How the Tories won big, how the NDP got close, and how the Liberals got whupped in the 2018 election

By Steve Paikin - Published on October 1, 2018
people gathered for a discussion
Michael Balagus, manager of the Ontario NDP's 2018 election campaign, speaks at a Ryerson University symposium on September 26. (RUFacultyofArts/Twitter)

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Conventional wisdom says that parties and leaders win election campaigns through brilliance and lose them through stupidity.

That’s not always entirely right, of course: most leaders and their strategists have experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and none of them suddenly got brilliant or stupid.

Still, it’s never a bad idea for the people who run campaigns to get together, compare notes, and figure out why a given election went this way or that.

So kudos to the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park columnist Martin Regg Cohn for getting Ontario election campaign managers Kory Teneycke (Progressive Conservative), Michael Balagus (NDP), David Herle (Liberal), and Becky Smit (Green) onstage together at Ryerson University last week to sort through the events of June 7 — why Doug Ford became premier, why the NDP had to settle for second place, why the Liberals suffered the most humiliating defeat in their history, and why the Greens (who captured their first-ever seat) made history.

Clearly, Herle was hurting the most. He takes personally the fact that he was unable to devise a strategy for getting the Kathleen Wynne government re-elected. I’ve suggested to Herle in the past that some elections are simply unwinnable and that this almost certainly was one of them, but he rejects that notion: “I should have found a way,” he often tells me.

Voter fatigue after 15 years of Liberal rule, plus an astonishingly unpopular leader (the most unpopular premier in Canada, as we were constantly reminded by pollsters and by Wynne’s critics), all combined to make Herle’s job incomparably tough.

“For us to have been successful, we had to be controversial,” Herle told the audience at Ryerson. “We wanted a clash of visions between us and the Tories but couldn’t get that debate.”

Herle actually gives former PC leader Patrick Brown the most credit for making the Liberal strategist’s life difficult. “He was the smartest opponent we faced,” he says. By that, Herle means Brown was onside with a carbon tax, free post-secondary tuition for eligible students, free prescription-drug coverage for those under 25, and allowing the basic-income pilot to play out, all of which denied the Liberals any opportunity to distinguish themselves from their Tory adversaries.

Even when Brown was deposed by his caucus and Ford took over, the new PC leader kept much of Brown’s platform intact (the carbon tax being the notable exception).

Teneycke argued that authenticity was the key — and Ford had it in spades.

“It’s about being who you are,” he said. “He’s got no false front or filter. I love the way Conrad Black writes, but if he was writing speeches for Doug Ford, I don’t think it would have worked.”

Teneycke also felt that the electorate simply didn’t believe the promises made by the Liberals and the New Democrats.

“Some promises looked unrealistic and too expensive — not believable,” he said. “But could you cut gas prices 10 cents a litre? Or fire the CEO of Hydro One? Those [PC] promises seemed modest and achievable.”

“We just didn’t have a populist mindset,” Herle added. “Everyone knew affordability was the issue. We responded with an increase in the minimum wage. They responded with buck-a-beer. We just couldn’t respond in that populist way.”

There were numerous frustrations for the campaign managers on the losing end of things. Balagus, who ran the NDP campaign, urged his troops not to come up with a fully costed platform. His experience of running successful NDP campaigns in Manitoba told him that a costed platform would open the party to more intense scrutiny, not convince voters of the NDP’s fiscal probity. But he yielded to other advisers who insisted that the party had to present a fully costed platform.

Balagus ended up conducting focus-group studies on the issue.

“We heard people say, ‘You guys need a fully costed, detailed plan like the Conservatives had,’” Balagus recalled. Of course, the Tories had no fully costed platform at all, running instead on a mere handful of ideas.

“I wanted to slam my head on the table,” Balagus joked. “As it turned out, liberals loved our costed-out platform, but conservatives were scared of it.” Those nervous conservatives clearly voted Ford. Even when Balagus told people, “Only those earning more than $220,000 a year will see their taxes raised,” people didn’t buy it.

“Conservative voters thought ultimately they’d have to pay for it,” he said. “They figured corporations would hire smart lawyers to get out of paying higher taxes, and they’d have to pay them in the end.”

Balagus acknowledged, “We’ve got to stop telling people what’s good for them. We often make that mistake. We’ve got to bring people along.”

He added that much of a campaign manager’s mission today is to “identify a group of people and keep them engaged” and lamented that politics has become about creating echo chambers. “People only hear what they want to hear, and we’re going to have to get our heads around that.”

One thing the campaign managers disagreed on was the usefulness of paying for digital advertising. Teneycke said it was crucial to getting out the Tory message. “Traditional media is much less important today,” he said. The PCs even created their own pro-Ford “news channel,” and Teneycke claimed that “the credibility of the Star or CBC is no better than Ford Nation Live.” “I think digital advertising sucks,” Herle said. “It’s easily ignored or dismissed.”

Conversely, he said, effective use of social media can have a much greater impact than digital ads. In fact, Herle said, the right-wing social-media group Ontario Proud “delegitimized Kathleen Wynne. And we didn’t know how to fight it.”

Ontario Proud has more than 400,000 followers on Facebook. It became well known during the campaign for creating memorable and sometimes vicious anti-Wynne memes and videos, which would then be shared across multiple social-media platforms.  

As often happens at gatherings like this, there was a bit of gallows humour. Balagus told this story: “I occasionally get buttonholed by people in the party who say, ‘Can we stop trying to win and just go back to losing? It’s a lot more fun.’”

One of the occupational hazards of covering elections is the temptation to search for deep, overarching themes and trends where none actually exist. Bob Rae, Ontario’s 21st premier, once said that elections often come down to: “It’s time for the Ins to be Out and the Outs to be In.”

Former Liberal finance minister Greg Sorbara has said that elections seem mysterious when parties begin campaigning. But after those campaigns are over, the outcome is rarely in doubt (and there’s often the sense that it should have been obvious from the get-go).

All of that seemed very much to be the case in the June 7 election. Wynne and the Liberals were so deeply unpopular that nothing they did could change voters’ minds — whereas Ontarians were evidently so prepared to give the PCs a chance that none of the party’s mistakes seemed to stick.

Let’s give Herle the last word here. The Liberal campaign guru loves to tell the following self-deprecating joke (appropriated from his friend and fellow campaign guru Jack Bensimon) about the life cycle of a campaign strategist. Here’s what advisers looking for a campaign manager might say over the course of five different elections:

  1. “Who’s David Herle?”
  2. “Get me David Herle.”
  3. “Get me someone like David Herle.”
  4. “Get me the next David Herle.”
  5. “Who’s David Herle?”

David Herle has tasted victory and defeat. And as they say, victory is a helluva lot more fun.

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