Thursday, March 20, 2008

On expectations

So we've now confirmed that the full extent of the Red Green argument about the NDP holding fire against the Cons amounts to a complaint that while the NDP criticizes the Cons in three quarters of its press releases, it missed an opportunity to do so on Heritage Day. Which, from my standpoint, should nicely dispense with the conventional wisdom surrounding this week's by-election results (even if it doesn't stop Libs or Greens from continuing to ignore the evidence).

That said, let's take one last look at what the NDP could (and should) have done better surrounding the by-elections. And in that regard, I'll expand somewhat on my analysis from before the results came in.

The central theme which I didn't pick up at that time was a gap between the NDP and the other parties in giving voters a specific reason to cast a by-election ballot in their favour. Leading up to the by-elections, the Libs were frantic to try to hold onto their seats and build some momentum; the Cons made ample noise about road-testing their ethnic communities strategy; and the Greens spent plenty of time talking about challenging the NDP and turning their polling numbers into votes.

The NDP, on the other hand, didn't do much (from what I saw) to set any public expectations or goals going into the by-elections. In essence, the message aside from a contrast against other parties was "vote NDP for the sake of voting NDP". And in retrospect, despite the best efforts of the NDP's riding volunteers, that likely meant both that solid NDP supporters had little reason to make the effort to vote, and that swing voters had little immediate reason to favour the NDP over the other parties who had set out what they planned to accomplish through the by-elections.

Now, there are some mitigating factors. In each of the ridings in play the NDP finished between 13% and 45% behind the party in front of it in 2006, making it a dubious proposition to set expectations of passing anybody without any star candidates in the mix. And unlike the Greens, the NDP couldn't plausibly claim a triumph in putting up a double-digit percentage of the vote.

But that doesn't mean the NDP couldn't have worked to set goals and meet them. That could have taken the form of seeking to close some of the existing gaps, or trying to send the Libs a message that their non-opposition isn't acceptable, or even of giving valuable experience to a new set of bright young candidates (which might have both provided an end goal and explained some hiccups in the results).

Instead, the NDP failed to set public expectations before the trip to the polls. Which not only figures to have hurt the NDP's results in the by-elections themselves, but had left the party offering a dubious explanation after the fact as to why those results shouldn't be given too much credence. But even the "we weren't really trying" excuse lends itself to the question of why the party wouldn't have set at least some goals.

In sum, the lesson to be taken from the by-elections should be that the NDP can't afford to let such a substantial event pass without making a concerted effort to influence the media narrative. And hopefully the NDP will both learn from that mistake, and keep up its work on a broader narrative that only it can provide an effective counterbalance to the Cons.

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