Justin Trudeau was the perfect millennial magnet. He promised “real change,” navigated Instagram with ease, and knew some killer party tricks. The Liberals branded Trudeau as a rebellious reformer: the fiery underdog who would reignite Ottawa and bounce the boring, stale Conservatives from office.
But by packaging Trudeau as such, the Liberals have gradually alienated the party’s youth base — and fallen into the same trap US President Barack Obama did seven years ago.
In 2015, Trudeau’s charisma made young Canadians swoon. According to Abacus Data, 45 per cent of Canadians aged 18-25 voted Liberal. In the aftermath of his victory, Trudeau’s popularity continued to climb. One month after the election, Nanos reported that over half of young voters, defined as 18- 29, preferred Trudeau as prime minister.
The selfies, smiles, and promises kept gushing, and over the next year, Trudeau’s support remained consistent and strong, peaking at 61 per cent. The prime minister even appointed himself as Minister of Youth, formalizing his relationship with young people.
But three years later, almost one-third of young voters have abandoned him. Now, only 28 per cent choose Trudeau as their prime minister of choice.
Trudeau’s downfall was inevitable. As Obama’s trajectory illustrates, any reformer with a platform anchored in hope and change can garner votes the first time around, but once they go up for re-election, the rhetoric doesn’t click. Voters are jaded and popularity slides.
Take Obama: after record-setting engagement in the 2008 election, the number of voters aged 18-29 — a solid, loyal base for the president — declined by 1.8 million in 2012. Obama’s young, energetic supporters were tired of it all.
During the campaign, university officials reported “muted atmospheres” on campus. Paul Ryan, Republican Vice-President nominee for the opposing ticket, quipped that “college graduates [were] staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can get going with life.”
Obama couldn’t stir young people like he did in 2008; his inspiration had dried up. And now, Trudeau has stumbled into the same predicament: the selfies and smiles aren’t connecting as solidly as they did four years ago.
Instead of inspiring change, the prime minister may be cultivating apathy. This ranges from issues of Indigenous rights to climate change. For instance, although Trudeau removed Canada’s “objector status” to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould asserted that the government cannot implement the declaration “word for word.” In a fitting display, two Dalhousie University students recently confronted Trudeau about this issue midway through a selfie.
Trudeau also broke his promise to reform the electoral system, maintaining the first-past-the-post system that favours big parties like the Liberals. He’s also balked on his pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies in the medium-term.
The list goes on. This summer, Trudeau ignored calls from his Youth Council to suspend the government’s buyout of Kinder Morgan. Current and former members of the council declared Trudeau’s decision an “immense disappointment,” and urged the prime minister to reconsider.
The Office of the Prime Minister responded — with more than a splash of condescension — by stating that “it is heartening to see young Canadians engage on political issues that affect them and become involved in the democratic process.” When this cheap, preloaded duckspeak acts as the default response, Trudeau’s fall from grace starts to make a lot more sense.
The literature on voting behaviour could have predicted the declines of both Trudeau and Obama. Dr. Heather Bastedo, president of Public Square Research, writes that “older voters are moved by the capacity of leaders to represent their interests, whereas younger voters care about what those same leaders symbolize or stand for.”
For young people, values matter more. Big fiscal decisions concerning taxes, health care, or child benefits don’t matter as much. As such, young voters tend to prioritize post-material values and flock to progressive, inspiring leaders.
In Why Youth Vote: Identity, Inspirational Leaders and Independence, Dr. Bobbi Gentry writes that candidates like Obama and Trudeau are “more likely to turn out youth voters based on the characteristic of inspiration.” Gentry goes on to say that “by offering hope, creating new politics, and acting against the status quo, an inspirational candidate [can] create higher turnout among 18- to 24- year-olds.”
This was the case with Trudeau’s initial bid: 58 per cent of newly-eligible voters came out to vote in 2015, an increase of 17.7 points over 2011. It’s no wonder: certain buzzwords and messages, like “feelings of hope, and promises of change” tend to resonate with these sorts of young voters. The Liberal Party’s platform was aptly entitled “real change,” and as Obama himself said of Trudeau during a joint press conference, Trudeau “campaigned on a platform of hope and of change.”
Obama’s assessment was on-brand four years ago and dovetailed with Trudeau’s image. However, Trudeau is now inside the tent: weathered by the demands of incumbency, and the day-to-day drudgery of actually running the country, most of Trudeau’s appeal has been snuffed out. Over two-thirds of young voters would agree. Trudeau has to reorient himself, ditch the hollow rhetoric, and start fulfilling promises if he wants to lure back his base.
The next federal election will occur in 2019, this year. Millennials constitute the biggest chunk of eligible voters, numbering 9.5 million countrywide, and withering interest among young voters could jeopardize Trudeau’s run for another term. It’s up to the Liberals to acknowledge and correct this before Trudeau begins to symbolize the very opposite of what he stood for in 2015.
Ted Fraser is a third-year International Relations student at Victoria College.