The Ontario election has now moved into our history books. It was a relatively dull campaign with few issues that grabbed the imagination of the voter. What made it interesting though was the come-from-behind victory of the McGuinty Liberals.
Each of the federal parties can learn something from this campaign which centered on an unpopular leader who still managed to win, albeit with a minority.
To their credit, the Liberals found an issue that resonated with voters -- stability in a time of economic uncertainty. The Conservatives on the other hand seemed unable to shift gears when world affairs and a pending economic crisis began to overshadow their message on reducing taxes. Yes people were upset with what they pay in taxes, but it was never their primary concern -- hope for the future and their jobs was the issue.
The federal parties should also take note that campaigns that are almost entirely negative don't work. I never got a sense from the Conservatives of hope for the future. There was no strong appeal to the heart of the voters; instead it was an angry campaign that battered the voter with one attack after another with no sense of a solution to issues besides cutting taxes. The language was always tough, the message negative. As a partisan, I have always enjoyed a good attack ad, but I had to wonder if a partisan was getting turned off by this barrage of negativity what must it be doing to nonaligned voters?
While the Conservative message focused on taxes there wasn't a clear link as to how lower taxes would benefit voters with a stronger future. They left to many questions unanswered and when you leave a void like that in the voters' minds, another party can step in and fill it. I thought the Liberal health care ad was superb as it comparing Hudak's record in the Mike Harris era to McGuinty's record now. With a huge population of baby-boomers wondering about their own health, that was an ad that could resonant with voters -- fewer hospitals under the Conservatives to more under the Liberals. The Conservatives never explained how cutting taxes would help more students to go to university, never explained how lower taxes could improve public transportation in our cities and they could never answer the unease property owners felt when the Liberals suggested Hudak would unload everything onto the cities again as Harris had done previously.
Another part of the Conservative's problem was the language used, the words, not the just the message. I could see where they were trying to take their message of the day but the sound bites just weren't right. Probably the best example was at the beginning of the campaign when Hudak got caught up in the "foreign workers" issue around McGuinty's job plan for new immigrants. When that story broke I sent a note to a friend of mine on the campaign and said "your team just blew it." It sounded like an angry old white guy's campaign reminiscent of some of the Reform Party campaigns of the 1990s. Initial results today bear that out and show that the provincial Tories squandered the good will that the Harper Tories had built up in the large metropolitan ethnic ridings. That one issue certainly cost them dearly this campaign.
The federal Liberals can draw a sense of hope that not all is lost. Years of rebuilding are ahead of them but there was no sudden rush for everyone to vote NDP. The provincial party still managed a win and with the right campaign themes the federal Liberals have a chance to make a comeback. But they should not think that it will happen overnight or without a lot of hard work in the next four years.
Andrea Horwath has improved the NDP's numbers, but the lesson for the federal NDP is that you need substance and a believable platform. Running on hope and good will isn't good enough. Nor can you rely on the Layton legacy to win elections. People vote for the here and now and the future, not for nostalgia over what might have been.
In the end every campaign is about balance. You need the attack ads because they can work. Too many turn voters off, if not away from your party. Plus, you have to have a message of hope for the future. In other words appeal to both the head and the heart.