was there, the good spots were already taken.” Still, they wonder if they could have fought back more effectively. If only they had run more negative ads against Mulroney. If only they had convinced voters that nothing would go wrong if free trade were cancelled. Said Goldfarb: “That question was gnawing at people: maybe their jobs were at
stake; maybe the economy would come down.” If only they had communicated their 40-point program. Added Goldfarb: “We had to demonstrate that we were more than a one-issue party. As soon as we made this a referendum [on free trade], we lost the ability to tell the population that we could run the country.” The Liberals could read the writing in the polls. Although opposition to free trade reached 60 per cent after the debates, that number rapidly changed: a slim majority actually favored free trade during the week before the election. As well, the Liberals made few inroads among francophones in Quebec with their 75 seats, partly because Mulroney appealed to nationalist sentiment and partly because Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa sup-
ported free trade. On Nov. 17, Bourassa told his transport minister, Marc-Yvan Côté, that he could not appear on the stage at a Turner rally in Quebec City because the Liberal leader was planning to deliver an anti-free-trade speech. In the second-last campaign week, the Tories knew that they would likely win at least 50 Quebec seats.
Then, in a final blow during the last week, the Liberals’ crucial lead in Ontario disappeared. In desperation, the strategy committee members begged Turner to call Chrétien: Turner did not have to ask for Chrétien’s help, they said, he merely had to thank him for his previous campaign appearances and Chrétien would volunteer further aid. Turner refused. On election day, the Liberals received 39 per cent of the Ontario vote—and 43 seats. Ac-
cording to Goldfarb, an additional one per cent of the popular vote would have brought 25 more seats.
Meanwhile, the NDP was floundering, desperately searching for new strategies and catchy slogans. During the second week of November, they had decided to fly to New York City and appear on Wall Street and then back to Toronto for a Bay Street news conference, to make their point that greedy businessmen were behind the free trade deal. They even decided to say that they were shooting a commercial so that the trip would not look like a gimmick. But the logistics of the trip proved to be insurmountable.
In the interval, their support was eroding. Strategists ordered more television screenings
of an NDP ad that showed a young nurse, actually an actress, worrying that free trade would destroy medicare. Within days, Ontario provincial secretary Harling in Toronto called Ottawa headquarters to complain: “I told them that it was a great ad: it was telling everyone that they had to vote Liberal.” In the last 10 days, Broadbent’s feuding strategists concentrated on their areas of strength: the tour swung through Vancouver, Regina, Winnipeg, Northern Ontario and Toronto, where organizations devoted their energy to traditional large rallies. It was, said a strategist, “the campaign of a people lost in dreams.”
On election night, Mulroney watched the initial returns alone on the second floor of the white
stucco guesthouse of the Manoir Hotel in BaieComeau. When aides John Tory and Marc Lortie arrived to congratulate him, he told them that he was suddenly struck by a sense of history. The last Conservative Prime Minister to receive back-to-back majority governments was Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891. Said Mulroney: “Sir John A. would be very proud: what he did last century, I was able to repeat.” After the roller-coaster campaign of 1988, with its heady highs and its dangerous lows, it was perhaps a justifiable comparison.
MARY JANIGAN and HILARY MACKENZIE
LISA VAN DUSEN