Friday, November 18, 2011

Mulcair making political lemonade

It looks like NDP leadership hopeful Thomas Mulcair is heeding the old adage, “If life gives you a lemon, make lemonade.”

Or rather since this is the NDP we are talking about, maybe it’s an orange and orange juice.


My point is Mulcair is making the best he can out of a bad strategic situation.

And that bad strategic situation can be simply stated: his chief opponent in the NDP leadership race, Brian Topp, has cornered the market when it comes to big name endorsements.

Topp has received endorsements from such stars as former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan Premier Ed Ronanow and most recently from the United Steelworkers union.

Getting that kind of establishment party support is impressive. In fact, one pollster has described Topp as an “elite juggernaut.” And no mistake, such endorsements do matter. It means credibility for the candidate, it means money, it means lots of positive media coverage.

Mulcair, a relative newcomer to the NDP (he was formerly a provincial Liberal in Quebec) can’t match Topp in the endorsement game.

So he isn’t trying. Rather Mulcair has decided to play a little political ju-jitsu; he is using Topp’s strength against him.


Well, essentially Mulcair has cast himself as the anti-establishment candidate. At his leadership launch, for instance, he talked about how he would do “things differently” and how the party needed to expand beyond its “traditional base.”

One of his supporters, Dominic Cardy, the leader of New Brunswick’s provincial NDP, was even blunter. “The election,” he said, “is about the future of our country, not the past of our party.”

In other words, Topp is getting support from the party’s establishment, because he represents old ideas and the “Old Guard.”

Mulcair, on the other hand, represents the grassroots and new ways of doing things.

It’s an anti-elistist argument that might resonate in an anti-elistist party like the NDP.

Of course, there is nothing original about this tactic. Running against the establishment is a time-honoured practice that often pays political dividends.

This is true especially of late.

I saw this first-hand last year while working on a Republican primary race in the US. Anti-incumbent feeling was running strong at the time in America, meaning the worst insult you could hurl at an opponent was that he or she was an “Establishment-backed candidate” or that his or her campaign was funded by special interest groups or lobbyists.

Indeed, it was anger at the Republican Party’s establishment which helped fueled the Tea Party movement and which led to the defeat of several GOP “establishment” favorites in the 2010 primaries.

Nor were the Democrats immune. Some Congressional Democratic incumbents sought to win points with voters by pointing out how they had opposed their own party’s establishment.

The same dynamic was at play here in Canada too.

One of the reasons, for instance, Toronto mayoralty candidate Rob Ford won his race so handily was because he overtly took on the city’s ruling establishment.

And Prime Minister Stephen Harper has used anti-establishment feeling to his advantage as well. He and his Conservatives have often railed against cultural, intellectual and media “elites” to rally their populist supporters.

Mind you, none of this means going the anti-establishment route will work for Mulcair in the NDP leadership race.

However, in terms of strategy Mulcair doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Playing the anti-establishment card is not only his best option; it’s really his only option.

I just hope he likes the taste of lemonade.

(This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Votes and Values

Canada these days seems to be an ideological mish-mash.

On the one hand, you could argue Canada is becoming a “right-wing” country and point to the recent decisive majority government victory of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives.

On the other hand, however, you could also plausibly argue that Canadians actually embrace left-wing social democracy and for proof note the even more recent NDP majority victory in Manitoba and the electoral win (albeit with a minority) of Ontario’s Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty.

So which is it? Are Canadians right wing or left wing?

Well, with all due respect to all you ideologues out there, the correct answer is neither.

The fact is the majority of Canadians don’t subscribe to any ideologically consistent set of principles. This is why, politically speaking, voters can seem to be all over the ideological map.

This is not to say Canadians don’t care about issues or that they don’t have well-thought out opinions.

They absolutely do. But they base their opinions and voting preferences not on ideology but on values.

For instance, voters who care about “pocket book” values tend to pay attention to issues like tax rates, deficits and government spending.

Meanwhile, Canadians who identify themselves with “moral values” care about things like abortion policy, same-sex marriage and other issues commonly associated with “The Family.”

And there are all kinds of other “value clusters” that make up the Canadian political landscape.

Politicians understand this state of affairs. This is why they will tailor their message so as to win over different value groups to their side.

For instance, when a politician promises to cut taxes and balance the budget, he is making a play for the “pocket book” crowd.

The political math in this case is easy: Whoever can assemble the biggest coalition of value groups, usually wins the election.

Now political strategists also have to keep in mind that the largest and most important value group in Canada is what I call the “Quality of Life Crowd.”

In a nutshell, those who make up the Quality of Life Crowd basically care about protecting and nurturing their standard of living. That means they want to keep their disposable income; that means they want access to excellent health care; that means they want good schools for their kids and a clean environment.

To win an election, you need a huge chunk of this group.

And the Quality of Life crowd is open to either right wing or left wing proposals depending on which side better frames the issues in its communications strategy.

For instance, Prime Minister Harper succeeded in winning over a lot of Quality of Lifers because he promised economic stability and competent leadership in the possibly tough days ahead.

Quality of Lifers, who are risk averse and who don’t like uncertainty, found Harper’s message reassuring.

What’s more, they also like to be kept safe, so Harper’s emphasis on law and order, likely resonated as well.

Now let’s consider the recent Ontario election.

In that contest the Ontario Liberals (with an able assist from their union allies) succeeded in defining Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Tim Hudak as a hospital-closing, immigrant-hating, right wing extremist.

The Liberals then focused their messaging on how they stood for a strong health care system, for better schools and for a greener environment.

For Quality of Lifers, who had become a little wary of Hudak and the Tories, McGuinty seemed a safer choice.

This is why Ontario leaned Conservative in May and Liberal in October.

It had nothing to do with ideology, and everything to do with values

(The article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times)