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Can Tories Turn Youth Against Trudeau?

11/11/2013 12:19 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Here's an anecdote. A couple weeks ago I was having coffee with Ilona Dougherty, my frequent co-panelist on CTV's Political Express and former head of Apathy is Boring, an energetic Canadian activist group devoted to driving up youth participation in politics.

I asked Ilona to tell me biggest myth about getting young people engaged in the democratic process. "Social media," she replied matter-of-factly. There's very little evidence, she said, that vibrant social media campaigns -- such as the one Justin Trudeau is endlessly praised for running -- actually motivate young people to vote.

The less-glamorous reality is that ol'-fashioned peer pressure and quests for social acceptance exert far greater influence. As in, a young person's desire to fit in with his or her friends will usually dictate his degree of political engagement and determine his ideological opinions, be they conservative, progressive, activist, or non-existent.

Here's another anecdote. Listening to a cool Vancouver rock station for cool young people the other day, I heard the Conservative party's latest anti-Justin attack ad. "He has zero plans to create jobs," said their trademark narrator with his trademark incredulity. "Zero economic experience. Zero experience running, well, anything!" The voice said that last part with a bit of a scoff, as if choking on bemused outrage. It is interesting that the Tories -- by any measure the old people party -- are running this commercial on a station for cool young people, I thought.

Here's a third anecdote. On Thursday my Facebook wall was teeming with ire over Justin Trudeau's now-infamous "Ladies Night" e-vite. In case you somehow missed it, the crux of the controversy was a crudely Photoshopped JPG featuring several glamshots of J-Tru's pretty mug and a plea for the Liberal Party's female supporters -- pardon me, "ladies" -- to join Justin for "cocktails" on the night of November 7, chat about "issues facing women," and "really get to know the future prime minister."

This, agreed my Facebook pals -- left, right and centre -- was incredibly sexist and patronizing. As far as that week's anti-feminist micro-aggressions went, in fact, only Mr. Lululemon inspired more hate. It now appears a lot of these outrage flames were being actively fanned by Conservative Minister Michelle Rempel, who was all over TV taking exaggerated offense in the e-vite's aftermath, and doing her best to popularize the catch-phrase/hashtag "#allissuesarewomensissues."

My point in recounting this trio of anecdotes is to illustrate the degree to which the Conservative party is playing chess while the Libs are still trying to get the Mystery Date box open.

Justin Trudeau has been out-polling the Prime Minister for a while now, and all things being equal, the numbers suggest his party will win the next election. In response, the Tory counterattack has been ingenious. Push the virtues of the Conservative brand, sure. Whip up the Conservative base? Certainly. But at the same time, don't forget to kneecap the Grits by building a stigma around Trudeau within the very demographic whose votes he takes most for granted -- young progressives.

It's a textbook strategy of what campaign people call "vote suppression." Not in the "let's-get-robocalls-to-send-voters-to-empty-parking-lots" sense, but rather in that "suppression" is simply the opposite of "expression." Make Canadians -- especially young, left-wing Canadians -- uncomfortable expressing love for Justin, and the chances they'll stay home in 2015, or split the opposition by casting a ballot for the NDP, rise dramatically. And so do the odds of a fourth term for Steve.

It's basically reverse-engineered Obama. The current president, we may recall, was tremendously popular with young progressives back in '08 because he was widely perceived as the cool candidate. He was the first politician the cynical millennial generation felt proud to back openly and loudly, with non-ironic posters and backpack buttons and sign-up tables and all the rest of it. The enthusiasm got so extreme, by the time Obama actually won The Onion was cracking jokes about how the victory had caused his hipster base "to realize how empty their lives are."

Why Obama was such a hit with left-wing youth is hard to attribute to any one thing. The fact that the candidate was young and progressive himself, and (at the time) anti-war probably helped, and the social justice cachet of backing the first African-American president was enormous. But it was also a fact that the Republicans, led by dottering old John McCain, didn't have much to counter this appeal. They had no compelling dirt to spill or innuendo to spread, and when they tried, claims that this was somehow hateful or racist only emboldened the Obamanauts.

Justin, alas, is no Obama. Speaking as a member of the under-30 set (albeit just barely), I can attest that contrary to popular media stereotype, very few young voters actually think Justin Trudeau is cool. Kids are not plastering his boring white face in their dormrooms nor passing around YouTube clips of his cliche-laden speeches. Just the opposite, in fact. I find a lot of young lefties recoil with embarrassment and denial at any claim that this guy, this sheltered child of wealth and privilege who's so inarticulate, thoughtless, and gaffe-prone he can't even answer a question at his own sexist "Ladies Night" without provoking days of controversy, represents "their side."

It's in the Tories' best voter-suppressing interests to encourage this preexisting distaste among progressive youth for such an undeniably flawed anti-Harper as much as possible -- and that's precisely what they seem to be doing.

To be sure, these lefty 20-somethings are never going to vote Conservative, but if the social stigma around supporting Trudeau persists, and the rate of youth participation in the next election continues to hover in its traditional high 30s as a result, that'll probably suit the Tories just fine.

Trudeau Mocked With #AskJustin