Best and worst campaigns: and the winners are...

By Harold Jansen on Oct 12, 2008

As we're in the dying days of the election, it's time to look back and see who had the best and worst campaigns in this election. It was an odd election, with events overtaking the best laid plans of political strategists and consultants. Just to be clear, this doesn't have anything to do with how these parties will do on election day. This evaluation looks at how well the party did, based on the resources they had and the goals they needed to accomplish.

BEST CAMPAIGN: Agree with them or not, I think it's clear that the NDP ran the smoothest, most focused campaign in the election. They had a clear message that they repeated and stuck to and one that worked in the changing economic environment. Jack Layton hit the right notes pretty consistently and got off the line that my students most remembered from the debate when he asked whether Stephen Harper's platform was under his sweater-vest. I'm not sure they were smart in ignoring the Liberals and esepcially the Greens, but overall they ran a smart, disciplined campaign. The only gaffes or scandals had to do with not vetting candidates properly and their ad campaign was extremely effective and well-produced. Unfortunately for the party, I don't think the increased support they've gained during the campaign is going to translate into many additional seats. It looks to me like people in areas that already like the NDP like them a lot more and that the party hasn't done much to improve elsewhere. Furthermore, I think there's a limit to the NDP's appeal, based on its policies and they're approaching that limit. That said, the party should be proud of its efforts during this campaign.

BEST CAMPAIGN (RUNNER-UP): The Green Party and Elizabeth May have also shown the most growth durign the campaign and also accomplished their goal: they got to participate in the debate and May showed she belonged there. The party is establishing itself as a real "none of the above" alternative to the three old parties. In Alberta and British Columbia, I think we could see some strong showings for local candidates. The party is close to doubling its popular vote showing from the last election. It was a big step forward. The big failing, of course, is that the party is almost assuredly not going to elect any MPs. It would be great to have Elizabeth May in Parliament, but running in Nova Scotia against Peter McKay was just a bad idea. May realizes all of this, which is why she said electoral reform, not action on climate change, would be her first act as Prime Minister. The key for the party now is to recruit some high profile candidates to run for them and to target those districts. Candidate recruitment generally contineus to be an issue for the party. Overall, though, the Greens should be happy with this campaign.

WORST CAMPAIGN: Sorry, Stephen, but the Conservative campaign, which was almost perfect in 2006, just didn't cut it this time. The party had everything going for it: it determined the timing of the election, it had a leader whose leadership ratings far surpassed all of the other parties, it was swimming in money to pay for the election and a ton of pre-writ election spending, and its primary partisan had money, organizational and leadership challenges. Here we are, five weeks later, and the party is limping to the polls, down from where they started the election. The Conservatives will blame the economy, as they were close to majority government territory before the market meltdown. All parties faced this challenge, but the Conservatives seemed to be caught flat-footed, not knowing how to respond. The economy also doesn't explain the series of gaffes from an over-eager war room in the first part of the campaign. It doesn't explain the evaporation of Conservative support in Quebec, which was a direct result of the party's policies on the arts and young offenders. It doesn't explain the lack of a platform for most of the campaign. It also doesn't explain Harper's limp performances in the two debates. It doesn't explain why the party continued to run negative attack ads, when people were looking fo rhope and reassurance. The economy killed them, sure, but the campaign was not terribly effective.

Conservative strategist and University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan gave a lecture here in Lethbridge last year where he talked about the way the Conservatives learned in their campaigns. He showed how the lessons they learned in the two Harper leadership contests and the 2004 election led them to run a very good campaign in 2006. One comment he made in response to a question from the audience still resonates with me. He said that the party would have to learn how to run a re-election campaign, something they've never done. There will be many lessons to learn from this one.

WORST CAMPAIGN (RUNNER-UP): It's tough to pile on here, but Stephane Dion and the Liberals were in the runing for the title of worst campaign until the last couple of weeks where Dion hit his stride and responded forcefully to the economic downturn. Much of the campaign was a disorganized mess, though. The party had trouble getting its message out and never gained traction. The Green Shift was an interesting piece of public policy, but the party never foudn a way to sell it or explain it well. Dion is a bright and sincere person, but was not a very effective communicator for much fo the campaign. What saved them was that Dion improved over the course of the campaign. The party showed the ability to react and think on its feet and responded effectively. It gave them a three point bump in the polls, so the campaign doesn't look that dismal any more, but the end result is that, barring some last minute shifts in opinion, this is going to go down as one of the worst Liberal party showings in history.

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Will any leaders survive a tonight?

I thought this was a great look at how the campaigns we're run however I think we also need to look at the possible consequences of a poorly/well run campaign for the leaders.

Which leader will survive tonight’s results?

This morning Calgary CBC radio had some interesting thoughts on this topic. It was suggested that all the leaders could be set to loose their job tonight even if they achieve a minority government. Harper has failed to engage the public at the end of the campaign and has lost momentum in the key 905 and Quebec areas. Dion’s performance, although marginally better last week, failed to connect with Canadians. I disagree with the CBC comments as I think Layton and May should be safe as they have made gains in this election. If it’s a Conservative minority then Dion will be out in 6 months. If it’s a Liberal/NDP coalition as you’ve suggested could happen Harper will face some significant challenges. May I introduce Peter MacKay Prime Minister of Canada….

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