When the going got tough, the tough bowed out

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But once the writ was dropped, that door was closed. So given Wynne’s personal numbers, why was campaign messaging all about her?

First published in The Hill Times on June 11, 2018.

OTTAWA—Nobody wants to vote for a loser. Which is why in most elections, even the candidate who is running last has an intrinsic belief that they can win.

Even those who are savvy enough to read the numbers, keep up a bold front for the sake of their supporters.

To keep the volunteers pumped, candidates actually lead the charge, even when the numbers tell a different tale.

When former Ontario premier David Peterson lost the election to Bob Rae back in 1990, he spent the last days of the campaign in a mad dash across the province, stopping at multiple airports where party faithful gathered for quick mini-rallies to pump up the troops.

By the final Hamilton stop, Peterson was hoarse and bedraggled, hardly the image of a winning candidate. But he continued to beat the victory drum, encouraging party workers to get out the vote.

The tide had turned and the momentum was unexpectedly seized by the New Democrats. The situation was not as dismal for the Liberals as last week’s election but there was no doubt the party was headed for defeat.

But for the sake of the team, no one spoke of loss.

Not so this time.

In what has to go down as one of the strangest political moves ever, someone convinced Premier Kathleen Wynne that she should concede defeat the week before the election.

After the move, her campaign co-director David Herle went on a media offensive, characterizing the Wynne decision as selfless and courageous.

I beg to differ.

What Wynne’s move succeeded in doing was to throw candidates under the bus in tight ridings across the province.

Why should anyone support a party in an election when it’s leader has already run up the white flag?

The campaign was a confused parody from the get-go. The final good-bye was simply a reflection of a strategy that never got off the ground.

First, Wynne’s unpopularity was not a surprise. Poll after poll in the year leading up to the election had shown that public response to the leader was visceral and negative.

Wynne was wearing some mistakes that had happened during the time of the previous administration but the bottom line was that people had made up their minds and they simply did not like her.

Many of the negatives were spawned because she is a woman and a lesbian, a double whammy in an old-boy’s world.

But politics is not fair. And she should have had a frank conversation with her campaign team early enough for the party to reach out to a new leader.

Even then, victory would have been a long shot. Any party in power for 15 years ends up with more enemies than friends.

But once the writ was dropped, that door was closed. So given Wynne’s personal numbers, why was campaign messaging all about her?

Instead of advertisements focused on softening the leader’s image, why didn’t the party promote a great team, what had been achieved and plans for the future?

A positive, ideas-based campaign, that highlighted depth and breadth in Liberal ranks would have given the Liberals a fighting chance. Even at the end, the sorry, not sorry message was contradictory at best, and continued the focus on Wynne’s Achilles heel, her unpopularity.

The pièce de resistance was when Wynne decided to announce her defeat almost a week in advance of voting day.

Why not hang on, focus on the ridings where strong local candidates had traction, and work to motivate the party base to get out and vote? Of course the numbers were grim. Twenty per cent and falling. But the reality is, in a provincial election half the province does not bother to turn out to vote.

So even at 20, the possibility of a strong opposition was still there.

Local riding associations would not have been left to fend for themselves, selling the message that even though their leader has given up, they have not.

Wynne’s advisers must have convinced her that quitting early was the right thing to do.

This is not the first time that Herle championed a scorched-earth strategy. As chief adviser to former prime minister Paul Martin, he personally plotted the replacement of dozens of Liberal members with hand-picked supporters. In the end, the party was torn apart and Liberals were defeated in most of those seats.

No election is easy.

But once committed, a leader sticks it out. When the going gets tough, the tough don’t bow out.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.