At the Westin Hotel in Ottawa on Sunday, twentysomething Torontonian Jason was standing at the top of an escalator, thumping together “Justin Trudeau” thundersticks as part of a glee squad for the Liberal leadership event. He’d been at home in Toronto until 8 p.m. the night before, working the phones to get people to vote for Trudeau, then hopped a midnight Greyhound bus to be here to see the results of his work.
During a break in Jason’s chanting—“Just-in Time! Just-in Time!”—I asked him what it was about Trudeau that excited him. “I’ve heard him speak in person; he has a positive vision for Canada, better than the current one,” he said, along with mentioning Trudeau’s ability to get youth excited and his positivity. But, I asked, what exactly is it about Justin that makes people believe he can accomplish those relatively common political goals? “It’s hard to put your finger on. But when you see him in person….”
Kelsey Johnson, a student from Hamilton who was handing out Trudeau buttons, had a similar reply: “He’s just so passionate about what he does,” she said. “He believes everything he says and we stand behind him 100 per cent.” Ryan Barber, a 32-year-old teacher from Ontario cottage country said he’s never seen a phenomenon like Justin’s “natural charisma” in his 10 years working for the party. “He gets you excited, he makes people believe. When Justin walks into the room, it’s almost electric.”
Justin’s father, long-serving prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had a motto: “Reason over passion.” But as his son rises to lead the Liberal party, the calculation seems to be that passion will provide its own reasons. For example, despite what observers fairly call a thin political resumé, during the leadership race, the younger Trudeau recruited more than 100,000 supporters, drew more than $1 million in donations from more than 7,000 donors, mobilized 12,000 volunteers, and crushed his opponents by winning 80 per cent support on the first ballot. In politics, a campaign like that becomes a big resumé line in itself.
We all have our guesses at the reasons for his success: nostalgia for his father, the familiarity of having watched him grow up, his relative youth, his hair. But there is no arguing that the success is there. Polls show that 75 per cent of Canadian voters find Justin “likable.” And for all the questions about substance that have trailed his campaign, this is one of the most significant facts about him: Voters like the guy, and many of them identify with him.
That is, in fact, among the most valuable qualities a candidate can have—it provides a lens through which voters process all the substantial policy stuff. There’s a long line of politicians—Jack Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Jack Layton, Barack Obama—for whom success stemmed from a personal connection with voters. The impressiveness of their policy proposals, varied as it may have been, was secondary to the belief and passion voters had for them as people.
You can see it here in Toronto, where 30 per cent of voters appear immovably attached to Rob Ford, no matter what scandal or policy proposal may be up for debate. Those voters decided at some point that they identified with him personally, faults and all—that he was their kind of guy. Every bit of factual debate and reasoned policy analysis is secondary to that connection. And any attack on Ford filters down on a personal level as an attack on the voters’ character judgment.
Those of us who argue about politics a lot care fundamentally about facts, analysis, reason, and logic. They are the things that will determine how policies work, or don’t, in the real world—and Justin Trudeau talks the same game with his oft-repeated devotion to “evidence based policy.” But his success so far points to another fundamental fact of politics: Without the elusive something that makes voters fall in love with a candidate, there is often no way to implement the policies. It’s a great quality to have in a candidate, and a frustrating one to face in an opponent. Those who want to beat Justin in 2015, or those closer to home looking to unseat Rob Ford in 2014, shouldn’t underestimate the substantial impact of that seemingly insubstantial trait.