Expectations, Expectations

By Jared Wesley on Sep 12, 2008

Establishing expectations are key to a party’s success in any election.  George Bush’s “surprising” performance as an “underdog” in the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign is only the most prominent example.  (In that case, Karl Rove’s ability to downgrade people’s expectations of the soon-to-be-president’s oratory skills gave Bush the pivotal post-debate bounce that carried him to the White House.)


The Conservatives are very familiar with the importance of expectations.   Harper’s open musings about a majority government killed his party’s momentum in the closing days of the 2004 campaign, and handed Paul Martin the election.  The Conservatives apparently learned their lesson two years later, downplaying the party’s prospects throughout the campaign.  The move paid off, as more swing voters appeared comfortable entrusting Harper with a minority government in 2005/6. 


The Tories face an even greater challenge this time, however.  The 2008 election marks the first time in twenty years that the Tories have entered a campaign with a lead in the polls, and the party is trying hard to downplay any notions that it may win a majority government.  This amounts to a difficult balancing act, with the Conservatives forced to defend their record and put Harper forward as a strong leader, yet openly concede that they’re unlikely to persuade enough people to win complete legislative control.  (The task is made more difficult by the fact that the Liberals will spend the entire campaign rehashing Martin’s 2004 theme: ‘Beware of a Harper Majority.’)


For their part, the Liberals have publicly reveled in the Conservatives’ portrayal of Dion as a weaker leader.  (With every poll suggesting that the public believes the Tories, the Grits are left with little choice but to spin as best they can.)  In a form of political judo, the Liberals are branding Dion as an “underdog” – a role he supposedly relishes since his surprise leadership victory.    The Liberals are walking a fine line in accepting the premise that their leader is weaker than the Prime Minister, however.  Should the Tories convince voters that tough times are ahead, and should the campaign continue to revolve around leadership (a song even Dion appears content in singing), current polling numbers suggest the Conservatives will make inroads.  Nonetheless, Dion is left with few options (e.g., running as the “Dion Team”, alongside Rae and Ignatieff, would only weaken his image) but to continue cultivating low expectations and hope for a break later in the campaign.  Given the depths of his image, at this stage, Liberals have to be hoping there’s no where to go but up.  To borrow a phrase from Mr. Bush, they hope people have “misunderestimated” their leader.  Time will determine the accuracy of these estimates.


The New Democrats have chosen a bold approach in this election by actually raising expectations of their performance.  Seizing upon polls that rank him as Canada’s second most popular federal leader, Layton is portraying himself as a prime minster in waiting.  This marks a major shift in party strategy from the previous two NDP campaigns, when Layton literally asked Liberal supporters to “lend” him their votes on a temporary basis.  The move now forces Layton to improve his party’s standing in order to claim any sort of victory on October 14.  With 30 MPs at dissolution, the NDP is a long way from its high-watermark of 43 seats (set in 1988).  At 17.5 percent of the popular vote, the party would have to break the 20 percent barrier to establish any sense of momentum.  With Layton’s swagger thus far, however, it appears nothing less than a second-place finish is acceptable (at least in the longer term). 


Truth be told, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton see eye to eye on that.  From a tactical point of view, this election is all about the Conservatives displacing the Liberals as Canada’s natural governing party, and the New Democrats displacing the Grits as Canada’s left wing champion.  It’s not a new storyline, and it won’t end on October 14.


For the time being, keep an eye on how Harper, Dion and Layton frame their party’s expectations.  These decisions could go a long way toward determining their leadership status on October 15th.

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