Why did the NDP lose so badly? Here’s a close look at some popular explanations

There really isn’t a good way to spin it. The NDP lost hard on Monday night.

When the election started in early August, they were leading in the polls and poised to form government for the first time in their long history. Eleven weeks later, their support had cratered; rather than building on their 2011 outing, their most successful ever, they instead lost more than half their caucus, including many of their most experienced and well-known members.

Instead of moving from Stornaway to 24 Sussex, Thomas Mulcair is now house-hunting at considerably less prestigious addresses, no doubt grateful to even still have his job after a relatively close race in his riding of Outremont.

That’s the kind of meagre consolation NDP stalwarts are offering each other these days. It could have been worse – at least Mulcair didn’t go full Ignatieff and lose his own seat!

There has been the digital equivalent of a ton of ink devoted to the question of What Happened To The NDP, and I wanted to take a close look at a few of the more popular explanations today. As we’ll see, most are at best incomplete and at worst completely unfounded.

The most easily discredited of these theories was quite prominent in the final month or so of the campaign: the notion that the NDP lost because their stance on the niqab was at odds with the majority of the electorate, especially in Quebec.

This one is transparently false. First of all, a close reading of the data shows that the party’s numbers were slipping several days before the issue shot to prominence in the first of the two French-language debates. 

Now, remember: at the time, the polls were showing a tight three-way race, with the parties trading off on the lead. According to Eric Grenier’s poll aggregations, however, the NDP had already fallen into third place (albeit a very close third, within the margin of error) by September 21, three days prior to the first French-language debate on September 24, and they were doomed to remain in third for the duration of the campaign. It was a far cry from the crushing lead they had a month prior, on August 24, when they were polling in majority territory at 37.5%.

In other words, the NDP’s trend was already solidly downwards weeks before the niqab became a hot-button campaign issue.

And, more obviously, the NDP’s stance on the niqab was shared by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. If the electorate was abandoning the NDP because of its tolerant position, then why on earth would they embrace a party with an identical stance instead?

Now, all of this takes for granted the notion that the polls were consistently accurate throughout the campaign – something which we do not definitively know to be true. What is true is that the press effectively treated the polls as infallible indicators of the mood of the electorate at any given moment, with polling trends and statistics worming their way into even the most policy-focussed reporting.

As CANADALAND has noted on multiple occasions, including in Jesse Brown’s round-up of election coverage earlier this week, the constant hyperventilation over the latest data has the potential to actually affect the numbers themselves.

And this raises an interesting question. Reporting on the NDP post-niqabgate was nearly universal in speculating that the issue would hurt the party’s numbers, using the already-existing downward trend in the data to create the case for the notion that things could only get worse. Did the press (which, let’s be honest, already had an anti-NDP bias going into this thing) amplify and accelerate a trend which may, in fact, have been more minor than the data suggested? Did the idea that the NDP was a sinking ship cause more of its supporters to abandon it, creating a vicious downward cycle?

If so, given the nature of the issue and the inherent fuzziness of mid-campaign polling data, we’ll never really know for sure, although I do think there’s a good case to be made for this being a factor in many elections. It wasn’t, however, the decisive factor, although in this particular election its importance was quite likely amplified by the presence of a sizeable cohort of so-called “strategic” voters intent on dethroning Harper.

If you take another look at Grenier’s timeline of polls, you’ll note a pronounced downward spike for the NDP in the final three or four days of the campaign – and even then, the final polls didn’t catch the full extent of the collapse in support for the party. This is what panicky “strategizing” looks like.

I think I’ve made my thoughts on “strategic” voting patently clear in the past, and at the moment I’m still feeling frustrated with the fruits of this foolishness. My sense is that the Liberals got their majority entirely by accident, and that a substantial number of their “supporters” didn’t have this particular outcome in mind when they voted.

And as I wrote the other day, in ousting Harper they’ve also elected a party which aligns with the Conservatives on most major issues facing Canada. “Anybody but Conservative” was always a terrible idea, and one which the NDP became more strident in critiquing as the election wore on and it became clear that the party that the “ABC” crowd got massed behind wasn’t going to be them.

So strategic voting and a negative feedback polling loop do have some relevance in terms of explaining the profundity of the NDP’s defeat. But they don’t explain the flip in the positions of the Liberals and the NDP over the course of the campaign, nor does it fully account for the devastation that was wrought on NDP seats in, for instance, downtown Toronto, where the Conservative Party stood no shot of winning and “stopping Harper” wasn’t even remotely a factor.

