Saturday, October 3, 2015

NDP campaign enters panic mode

By Fraser Needham

If in politics a week can be a lifetime, a month can be an eternity – especially in an election campaign.

Just put yourself in the shoes of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s top strategists to see how much things can change over the course of four weeks. On a late August afternoon when members of the Mulcair team looked out on a bright and sunny day from the confines of the NDP war room, they must have been feeling pretty confident about themselves.

As the first month of the campaign wound down, the NDP sat atop the polls at 37.4 per cent with both the Conservatives and Liberals trailing behind at 28.1 per cent and 25.9 per cent respectively. A roughly nine-point lead over your next closest opponent is certainly not substantial but these numbers suggest the NDP was well within minority government territory and a majority was possibly in reach with plenty of time left to build over the course of this very long campaign.

Moreover, Mulcair’s handlers no doubt must have felt the “front runner” campaign strategy was clearly showing results ever since the NDP began to first top the polls at the end of July. So, continue to run a cautious and risk-averse campaign, make the leader appear a little softer and less angry and everything else would take care of itself. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would simply fall flat on his face, as he has been shown prone to do in the past with more than a few gaffes. The anti-Harper coalition vote would begin to coalesce around Mulcair and with enough time and momentum, the NDP would certainly get a minority and maybe even a majority government come October 19, if things went well enough.

However, as said, a month is a very long time in an election campaign and things haven’t quite worked out as the NDP had hoped.

Trudeau has done anything both slip-up in this election and has continued to grow and improve as the campaign has worn on. He has performed well in all the debates and run by far the most accessible campaign of all three leaders -- often doing hours-long campaign events with lengthy speeches followed by a town hall question and answer session and finished off with a full media scrum and meeting with constituents. Also, considerably younger and more telegenic than either Harper or Mulcair, the Trudeau campaign has put forward a certain level of energy the Conservative and NDP campaigns simply don’t have.

In contrast, the NDP campaign has, to put it mildly,  been lackluster and uninspiring. It appears if given the choice, Mulcair’s handlers want him in a bubble as much as possible.

Events are shorter and much more controlled than the ones the Liberals are doing. Sometimes the NDP Leader takes media questions and other times he doesn’t. If there is a chance to skip a debate, such as one the Prime Minister is refusing to attend, Mulcair will skip it too.

Overall, the NDP Leader has looked defensive on the campaign trail rather than aggressive. In their desire to make “Angry Tom” look a little less angry, the NDP has made Mulcair look a bit phony and not himself. Not one to smile much, at every campaign event you can bet Mulcair will mug for the cameras and do at least two or three very unnatural looking smiles. One of his best skills is his ability to go on the attack against Stephen Harper -- something Trudeau is not really able to do -- but Mulcair has not been allowed to do this thus far.

For their part, the Conservatives are running the campaign everyone expected but they are doing it better than expected.
True to form, Stephen Harper is sticking to his neo-conservative guns and not flinching, whether he is promoting the anti-terrorism Bill C-51, displaying hesitation to take in Syrian refugees or making the Conservatives’ determination to ban Muslim women from wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies a central election issue. It has also become very clear over the course of this campaign that Harper has a hardcore support of about 30 per cent of the electorate and this support is not going anywhere.

Plus, the Conservatives have also had a little luck along the way. The Mike Duffy Senate scandal trial happened so early in the campaign that it has had virtually zero effect. And, with economic numbers beginning to show a bit of a rebound in recent months, this has given Harper a little more ammunition to portray the false notion that the Conservatives are good fiscal managers and Canada is not headed into recession.

However, the turning point of the campaign may turn out to be when the NDP pledged to balance every single budget in their first term come hell or high water, recession or economic boom time. In their zeal to outflank the Liberals on the right and impress the business press, Mulcair and company clearly did not think this through and misread the mood of the soft progressives in Ontario they definitely need if they are to be successful.

Ontario polls taken immediately after the NDP’s balanced budget pledge show that it clearly was a gaffe. In early September polling, the Liberals jumped from 31.9 per cent in late August to 40.6 per cent while the NDP dropped from 32.3 per cent to 22.3 per cent. The Conservatives remained relatively the same in the province with a slight jump from 30.8 per cent to 33.8 per cent.
Clearly the Liberal promise to run deficits in its first few budgets, in order to stimulate the economy and create jobs, has not only not hurt the party’s fortunes in Canada’s largest province but has increased them. In contrast, the NDP’s absolute no deficit pledge has made the party look not credible. With a low debt to GDP ratio, reasonable long-term economic growth forecast and historic low interest rates, it is clear federal deficit budgets are no longer the concern for voters that they once were.
Not even the right wing press was impressed with the NDP’s balanced budget pledge and Mulcair has been dogged by media questions at every campaign stop about how he would meet the party’s social commitments without raising taxes. For some reason, the NDP campaign strategists seem to operating somewhere in the mindset of 1993 instead of 2015.

