Understanding the Vote

Political junkies of all political stripes were surprised as the strong Liberal polling lead appeared, and even more surprised as it grew.  Even after settling back a bit, it resulted in a strong majority. What are the possible explanations?

Perhaps the seeds of the NDP defeat were planted in the lead-up to the 2009 election. There was clearly fatigue with the PC government of the day. Arguably, the NDP won because Dexter was better than McNeil at being “not Rodney.”

Describing himself as a “conservative progressive” was a clever idea, but Dexter went way beyond that. He promised to balance the books without raising taxes, and immediately broke both promises. His argument that the province’s financial condition was much worse than they could have known just did not hold water. In Graham Steele, he had the most insightful finance critic in decades.

Dexter promised a break from old style politics. Whatever that was supposed to mean, voters certainly did not believe that it happened.

In fact, government press releases on matters large and small often had a distant relationship with the truth. The arguments in favour of Muskrat Falls were full of deceptions. Success was proclaimed in the promise to reduce the civil service when nothing had been accomplished. Important details of financial transactions were often left out—for example, the loan to Cabot Links was initially described as interest-bearing without mentioning that the first three years were interest-free.

If voters needed a reminder that the NDP liked to fool people, it was there in the Metro Newspaper front cover dressed up to look like a news story when in fact it was a NDP campaign advertisement. No wonder the claim of a balanced budget was treated as suspect.

In the weeks before the election we had a torrent of spending announcements, which must have struck voters as a great deal like old-style politics.

In 2009, many voters supported the NDP for the first time. Very few of them were satisfied with their choice. On Tuesday, the NDP share of vote dropped to 27%, the first time in twenty years that it has been lower than 30%.

So this election was about who best could position himself as “not Darrell.”

In this competition, the Liberals had a number of advantages.

First, the federal Conservative party is not well liked at the moment, while there is a nice glow around federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. This shouldn’t make any difference at the provincial level—does anyone think Newfoundland and Labrador PC premier Danny Williams took orders from Stephen Harper? But in practice, it does impact voter preferences.

Secondly, the Liberals were the Official Opposition. They were the logical first choice for voters looking for an alternative and had better chances at media attention.

Thirdly, they received an immense gift from an unexpected source. Last year the NDP bought attack ads criticizing McNeil’s position on power imports. Never mind that it was a position the Liberals had not taken. What the NDP did was spend a lot of their money to make McNeil the leading contender as “not Darrell.” Baillie should have been green with envy.

This is not to take anything away from the Liberals. They were ahead of the PCs in drawing distinctions between themselves and the government. They ran a competent campaign. Their position on budgets and taxes was credible, if unambitious. They have won a solid mandate, without making the kind of impossible-to-keep promises that came back to haunt the NDP.

So full congratulations to the Liberals as they form a new government, but they should recognize that it was not fascination with their policies or adulation for their leader that elected them. Rather, as so often in the past, this was an election that was more lost than won, and they happen to be the beneficiaries.

As is the custom, Premier-elect McNeil said on election night that he was humbled by the opportunity. Hopefully he means it.  With a couple of minor exceptions, none of his MLAs have any cabinet experience, nor do any of them have any experience running a large enterprise.

Being in government is actually a very difficult job for which a new Premier and Cabinet are never adequately prepared. Humility is an entirely appropriate and desirable response.

New Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie struck a nice tone Tuesday night in wishing McNeil well. No doubt he meant it.

But if the next government makes poor choices, and even more if they are less than truthful, then Baillie will be first in line when the voters want to elect someone who is “not Stephen.”


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