With the federal election less than just a month away, the Liberal Party and its Leader are still in the tail-end of damage control mode as they deal with the fallout from multiple photos of Trudeau in both, brownface and blackface. For any campaign, trying to change the channel to move the election back to a discussion of policy and priorities is the single most difficult task when faced with a crisis.
While it remains unclear the impact these images will have on the longer-term polling, voter intention or outcome of the election–a crisis like this is a destabilizing event for any campaign. Its impact on morale, efficacy and strategy is enormous. Its effect, especially on the war room, is debilitating.
It looks like the eye of the “blackface scandal” storm has passed and the Liberals are back on a disciplined message track about affordability, accessibility and gun control. However, with a relentless media cycle and the high degree of public scrutiny — there remains a risk that another shoe may potentially drop. The reason for saying that is simple: everyone is looking for the next big thing, the next big story. It may not be another instance of “blackface” – but any additional damage to the Liberal leader’s brand promise might make changing the channel more difficult the second time around.
The term war room has become commonplace in modern-day political campaigns around the world, but the term was coined by a U.S. political strategist named James Carville, who worked on President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in the early 1990s. Since then, the term has been used to describe the central command station of a campaign where strategists work around the clock to counter attacks and mount a sustained and aggressive offensive to destabilize and delegitimize an opponent. The public knows very little of what happens in the “room” – that is by design.
The physical space looks much the same across party lines. It’s a small space chock-full of computers, TV screens displaying the various news channels across the country and a tremendous number of caffeinated beverages to fuel the operation daily– which runs from about 5 a.m. to midnight. It’s hot, it smells as good as the people that occupy it and it runs on adrenaline.
The war room is staffed by about 15-20 people who all hold the common skill set of speed, accuracy and a deep knowledge of the political party’s positions on almost every issue that may arise. They are researchers, writers and crisis managers. They are the point of coordination for the campaign’s rapid response and daily offensive efforts. They operate with intensity and speed and are laser focused on protecting the campaign from incoming fire, while being able to shoot at the same time.
These are not the individuals who plan the leaders’ tour, script the policy announcements or ensure that local campaigns remain on track to bring voters to the ballot box on election day. Those teams are different and operate separately, but they depend on the war room to manage the issues they may face throughout the campaign.
When a bombshell event like the one we saw last week occurs and to be clear we haven’t seen an event like this one in Canadian election history, the destabilizing effect on the collective campaign is massive. The first 48 to 72 hours are critical to ensure that when the credibility and the integrity of the leader is under attack, an appropriate response is planned and properly executed. It seems thus far; the Prime Minister has weathered that storm effectively.
The war room, however, in this case is in abeyance. It ceases to operate. Their strategy of digging up the objectionable online musings of opposing candidates and feeding it to the merciless media cycle is inhibited. They are no longer in the position to play offence. This becomes particularly problematic in the current election because no party has been able to define the “ballot question” or demonstrate why voters should choose them – in the least, there has been no party that has generated consensus of a “ballot question” or has been able to galvanize voters in a meaningful way.
Last week the campaign was certainly disrupted. The campaign’s leadership and the leader himself were all-consumed with deciding on the right course forward and on the right tone when it came to the important apology he offered Canadians.
It remains to be seen what effect Trudeau’s blackface and brownface transgressions has on campaign operations, but there is no question that inside the war room – the scramble to weather this storm successfully might be the best political comeback story in Canadian history or the most interesting story of a Prime Minister’s expiry. It’s all still a TBC.
So far this week (starting on the weekend): the campaign trail discussion has shifted back to the substantive policy priorities of each party after a fallout from Trudeau’s blackface scandal and it looks like today, the campaign will go on with a few bruises and mildly re-jigged less offense-driven strategy for the Liberal war room.