Gerald Butts on the final days of the campaign: ’It’s basically over’

Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary talks to Shannon Proudfoot about the debate, why the election is all but over, and the ground game that will consume the final days
Trudeau, Singh, and O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 9, 2021 (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left to right, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Two weeks into the federal election campaign, Maclean’s spoke to Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a key architect of the 2015 and 2019 Liberal campaigns, about how he thought the the campaign had unfolded so far. We expected that to be a one-off conversation, but the interview was extremely well-read and Butts’s insider-now-on-the-outside insights seemed useful, so here we are again—this time talking about debate preparation, reviewing the leaders’ performances and how this campaign is basically over already, except for the ground game.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the preparation process for for a leaders debate? It seems so enormously high-stakes and like the kind of thing where once it gets started, no one can help their candidate.

A: It depends, sometimes the formula allows for that. The first federal debate I was ever involved in the preparation for was the Maclean’s debate in 2015, and that did have intermission, and I remember that very vividly. Each leader was allowed to talk to one person in that intermission and I spoke to the then-leader of the third party, Justin Trudeau, and said, “You’re doing great, keep doing what you’re doing.” You say it’s nerve-wracking for the people who’ve prepared the person for the debate, imagine being the person in the debate without any real sense of how people are reacting to what’s going on.

Q: I meant nerve-racking for everyone. It’s quite a thing for us all to armchair-quarterback this, but it’s a little bit horrifying. I wouldn’t do it.

A: It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. It’s, as you say, very high-stakes to hang such important consequences on. Everybody prepares in their own way, my view is that the best way to prepare is to figure out what you want to say and then fit what you want to say to the format. Like most strategies, the successful ones are simple and you get lost when you try to do too much or too little.

READ: Justin Trudeau still can’t answer why he called this election. A depleted nation despairs.

Q: Onto asking about specific performances: How did you think Justin Trudeau did?

A: The first thing I would say is that prime ministers seldom win debates; they normally survive debates or not. And that’s true of all incumbents, I think of all the debates I’ve closely observed over the course of my life in and out of politics, the only one that I saw the incumbent clearly win would have been Mike Harris in 1999. Most others, the incumbent walks away from it ether still standing or is beaten up really badly. We won’t know for sure what people thought until the polls come out on Tuesday or Wednesday—and I think this campaign [was] basically over on Sunday or Monday—but I thought he acquitted himself as well as he could under the circumstances.

Q: He seemed hot-tempered to me, a sort of turned-up energy that wasn’t helping him. The last week or so I’ve observed greater energy in both him and the campaign around him, we’ve seen the sliding polls bottom out, but I thought he looked a bit hot under the collar or scrabbly last night. What’s your read?

A: I think he was very hot, and I think the format frustrated him on several fronts, in particular on issues where he thought he had a point to make where he couldn’t get his point across because he was cut off by either the moderator or one of the other leaders. So yeah, I would agree with your assessment on that. As for why, I’m not really sure. He did really well, I thought, in both French debates, and that is sort of a function of format, that he was given more of an opportunity to express himself.

Q: So to go back to your dichotomy about current prime ministers, do you think he got beaten up really badly or survived to walk away?

A: My own assessment would be he survived it, and I think he got some good points in on climate change. I thought he was the only person who really told the truth about things on climate change, obviously people can read my own biases in on that. There were a bunch of things said, in particular by Jagmeet Singh and Erin O’Toole, that just aren’t true, and this is the problem when you’re in a situation where you only have 15 seconds to respond—if you spend those 15 seconds telling the audience why what the person just said isn’t true, then you run out of time really quickly and you never get an opportunity to get your own positive point across.

Q: How did you think Erin O’Toole performed?

A: I thought he did a good job of depicting himself as a kind of spokesperson for a middle-of-the-road version of conservatism. Now, people are going to have to judge whether that trues up with the platform they’re running on and the history of the party, but he had a pretty clear job to do there, which is to make people believe he’s not one of the crazies that’s throwing rocks at the Prime Minister. That’s—as is always the case with opposition leaders in debates—a lower bar to cross.

Maybe the best way of putting this is I don’t think the debate had a clear winner.

READ: Federal leaders debate: Could it be Prime Minister Erin O’Toole?

Q: I want to go back to your idea of this campaign being over by now, can you walk that out for me?

A: My view was that something had to happen to arrest Conservative momentum, which had built up over the course of the first few weeks, and it’s pretty clear from the public opinion research that that has happened.The last aggregation I saw is that we’re still in a tie game, and by tie game, I mean the difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives is within the margin of error for every poll I’ve seen, and that means the focus of the campaigns is going to quickly turn to turnout.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of campaigns: there are motivation campaigns and there are persuasion campaigns. Persuasion campaigns are where there’s a large body of undecided people that you need to talk into voting for you who could vote for someone else. And motivation campaigns are ones where most people have already decided how they are going to vote and you can’t really change their minds, but you need to get them to the polls. I think we are very clearly, as we were in 2019, in a motivation campaign.

