Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Learning the Wrong Lesson from Elections

One of the most common errors political parties and politicians make is over-learning the lessons of the previous election and applying them to the current one. This idea has been rolling into my head since the 2015 federal election. As I have mentioned in posts preceding this one, the NDP fell into this trap. They are hardly the first party to fall victim to it, and they definitely won't be the last.

Here's how it goes. In the wake of election the defeated party or parties are forced to reflect on the outcome. Voters, for their indescribable reasons, chose Party A over Party B. In order to correct the problems advocates within the party push to move the party to resemble the victorious party in whatever way was deemed the reason for victory. I've seen this many times in American politics. When the Democrats are defeated there are calls to move towards the centre to recapture voters. When the Republicans are vanquished and appear to be in the wilderness their critics suggest a move to the left and a more open party would ensure them victory.

Sometimes this is successful. The 2006 victory of the Democrats was partially brought about by recruiting ore conservative candidates that could win in redder states and districts. More often than not though this idea has a habit of breaking down.

Voters, it seems to me, want alternatives, not pale imitations. Parties that simply copy their opponents risk making themselves irrelevant. They are unlikely to woo the base of the other party and alienate their own supporters and voters hoping to real change. In election strategy jargon they call this contrasts, ways you can demonstrate favourable differences with your opponents. Each political party has core brands or associated values, trying to borrow someone else's will, at best, feel inauthentic.

The 2015 election offers an interesting case study in this regard. In the wake of the 2011 election both the Liberals and New Democrats had to decide how to approach the coming election, and both, for different reasons, needed to find a new leader. The NDP's membership made a choice to follow Jack Layton's model as a centre-left party, remain on the left on social issues, continue to advocate for key groups, but present a 'friendlier' fiscal and rhetorical framework. This is afterall part of the way Stephen Harper had managed to build his majority, his perceived stewardship of the economy and public purse. The Liberal Party, often thin on ideology, selected a new leader to try to win them the election, the charismatic Justin Trudeau. Trudeau is not the man you would pick if you thought you had to run a campaign similar to Harper to win an election. Someone like Ralph Goodale would fit much more in that model.

Leaving aside the platforms one can look at the campaign to see how the parties differentiated themselves. For four years the Conservatives banked on another election built on economic concerns, and so did the NDP. The election actually turned on Stephen Harper and essentially became a referendum on him. Justin Trudeau offered the stronger contrast with the Prime Minister.

Parties are poised to make a similar error again. Already the Conservatives are making noises that they need a "Sunny Ways" leader to take them into the future. Likewise in the NDP there are concerns that the Liberals flank to the left is what doomed them, so a shift leftward with a new leader is the answer to their problems. If Canadians decide to kick Justin Trudeau and the Liberals out of power in 2019 it will be if they find an alternative the like, not if each party presents their version of Liberal-Light or Trudeau-Light. Parties, generally, need to be true to themselves and offer an option, not play the "Me Too!" game. 


Jared Milne said...

Well, I'm not so sure myself.

Remember, Stephen Harper didn't exactly get elected in 2006 running a Mike Harris-style campaign, or the "firewall letter" mentality he demonstrated at the start of the 2000s. As time went on, Harper implemented more and more policies that could be seen as giving his base what it wanted (dismantling the Canadian Wheat Board, implementing income splitting for couples, killing the long gun registry, etc.) which accounts for Harper keeping his strongest base of support in Alberta (where I live) and other parts of Western Canada. However, it wasn't enough to prevent a lot of other Canadians who'd been attracted to him beyond the Reform/Alliance/Conservative base, and which enabled him to win power, from ditching him in favour of the Justin Trudeau Liberals.

Keeping the support of one's traditional base while appealing to the "swing" voters is one of the trickiest jobs in politics, and the federal Liberals' skill at doing that has been one of the reasons why they've governed Canada for so long. Harper managed it for almost a decade, but then he lost that support last year.

And you also note Jack Layton's campaign model-a model that netted the NDP its highest seat tally ever and brought them to Official Opposition status for the first time in history. Even with everything working against them in the last election, the NDP under Mulcair got what was, if I am recalling correctly, is still one of the second-highest seat counts the NDP has ever gotten.

The Conservatives lost a lot of support from the swing voters that originally put them over the top, while the NDP apparently lost a lot of support more from its base. The Liberals benefited from both their losses.

SJL said...

Thanks for your feedback Jared. I'm not saying that this happens every time, but it is a common problem. Harper's success was in many ways about presenting a stable, consistent message and not changing regardless of the election.

Another factor is the challengers and state of the race. If the Liberals and NDP (and others) split the vote just right Harper would be kicking off his next mandate.

The piece I wrote it much more about the introspection and analysis presented after an election. To make it simple and silly, imagine after the campaign the parties said Trudeau won because of his approachable nature as embodied with his rolled up, white dress shirts. So in 2019 the Conservative and NDP leaders went around in rolled up shirts, but Canadians may have tired of the casual look and would have responded better to a suit and tie. This example might seem silly, but already there are calls for a new generation of leader, someone younger to appeal to voters, read someone more like Trudeau.