Election post-mortem, Part 2: Why did the NDP get blown out? A war-room strategist explains

ANALYSIS: TVO.org speaks with a party insider about why “NDP curious” voters got spooked at the last minute
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 24, 2019
Jagmeet Singh
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife, Gurkiran Kaur, wave to supporters at NDP election headquarters in Burnaby, British Columbia, on October 21. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

On Monday, Canadians voted in a federal election. Much attention had been paid to the Greater Toronto Area as a key battleground. In the end, the Liberals essentially held their “Fortress Toronto” — despite losing the popular vote nationally, Liberal strength in and around the city allowed Justin Trudeau to maintain a strong minority in Parliament.

In this three-part series, TVO.org will ask experts and stakeholders for their thoughts on what happened in and around Toronto. Today, we talk to an NDP strategist who was inside the war room assisting with parts of the local and national campaigns. (TVO.org granted the official anonymity so that they could speak freely and candidly.) 

Matt Gurney: I guess we should start at the beginning. In your analysis, what happened in the GTA on Monday night?

NDP strategist: The GTA did what the GTA has done, at least from the NDP’s perspective, again and again over the last five to 10 years. The prospect of a rising Conservative party, or Liberal fear-mongering about a rising Conservative party, helped push progressive voters to the Liberals. [Liberal leader Justin] Trudeau spent the last week or so of the campaign saying Canada needed a progressive government, not a progressive opposition, and he might as well have said, “I’m looking at you, Andrea Horwath.” Then [Conservative leader] Andrew Scheer mind-boggingly started talking about a majority, and voters who’d been looking at us were in a tough position. People who’d maybe been a little “NDP curious” were nervous. The campaign did what it could to forestall some of that stuff, but, I think, over the last 24 hours — and especially when people were in the cardboard booth — well, that’s what I think happened to the NDP in the GTA.

Gurney: I’ve already spoken with one of your counterparts from the Conservative GTA campaign. And one of the things that I was told was that their numbers were bad — they did not have good data. They genuinely expected to do better in the GTA than they did. With hindsight now, how did you guys do? Was your data good?

NDP strategist: Yeah. I think so. We were being very realistic in our expectations of what we’d take out of the GTA. We had a few target ridings — Parkdale–High Park, maybe Brampton East with a good three-way split — and felt good about the data we had. And the data was good. We didn’t have a data problem.

Gurney: What were your challenges?

NDP strategist: Two big ones. First was a media-buy issue. The Toronto media market, even for social media, is very expensive. Getting a big advertising buy to really push our message in the final 24 to 48 hours just wasn’t something we were able to do. And our leader tour actually was great and had great results — I think a lot of people are seeing that now, that Jagmeet [Singh, the NDP leader] really did have a good tour and campaign, but a lot of his time was taken up by races in British Columbia. 

Gurney: What were you happy with?

NDP strategist: Well, I was just saying a minute ago ... with the leader tour. Jagmeet was spectacular. We really did energize a lot of voters. His preferred prime minister numbers began to rise post-debates and definitely post, uhhh, “awkward” Trudeau photos and video. Eighteen-to-24s, especially in downtown Toronto, really turned their lonely eyes to Jagmeet. And I think we really did a good job with the social-media platforms. It can sound like a frivolous thing, but it really is a great way to connect with younger voters, and I think we did really well with it. His TikTok went viral, got 1.2 million hits. Also, especially later in the campaign, when it was obvious we were probably heading to a minority, a lot of people, a lot of young and progressive people especially, really did get a chance to see a path to the NDP, even with a smaller caucus, having real power in Parliament. I think that matters and will help us in the future. These are net positives for us, and we’re going to start working, immediately, on building our teams in the ridings we can do best in. 

Gurney: I guess you knew this was coming, but I have to ask: if that’s what you liked, what didn’t you like?

NDP strategist: The results in the GTA obviously weren’t what we’d hoped. But our biggest challenges were before the campaign. With fundraising being where it was, and morale, we didn’t have the fight we had in the [Jack] Layton days. And like I said above, it’s just really hard to get your message out into the Toronto market. It’s expensive, and it’s crowded, and I just don’t know if our message penetrated as much as we needed it to. A lot of that stuff gets bought up early. Without the budget for a big last-minute media buy, a lot of messages you want to push home that might have come up early just don’t make it through to the finish line. It’s really hard to get people’s attention in a market that busy, and we didn’t have the financial position for the last 24 hours.

Gurney: I know you were more focused on war-room stuff, but, to the extent that you’re able, what were you hearing from voters at the door?

NDP strategist: I was in touch with all the local campaigns, and there was a lot of optimism. People sat up and noticed when Jagmeet, about two weeks before the vote, began openly speaking about a minority government and the role the NDP would play. He said what everyone was starting to think already — that no one had enough support to get a majority, and he just laid out what the NDP’s top priorities were going to be. It was a smart tactic. It got people talking, and it took away a bit of that fear of the Conservatives winning a majority and jumping out of the bushes in the middle of downtown Toronto. After the debates and after that, we really did feel momentum was starting to shift: people at the door were telling us they believed Jagmeet would fight for them in the House; they were energized about pharmacare. We had 1,500 people at a rally in Brampton and felt good. Even as we were getting people out to polling stations to vote, people were still ticked off at Trudeau. The mood was upbeat. And it was until the last minute, when a lot of people got spooked. And that hurt us across the GTA. 

Gurney: Anything come up and surprise you this campaign?

NDP strategist: A lot of the surprise was positive at first. The campaign really seemed to come together well for us. It felt good. I don’t want to say that that surprised me, but it wasn’t something we had taken for granted, and it was great to see it. But, for me, the big surprise was blackface. The dynamic seemed to be that [Trudeau] was sorry, and so it’s fine. He gave his apology, it seemed to check all the boxes of what an apology should sound like, and people said, well, okay. There wasn’t a deeper conversation about it, at the riding level, on the campaign trail. It was big in the media, but I thought it would be a bigger moment. It didn’t move people away from Trudeau. It shifted people into an uneasy, undecided category. I expected a bigger impact.

As to the results, though, we had a range of expectations going in. Some of the polls had given us a hope of doing better. There was cautious optimism that we could stretch past 25 or 30 seats. New Democrats have seen this movie before. We know what can happen. But 24 seats in a minority isn’t bad. And the data ended up basically matching what we ended up seeing.

Gurney: What now? God only knows when the next election is going to be — could be six months, could be four years. What are you guys doing right away?

NDP strategist: First? We gotta get some sleep. [laughs] Second, we need to have a conversation about those target seats. We have to keep those machines ready. We need to make calls, knock on doors. We want to identify and nominate candidates early and get them on doorsteps. But first, we gotta let people take their vacations. Once they’re back, we’ll sit down at the table and start building our capacity, making sure our machines are ready. And fundraising is a huge priority. We need money coming in in Ottawa and trickling down to the ridings. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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