Well before the federal election officially began back in July, Justin Trudeau made arguably the most important decision of this campaign.
Indeed, it was one of the four major turning points in this election. Though largely overlooked, the decision ultimately has played a huge role in lifting Trudeau to the point where polls suggest his Liberals may form a minority government when the votes are counted on Monday.
That would be a stunning outcome for Trudeau and the Liberals, who were written off in the early days of the election as distant also-rans behind the New Democrats and Conservatives.
The decision was to put Gerald Butts, his closest personal friend and top campaign adviser, on the Liberal election plane and on the road with the Liberal leader full time, with hardly a day off.
It was a bold break from traditional elections, where the campaign boss remains in the party headquarters in Ottawa, overseeing the day-to-day details and long-term strategic planning of the overall campaign and rarely travelling with the party leader.
“I thought it was the wrong move at first,” one member of Trudeau’s small inner circle of advisers says. “It could have really hurt us in terms of operational smoothness, but instead it worked.”
What Butts achieved by being constantly at Trudeau’s side was to coax the best campaign performance possible out of the Liberal leader every day.
“Trudeau had to be good every single day of this campaign if the party was to have any chance of success — and he was,” the insider said.
Each day, each campaign event, Butts briefed Trudeau beforehand, pumping him up before going on stage, calming him down when he was upset, encouraging him when the campaign seemed to be floundering and the polls were slipping.
And Trudeau, facing his first national campaign, one in which the Conservatives had painted a portrait of him through TV ads as “not ready,” needed a reassuring face with him on the election trail, which can be extremely lonely for any leader given the ups and downs of a long campaign.
Trudeau trusts Butts, who had served as principal secretary to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, deeply when it comes to the campaign. Their friendship goes back to their McGill University days. Butts helped Trudeau write the eulogy for his late father, Pierre, and he was a member of Trudeau’s wedding party.
Even some of Butts’ detractors within the party admire how he — along with a handful of key Toronto-based strategists — prepared Trudeau for the campaign. “Trudeau turned out to be a better campaigner than even we thought he could be,” another key Ontario organizer says. “His performance turned out to be our biggest asset.”
With Butts, Trudeau was ready to act at three other critical turning points in the election:
First, the initial televised leaders’ debate. “Trudeau saved the campaign that night,” the insider said. Through their TV blitz, the Tories had created an image of Trudeau as a policy lightweight, unsuited to even be on the stage with Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair.
But Trudeau performed well and started to dispel the perception that he wasn’t fit to be a leader. Butts and the debate prep team told Trudeau to think of the debate as a job interview, where the goal is to leave an impression that makes people want to hire you, or in this case vote for you.
Second, the NDP promised to deliver a balanced budget. It was in stark contrast to a promise Trudeau made to run deficits for four years in order to spend money on major infrastructure programs.
To Trudeau’s team, Mulcair had committed a major strategic error with his promise. It gave the Liberals an issue that appealed to many progressive voters who felt the NDP decision felt too much like Harper’s policy. “I don’t get it,” one Liberal insider says. “They had a foot on our throat and they took it off.”
Third, the televised foreign policy debate on Sept. 28. If there was any remaining doubt about Trudeau’s competence, it was largely dispelled when he held his own in this crucial debate. It gave Liberal supporters — and Trudeau — a real boost. By the time he walked off the stage, Harper’s mantra that Trudeau was just not ready was dead.
With one day left in the campaign, there are still many unanswered questions. Will Harper’s “fear push” work? Will the NDP collapse totally?
One key question that Trudeau has answered, though, is whether he was ready — and it all goes back to an unheralded decision he made long before this election ever started.