The latest polling numbers for October 1, show all three parties locked in a three-way tight national race with the Conservatives in the lead at 32.3 per cent, followed by the Liberals at 30.4 per cent and the NDP at 26.8 per cent.
And there is no doubt the NDP is seriously panicking. Why are they panicking?

They have squandered an 11-point lead over the Liberals at the beginning of the election. These points are going to be very difficult to get back as Trudeau continues go up and not down. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have grown by about four points since the beginning of the campaign.

What frightens the NDP most is not a Conservative minority but a third place finish behind the Liberals on October 19. This would be seen as a major set back after winning official opposition in 2011 and make the party once again open to accusations that this breakthrough was due more to late leader Jack Layton’s popularity and Liberal dysfunction at the time than anything to do with the rightward shift of the party or the abilities of the party’s top advisors.
Perhaps even more disturbing as they look ahead -- with the likelihood of a Conservative minority increasing with each passing day -- is the potential of playing junior partner in a Liberal led coalition government. Playing second fiddle to Justin Trudeau would be like taking cyanide for a number of NDP partisans including their leader.

So the NDP strategy that seems to be emerging amidst the panic in recent days is turning the guns on Justin Trudeau in an attempt to knock the Liberals as far down as possible and ensure a second place finish.

Hence the mantra that is also being pushed on social media by NDP partisans that Thomas Mulcair is “the only real leader” capable of taking on Stephen Harper and that if “you look closely at the numbers” the NDP is the only real alternative to beat the Conservatives and form government with the way the seat totals would break down,  and a variety of other such nonsense. All of a sudden, Thomas Mulcair is not talking about Harper much at all anymore.

When the NDP partisans make the second point, they are clearly pointing to a recent Forum Research poll that pegs the Conservatives at 34 per cent, followed by the NDP at 28 per cent and Liberals at 27 per cent. Under this scenario, Forum Research says the Conservatives would get 151 seats, NDP 104 seats and Liberals 76 seats. What the NDP partisans fail to mention is in the polling firm’s previous two polls in September, the Liberals topped the NDP at 107 seats to 104 seats and 97 seats to 95 seats.

And then there is this fully partisan NDP piece which tries to disguise itself as a somehow objective and complex polling analysis but is anything but. Bottom line is that any way you shake things down, the Liberals are in a very good position to form a minority government or at least finish second in the seat count based on what they have been doing so far, while the NDP campaign is slipping.
One-way to ensure a third place finish, however, is if the NDP turns its focus on the Liberals and Mulcair starts attacking Trudeau. Attacks on Trudeau have not worked well overall for the Conservatives and they would be sure to fail even worse for the NDP. Attacking Trudeau instead of Harper would make Mulcair look mean, cynical and desperate and likely cost the NDP even more valuable points in the polls to the benefit of the Liberals.

Instead, if the NDP strategists were wise, the NDP would focus on what initially worked well for them. The party’s staunch and principled opposition to Bill C-51, its position of fast-tracking and bringing in more Syrian refugees, its opposition to the niqab ban, the party’s Senate reform plan and the childcare plan. And at the same time, have the attack dog Mulcair go full guns blazing at Harper and call the Prime Minister to full account for being a dishonest bully, trying to create a divisive Canada and a country full of fear. This would gain the NDP much needed respect late in the campaign and the chips could still fall in the party’s favour in some way.

Wise though this would be, don’t expect it to happen. Wisdom or logic is not something that has been apparent in the NDP campaign thus far.

Image: Flickr/Matt Jiggins

Fraser Needham is a freelance journalist living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He has been working and writing in Saskatchewan for the past 15 years. Aside from the Saskatchewan CCF/NDP, he follows Aboriginal issues and politics closely.

See also: It appears the NDP strategists are stuck in the 90’s – again

See also: The follies of the NDP running a right wing populist campaign

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1 comment:

  1. "this has given Harper a little more ammunition to portray the FALSE notion that the Conservatives are good fiscal managers and Canada is not headed into ANOTHER recession.