Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Ontario election prediction and analysis

Here is my much anticipated official prediction for the 2011 Ontario provincial election:

 The final seat tally will be - Liberals: 55  PCs: 33  NDP: 19 (I hope that adds up.)

Yup, the result will be a slim Liberal majority.

Why this result?

Let me explain by briefly analyzing the political campaigns in this race; because as they say, “campaigns matter.”

Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals

Going into this race Premier Dalton McGuinty’s biggest problem was that … well he is Dalton McGuinty.

Voters were tired of the guy; tired of his big spending ways, tired of his taxes, tired of his scandals.

And when voters get in that sort of surly mindset it’s darn tough to get them “untired.”

So the Liberals played the only card they could: they went on the attack.

In the weeks leading up to Election Day the Liberals (along with their big union boss allies) did everything they could to degrade the PC leader’s image.

And after softening up the Tories they shifted gears and concentrated on putting forward those issues where they had a home field advantage: health care, education, the environment.

Overall the Liberal campaign was professional, competent and well financed.

But it was not perfect. For one thing, the Liberal TV attacks against the NDP (comparing the NDP and the Tories) were weak and unconvincing. And the Liberals seemed to be in panic mode when it came to the Mississauga Power Plant issue.

And finally, McGuinty himself was not exactly Mr. Charisma. Of the three leaders his televised debate performance was the weakest. Basically all he did was spend 90 minutes reminding people why they were tired of him.

Yet in the end all that stuff won’t matter because the real ace up the Liberal Party’s sleeve was the 2011 federal election.

And by that I don’t mean Prime Minister Harper’s crack about the “trifecta” helped the Liberals and I don’t mean Ontario voters wanted to balance off a Blue Ottawa with a Red Toronto.

Nope, it’s far more basic. The federal Tory victory was good for the Ontario Liberals because it allowed angry voters to let off some pent up steam. When Ontarians voted against the Ignatieff Liberals many of them were also voting against the McGuinty Liberals. (Voters often don’t distinguish between federal parties and their provincial cousins)

And so in a sense McGuinty was seen as already punished for his sins.

This sapped some of the anti-Liberal feeling the Conservatives were hoping would carry them to an easy victory.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

Anyway, what it all adds up to is Ontarians will put aside their desire for change and stick with safer choice of the status quo.

Tim Hudak and the Progressive Conservatives

This is a race Tim Hudak and the PCs should have won easily. The Tories, after all, were facing a tired, uninspiring government led by a Premier who was clearly past his best due date.  

Poll after poll indicated Ontarians wanted change.

Plus throw in the fact that the McGuinty government had recently imposed the hated HST and it’s all a recipe for a Tory victory.

Indeed, as recently as July some polls gave the Tories a whopping 10 point lead over the Liberals.

But today, if the polls are to be believed, the PCs have squandered their once massive lead.

What happened?

Well first off leadership matters.

And for the PCs their leader Tim Hudak left much to be desired.

Now don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that Hudak is necessarily a bad leader. In fact, he’s actually quite competent.

But he’s like an NFL team’s second-string quarterback: he knows the plays, he can execute a game plan adequately … but he’s just not the guy you want on the field when you’re down by three points with two minutes to play.

Simply put, Hudak lacks the intangible quality that makes for a great leader, the ability to rouse voters or to inspire with a vision.

This shortcoming was evident during the televised leaders’ debate. Certainly Hudak did a good job in that debate; he memorized his lines well and delivered them like a pro. But he didn’t show any passion; he didn’t connect to viewers on an emotional level.

And it seems Hudak failed to even inspire his own conservative base. (By the way, the last leader who really did inspire the PC base was Mike Harris.)

By now you are probably saying: "Sure that sounds reasonable Gerry, but what about Prime Minister Stephen Harper? He won a majority and he isn’t  inspiring".

True, but the federal Tories succeeded because they had a good communications campaign and a leader who if not likable was a known quantity.

The same can't be said for their provincial cousins. In fact, the Ontario PC campaign strategy lacked imagination.

Their plan from day one was pretty simple: Go around the province and tell everybody who would listen that Hudak was not McGuinty.

Everything was change, change, change. Even their platform had a bland generic-sounding name: Changebook.

And that’s fine.

But when the Liberals inevitably counter-attacked the Tories didn’t respond or re-adapt their tactics. They still stuck to basically the same theme, even though Hudak was taking some nasty political hits.

Just promising change, in other words, was not enough.

What should the PCs have done?

Well, most importantly they needed to create a political persona for Hudak, a man who, let’s face it, was unknown to most Ontarian voters.

He needed a narrative. Who was he? What did he stand for? What was his role in the political play? What was his vision?

The PCs didn't really tell us any of that stuff and it cost them because it gave their opponents a chance to define their leader.
And that’s what the Liberals and union bosses did. After their hatchet men were done Hudak was cast in the minds of many voters as a scary, right-wing extremist.

In politics you either define or you are defined.

Still even that could be overcome had the Tories launched a massive air war in the last few weeks of the campaign.

They needed to hit McGuinty and hit him hard.

But they didn’t. They just kept repeating a few tame “taxman” ads that had grown stale and lost their bite.

I suspect this wasn’t so much a strategic shortcoming as it was a financial one.

Anyway, the bottom line is when it comes to blowing big leads the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves will soon have company.

 Andrea Howath and the NDP

The Ontario NDP took a page out of the federal NDP playbook. They stayed under the radar for the first part of the campaign.

And they waited for the debate to showcase their leader on a TV stage, hoping the contrast would translate into votes.

And it will likely pay dividends.

First off, for many voters looking for change, Howarth fits the bill. Indeed, just by being a woman she represents change.

Plus she did a good job at the leaders’ debate, holding her own against Hudak and McGuinty.

This is the first look many voters had of the NDP leader and first impressions are lasting ones.

Most importantly however, the NDP could position itself as the only party with a positive vision, which will likely sway many voters fed up with the mud slinging taking place between the Liberals and PCs.

Finally, any lingering sympathy for the late Jack Layton will also help the NDP.

There won’t be an orange wave tomorrow, but maybe a strong ripple.

So that’s my analysis. But keep in mind, if I’m wrong and the PCs win tomorrow night, then I will strongly insist this was really just an exercise in political satire. 

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