So the big question over the next week is whose voters are more motivated. This is the really hard, grind-it-out—I used a hockey analogy last time, this time I’ll use a football analogy…

Q: I think you used seven sports analogies last time, but carry on.

A: Well, I haven’t used any yet! But it’s kind of the running game of politics: how do you block and tackle, move the ball three yards every time you snap it? And that’s what people mean when they talk about the ground game in politics, who has the best system to identify all of their probable voters and get them to the polls this week. That’s what this election is going to come down to.

Q: But to circle back to something else we talked about last time, the idea that this was not a great moment to do this and the electorate is depleted and distracted, does that fundamentally change a motivation election? When we’re all worried about schools closing and people staying healthy and jobs, that seems like a tall order when voting rates are not terrific in this country to begin with.

A: They have been better in the last two elections, right? But I do think you’re putting your finger on something really important. My assessment of things is people didn’t want this election. And as I said last time, I think the governing party was surprised by both the depth of that feeling and its persistence over the course of the campaign. But this is Canada, and being Canadians, I think we begrudgingly decided to do our civic duty and tuned in after Labour Day. We [paid] attention probably through [last] weekend, [but] then our opinions locked in and we’ll tune this whole thing back out. The rest will be about IDing and motivating voters.

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Q: We’ve kicked around in our office the importance of when people get together with other people and talk, and we’re able to do that more now than we have in a long time. Paul Wells was talking about the Martin election over Christmas when they thought no one would pay attention, but it turned out that people got together over turkey, talked and things set in.

A: I’m a huge believer in that theory. I’ve been involved in five elections at a high level and all of them were in October, and Thanksgiving was at a critical time period in all of them. We would organize the narrative of the campaign to come to a crescendo around Thanksgiving so that we could put our best foot forward while people were getting together to talk about what they were going to do.

Q: When you mentioned the Conservatives and the idea that something was going to happen to halt the momentum, did something happen or do you think they just reached a natural ceiling? What do you make of that halted momentum?

A: It’s hard to know without getting a look at nightly polling data, but it seemed to me—and correlation is not causality—that it was the weekend when the protests got really aggressive in Ontario. And the positive side of that is that the Prime Minister and the Liberal tour were present in Ontario, and of course when Ontario moves, the whole country moves because of math. So I think that if there were a sub-national, regional slide in the Liberal numbers in Ontario, it definitely stopped last weekend. And that would have been reflected in the overall national numbers. Whether that’s directly related to the protests, I don’t know, whether it’s directly related to the advertising the Liberals put out and took a sharper turn on O’Toole, that could be part it as well. But I think it’s probably more likely related to the dynamic we were just talking about, which is it’s Labour Day weekend, people are getting together, they’re talking about it: “I’m really pissed off this election is happening, but do I really want to change the government?”

I think if you were to summarize this election in one sentence, it would be that: I’m really annoyed we’re having this election, but do I want to change the government because I’m annoyed we’re having an election?

Q: After we talked last time, I thought, ‘Is this like when the Trump whisperers would go on the Sunday morning shows and try to talk to him?’ Am I your Ouija board? And if I am, am I your Ouija board to talk to Trudeau and company, or to the electorate?

A: It is what I said it was last time: you asked me what I thought was going on in the campaign, and I thought if you were asking me, you thought that I had something valuable to contribute. But to answer what I think is your question, which is a version of the question you asked me last time, I’m not indirectly giving advice to anybody, and if I wanted to directly give advice to people, I would. I enjoyed my time in partisan politics. I’m very happy it’s over, but I still find it endlessly fascinating and hope that my views on it and experience in it are helpful to people in trying to understand what’s going on with the nine-tenths of the iceberg that are below the water.

Q: Got it. So if this thing is basically over by now, what’s your prediction now?

A: I’m going to stick with my prediction, which has been my prediction from the beginning. I think that we’re still within five seats on either side of the status quo ante and the only thing that’s really going to change that is whether one team has a more motivated group of workers who are going to generate a higher vote. I remember very clearly the 2015 campaign where our volunteers on the ground won the election, and we had a very good campaign, but as usual, the people at the top of it get all the credit when most of the credit goes to the people who knocked on doors and got their neighbours to support their preferred candidate. So to me, that’s the thing to watch. And it’s also the thing that all teams are going to spin aggressively over the next week. “Our base has never been more motivated,” you’re going to hear that from all the parties.

But the proof of that pudding will be in the eating, and the eating will be on election day.