Campaigning crowds can sometimes be fake news.
Organizers can fake the frenzy by booking a room they know is too small and filling it so full that it gives the impression of a frenzied crush of support.
Or you can choose a geographic location where your candidate’s support is greatest to present a disproportionate audience as a typical rally.
But Pierre Poilievre’s crowd crowd phenomenon has left me speechless, especially after Tuesday night.
Keep in mind that Toronto is the political home of 25 Liberal MPs out of the 25 available seats. This particular location is in a drive where the Conservatives finished third in 2021 with just 12 percent of the vote ahead of a Liberal with four times as many votes.
In what could have been a regular show by conservative candidates at a bingo hall south of Calgary, the frontrunner drew about 1,000 Torontonians to a brewery in the shadow of the CN Tower.
That suggests the majority of attendees had a long, high-traffic journey from the suburbs, where at least the conservative brand has a heartbeat, on a chilly, windy night when staying home was a very tempting alternative.
Pierre Poilievre at an event in downtown Toronto on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. (Source: @PierrePoilievre/Twitter)
So what’s the cheerleading attraction?
Poilievre is a face that nine Canadians out of ten still couldn’t choose from a two-person lineup.
He is my Member of Parliament and appears at church basement dinners, community fairs and memorial services with an understated nod of recognition from the locals.
Yet he steps into a hall that seats 700, with a few hundred more in the adjoining landing space, a crowd that one Conservative reluctantly told me even Stephen Harper couldn’t have attracted when he served as Prime Minister, and Poilievre is a rock in the surf star that sits on liberal foundations.
For what it’s worth, apologies to Buffalo Springfield, there’s something going on here, but it’s not exactly clear what it is.
The Steam Whistle Brewing Company location owner clearly doesn’t know what to think. They distributed a letter to attendees underlining that hosting the Poilievre campaign does not bring the brewery into line with its controversial policy positions. That’s a first.
So if it’s not a personality power — and Poilievre seems to be a few liters short of the royal jelly it takes to induce mania — then it must be his policy.
But even that is a headscratcher.
He vows to get rid of the bureaucratic “gatekeepers” so that foreign professionals can settle here, not exactly the kind of policy the real blue conservatives are pushing for.
And then there’s its housing promise to cut through the red tape that’s holding construction back from unleashing a construction boom.
Couple of problems with that. Housing permits are usually a competence of municipalities, albeit under provincial supervision. How a federal government could reach through the provincial maze to cut red tape in city planning departments is an unlikely mission, even if it uses housing grants to prod them into action.
Plus, the housing industry is already booming, so unless a Poilièvre as prime minister can produce thousands of provincially trained carpenters, plumbers and electricians overnight, there’s no way to create a supply-boosting construction boom.
Then there is his veto against buying foreign oil by building pipelines everywhere. But if a pipeline connection to the East Coast refineries cannot be built over Quebec’s objections, where should New Brunswick handle domestic oil? Again, his rhetoric is separated from reality.
But leadership campaigns are all about attracting attention, backed by vague promises of future action.
In that regard, Poilievre functions at a much higher level than his seven opponents, half of whom have no business in this race.
Of course, many problems can still pothole Poilievre’s road to the PMO.
To maintain his momentum, Poilievre must feed the seething anger at Justin Trudeau without stoking it too far, alienating the middle voters the party needs to win the next election.
It is also likely that his Trudeau target will not be the Conservatives’ main rival in the next election. The current Prime Minister is outdated and ready to be replaced by a more formidable opponent to anyone in the Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand or Francois-Phillippe Champagne circle on deck.
And the problems that Poilievre puts forward as liberal offensive material could be solved long before an actual election campaign. The housing market he plans to expand is already showing signs of weakening under rising interest rates, inflation could be back under control and we can only hope there are no more pandemic-fighting mandates he can revoke in 2025.
But those are post-leadership challenges. First, he needs a win on September 10.
And in the here and now it must be recognized that Pierre Poilievre draws impressive crowds to large halls in very unlikely locations. He gets euphoric reactions from the grassroots to his joke-filled policies, even if they are politically problematic. And his team is no doubt selling hundreds of loyal Poilievre memberships at every pit stop of the tour.
If this early romp lasts another month, Canada’s most unlikely political rock star will be impossible to beat.
That’s the bottom line.