The NDP’s deputy leader, Megan Leslie, who lost her Halifax seat, told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton that, in her opinion, misinformed (but well-intentioned!) strategic voters were largely to blame for the NDP’s defeat; it was an explanation she kept coming back to throughout her interview. When Barton quoted Paul Dewar, another prominent defeated NDP MP, as saying that the party hadn’t been “hungry enough”, Leslie seemed taken aback. But it’s an explanation that’s been forwarded from many pundits in the past week – the Liberals won, this view argues, because they had the energy and the charisma and the sense of urgency, while the NDP’s campaign, though well-run, lacked the verve and the drive of the Layton-led 2011 run.

And it’s sad to say – it really is – but I think that unfortunately this view has the most explanatory power. The reason I feel it’s so sad is that the Liberals ran a largely substance-free campaign. They had a few major talking points they kept coming back to – tax the 1%, tax cuts for the middle class, invest in Canada’s future – but the essence of their campaign was this: Bring Real Change To Ottawa. That was their theme, that was their message, that was their animating force, and they played that tune masterfully, especially in the final month or so of the campaign. Though the NDP were peddling essentially the same message of hope and change, it never really resonated quite the same way.

To see why, let’s take a dip into the policy side of things for a minute. In her CBC interview Leslie did her best to absolve Mulcair of any wrong-doing, insisting that she was proud of the principled positions that he took and the progressive campaign that he ran. This is a theme that’s been echoed in exit interviews with most prominent NDP MPs that I’ve heard – Mulcair ran a great progressive campaign, they insist, and he doesn’t deserve the blame for this debacle.

This talking point is pushback against a widely-hyped but actually pretty much false idea which made its rounds in the punditsphere – that Trudeau won by outflanking the NDP on their left. This claim rests largely on the fact that while Mulcair vowed to balance the budget, Trudeau promised deficit spending to finance infrastructure investments.

And it is true that, in this particular case, the Liberals were running to the left of the NDP.

But on a host of other issues, that quite simply wasn’t true. The NDP was proposing (modest) national childcare and (underfunded) pharmacare programs, were committed to a full repeal of Bill C-51, took a (somewhat ambiguous) stand against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, set the strongest emissions targets, were the least friendly of the three major parties towards the notion of pipelines (which wasn’t much of an accomplishment at all), promised to establish respectful nation-to-nation relations with Canada’s indigenous peoples, planned a total and immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Iraq and Syria, and sought to establish a national $15/hr minimum wage – all positions which placed them to the left of the Liberal Party, even if in many cases it didn’t put them as far to the left as their base might have liked.

Still, that deficits issue kept confounding them. Trudeau relentlessly bludgeoned Mulcair with the accusation that he couldn’t bring Real Change to Ottawa because he’d committed himself to “balancing Stephen Harper’s budget”. Hell, he even trotted out Paul fucking Martin, of all people, to accuse the NDP of having an austerity agenda. And that accusation stuck too!

My point here is that, on the issues, the NDP was the most progressive of the Big Three parties, but rhetorically, the Liberals managed to occupy that position in people’s minds.

That was due in part to some masterful messaging and campaigning by the Liberal Party, but I think a good deal of the blame rests within the NDP camp. It seemed that they were concerned that Canadians didn’t want to elect a too-progressive NDP, so they downplayed their leftish achievements and ambitions while touting subjects like fiscal responsibility on which they were not strong at all. It’s astounding that the Liberals beat them out on the issue of fiscal responsibility by pledging to run deficits, but to be honest, they came across as being more credible.

Meanwhile, progressive as the platform may have been, the NDP’s campaign managers chose to emphasize their most centrist positions while downplaying their more populist cred, especially in the early going. For instance, despite the feverish impassioned activism surrounding C-51 this past winter and spring, the NDP brought their opposition to it up far too rarely. And even I, a total #cdnpoli junkie, didn’t have a damn clue that most of the Liberals voted in favour of (and all NDP members voted against) Bill C-34, the controversial “Barbaric Cultural Practices Act”, until literally just yesterday, despite the fact that the NDP could have shouted that fact from every rooftop in the last few weeks of the campaign, when the Conservatives were being ridiculed over their proposed hotline.

My take on why the NDP went down, having said all this: from a messaging point of view, they ran a bad campaign. Their platform was totally fine for the purpose of getting the party elected, but they weren’t able to sell it convincingly. They allowed their opponents to define their positions, both on the issues and on the political spectrum. And they made poor choices about which policies to emphasize.

And for that, I feel that Thomas Mulcair is at least partly to blame. In the final week of the campaign, he told Rosie Barton that the balanced budgets pledge was his idea – an admission that I flagged at the time, predicting it would come back to haunt him. So far, I haven’t seen any discussion of this particular point, but as we get closer to the NDP’s leadership review in the spring, I fully expect to see it get dragged out and examined, because, in many ways, that was the NDP’s signature position this campaign, and it sure wasn’t one that worked out particularly well for them.

The NDP can take cold comfort in the fact that, in the end, Canadians wound up electing the most progressive-seeming party – it just didn’t happen to be them. And for that, they mostly have themselves to blame.


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