The Grits have been on an inexorable downhill slide for nearly a decade. After winning three consecutive majority governments, in 2004 they dropped to minority status; in 2006 they lost to the Tories and became the official Opposition; and in 2011 they assumed a third-party role with a mere 34 seats. In an unprecedented recruitment process, the Liberals have opened the voting to any Canadian who doesn’t already belong to another party. While nine candidates have entered the race, including Marc Garneau, Justin’s main challenger, the young politician’s notoriety accords him a substantial advantage. Garneau, celebrated as the first Canadian in space, can’t match Justin’s fame-or his legions of online followers. Garneau’s Facebook page has roughly 3,500 followers; Justin’s has 65,000. And that’s just the official page. There are dozens more, including Nova Scotians for Justin Trudeau, Immigrants for Justin Trudeau, and Canada Loves Justin Trudeau. Justin’s team haven’t been directing any of this activity, but they embrace it as a harbinger of the grassroots social networking that might carry their candidate into the prime minister’s office.
Right now, it’s about ground game. Each of the country’s 308 constituencies has an equal say in the final tally, which gives the candidates incentive to travel-something Justin can easily afford. The campaign’s expense cap is $950,000, and by the start of the new year Justin had raised over $670,000-nearly $200,000 more than his eight rivals combined. By the end of January, he’d already toured more than 100 ridings, and his organizers plan to visit 100 more before voting day. Key Liberals have voiced their support, including MPs Dominic LeBlanc and Ralph Goodale. But if Justin’s campaign leaders have a list of backers-and, of course, they do-they aren’t saying. Publicly, the focus is on wooing former Liberal voters and winning new ones, not on endorsements.
“Our strategy is simple,” says Gerald Butts, a former aide for Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and Justin’s close friend and principal adviser. “The more people meet Justin, the more they’ll support him.” Team Trudeau have bet everything on their man’s charisma. If you’re a skeptic, they’re utterly certain seeing him in person will make you a believer. This ploy of promoting style over substance is reflected in Justin’s statements, which forgo pointed policy debates in favour of big-picture thinking and broad talk of shared principles. It’s what front-runners do: stay out of trouble. But it’s also the chief advantage celebrity politicians enjoy-they rarely have to make a hard sell. Truth is, it’s not Justin’s platform that fills the rooms.
In northern Ontario he speaks to crowds of up to 300 people. The walls are adorned with posters of his face, standard campaign bumph. Usually, when events like these are over, organizers carefully remove the posters and recycle them for later use. But not for Justin: after he speaks, people tear down the signs and bring them to be autographed. (Staff now carry black Sharpies to engagements.) Those who don’t reach the walls in time queue up to have a picture taken. I watch one woman ask him to sign a birthday card for her mother. What truly marks Justin’s popularity, however, isn’t the awe he inspires, but everyone’s ease around him: they address him as they would an older brother or eldest son.
“All my life people have come to me with some level of expectation because they feel they know me,” Justin says. This campaign is his listening tour. “I let others dictate what they want to talk about. It’s as much about learning how Canadians are thinking, what their worries are.” Justin makes few overt appeals for votes and doesn’t nudge people toward his own ideas. “The conversation is my job,” he says. More likely, the conversation is a front for his real job: to become a blank slate onto which Canadians can project their hopes and dreams. Who is Justin? Whatever you need him to be. The anti-Harper, the change candidate, the pol who’ll bring a new vibe to Ottawa.
For now, it’s working. Polls consistently show Justin is the candidate who most improves Liberal prospects in every region of the country. Anyone who lived in Quebec in the 1990s, a time when Justin’s father was widely reviled, will find these polls hard to believe. But a recent survey showed that a Justin-led Liberal party would increase its share of the vote in his home province by 11 per cent, placing it in a dead heat with the NDP and a shade ahead of the Bloc Québécois.
Podcast: Philip Preville discusses his profile of Justin Trudeau (right-click here to download)
Watching all this attention get paid to someone who’s basically a cipher drives his opponents around the bend. “There’s a distaste for him that’s more intense than for others,” says Jason Lietaer, a Conservative strategist who ran the party’s war room for the 2011 campaign that netted them a majority government. Justin is perceived by his foes as untested, coasting on his name and pretty face-essentially, a political dilettante with a glass jaw.
They have a point: none of the fawning he receives has anything to do with his political achievements, because he doesn’t really have any. He’s been elected twice, a feat matched by dozens upon dozens of nonentities in Canadian politics, from Belinda Stronach back through time. Yet we have no precedent for the long game Justin’s now playing: to turn gawkers into followers, to convert his accumulated celebrity capital-bequeathed by the circumstances of his birth-into political capital. If he pulls it off, it will be the largest such currency exchange since Arnold Schwarzenegger became California governor. Can he do it? “People are fascinated by him,” says Ian Capstick, who served as press secretary for former NDP leader Jack Layton. “That doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him.”