TORONTO — The sight of buttoned-down political leaders in the stands cheering on the country's hottest sports team should come as no election-season surprise, observers say.
That's because showing up to watch the division-leading Blue Jays — the country's only major-league baseball franchise — offers a way to hit a political home run with little risk of striking out.
"It's a classic bandwagon effect," said Bill Walker, a Toronto-based PR consultant.
"Most Canadians are on this bandwagon and it's not even a regional thing: It's not where other people in Canada would say: 'Why is my prime minister going to Toronto, the centre of the universe, to a baseball game'?"
With family members in tow, both New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair and his Conservative counterpart Stephen Harper have recently been seen in the stands watching the Jays — whose hard-charging August registered as one of the best months ever for a baseball team.
Their campaigns have been quick to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to showcase their guys.
While the New Democrats say Mulcair was simply taking some time out from a busy campaign to hang with his sons, aides made sure to snap flattering photographs of their leader wearing a Jays jacket and posing for selfies with fans — images distributed via social media.
Similarly, Harper was seen watching the game intently, jumping to his feet at various plays, alongside his wife, son and daughter — she wearing a blue cap with a Conservative logo. The Tory campaign — whose colours are similar to those of the Jays — has made liberal use of those images on social media.
"The prime minister is a huge sports fan. Hockey is a passion, but he also attends CFL games when he can and is certainly hoping the Jays' season extends well into October," a campaign spokesman said Wednesday. "Unlike Mulcair, he stayed for the whole game."
An Aug. 31 video post of Harper with former Jays player Roberto Alomar on Facebook got 144,600 views, but only 2,150 likes. It also prompted some snide comments:
"Great — the baseball player who literally spat in the face of an umpire and the PM who is figuratively spitting in the faces of Canadians by not allowing them to ask questions at press conferences," Alberta teacher Heather Rose Marie commented.
To date, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has yet to show up at a game, but he has tweeted about the Blue Jays.
"Mr. Trudeau is looking forward to cheering on the Jays soon," Liberal campaign spokesman Dan Lauzon said.
Many people have yet to fully engage with the hefty policy issues sparked by the lengthy campaign for the Oct. 19 vote, so heading down to the ol' ball game is a way to connect with ordinary folk and slide beyond the political debates that many might consider too inside baseball.
"It's trying to be relatable," Walker said. "It's a way to make a connection with them. It's the Everyman thing."
That common touch is something former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, who frequently showed up at sports events, had in spades. And one-time Ontario premier Mike Harris swept to office in 1995, with many voters opining that he was the political guy with whom they would most enjoy going for a beer. Politicians who fail that test often have difficulty getting to first base with the electorate.
One risk going the sports route was seen when a Harper photo tweet from a Raptors basketball game in March misidentified Canadian basketball star Anthony Bennett as American Kyle Lowry. The mistake prompted typical social-media ribbing — as did the fact that the Jays actually lost both times the leaders were watching.
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