03/20/2012 10:30 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Liberals Experience the Soft Tyranny of High Expectations

An important lesson for political communicators is to learn to manage expectations. Just as in business, the old adage 'under promise and over deliver' goes a long way to establishing credibility. Unfortunately for the Liberal Party of Canada, months of hype in the lead up to Monday night's defeat in Toronto-Danforth did the exact opposite of that.

It began when then-party president Alf Apps gave an interview just days after Jack Layton's death. Apps tried to make a distinction between the strength of the man and the strength of brand, arguing that Toronto-Danforth was a Liberal seat ready to come home.

Former Deputy Premier George Smitherman continued to downplay the NDP's chances, while following Apps' lead boosting the Liberals' chances with grandiose statements about the party's plans. The Liberals let it be known that former MP Belinda Stronach was a possible candidate, as was Gerard Kennedy. Smitherman ruled himself out, as did former Mayor David Miller. Yet Smitherman assured that whomever the Liberals picked after an exciting open nomination campaign would 'look like stars' compared to the NDP's Craig Scott.

Smitherman went so far as to tell the National Post in an interview:

"The Liberal Party sees a very, very good opportunity in Toronto-Danforth, and the effort there will be to have a vigorously contested nomination. I think a lot of people have been surprised at the stature gap that the NDP has created by nominating such a low-key and frankly uninspiring candidate."

In the end, Grant Gordon, a talented, but relatively unknown ad exec won the Liberal nomination against a former Green Party candidate who doesn't even live in the City of Toronto. The promise of "a big name to take back the riding it held for 16 years before Layton" did not come to fruition.

The man former Toronto-Danforth Liberal candidate Andrew Lang dubbed a 'dud,' and Smitherman tried to paint as "lacklustre," "low key," "uninspiring," and a "no-name candidate" now must also be called "winner" in light of MP-elect Craig Scott's massive 59% of the vote.

By framing the race as the Liberals' to lose, guys like Apps, Smitherman, and others gave Craig Scott a bizarre underdog status (bizarre because he was clearly ahead the entire time). The strategy may have worked for generating a heightened sense of attention on the riding, but clearly did not have an impact upon the results. It also has forced the Liberal Party into a situation of having to deal with the fall out of a deeply irresponsible communications strategy that failed to deliver results. If Apps and Smitherman were trying to help, this wasn't the way to do it.

Relying on history to help inform one's punditry prevents embarrassments like this one. Neither Apps nor Smitherman appear to have considered the reality that the NDP had a 68% chance of holding the seat based on historic results of by-elections throughout Canadian history.

For a party that is in the process of attempting to rebuild itself after the historic and humiliating defeat Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals to, it would seem that some humility is in order. The unprecedented attempt to convince the general public within Toronto-Danforth and across Canada that the Liberals were well-positioned to win when they weren't is a stunning strategy. People who live 4,500 kilometres from Toronto-Danforth read in the Vancouver Sun just last month that the Liberals were in a position to win; they'll now be reading about a "lacklustre, no name, uninspiring dud" candidate who blew the Liberals right out of the water. Imagine what that does for confidence in the Liberal brand.

An honest, compelling, and believable narrative about what an uphill battle the Liberal Party faces in Toronto-Danforth and elsewhere would have served the party in better stead than relying on a communications strategy that sees pundits creating inflated expectations the party simply can't achieve.