05.05.2011 06:46 AM

The Lopinski Theorem

In yesterday’s morning after the morning after post, I posted a fun email I received from my Ontario Liberal war room pal Bob Lopinski. It struck a chord with a lot of people; it was Twittered, hither and yon, famous Canadian columnists emailed me approvingly about it, and a bunch of you commented. Here it is again:

“I do really wish there was more science in political science.

This is what I have gleaned from the early analysis:

  1. Voters are moving left, unless they are moving right.
  2. Incumbency is bad, unless you were re-elected.
  3. Voters want change AND even more of the same.
  4. On-the-ground organization and sophisticated micro-targeting work, unless you are a bar-maid canvassing in Las Vegas.
  5. The separatists are preparing to ramp up their campaigns, and as a first step have left the Canadian House of Commons.”

Bob’s point – which political pros like him often make, pre-, post-, and during elections – is that there is no single meaning you can apply to the outcome. Sometimes, it’s just a bunch of things happening, some good for your team, some bad.

The discussion has arisen because, partly, Michael Ignatieff campaigned way better than Stephen Harper – but the latter still beat the stuffing out of the former on E Day. Don’t “campaigns matter” anymore? Well, yes, goes The Lopinski Theorem, except when, you know, campaigns don’t matter.

Pollsters were off; pundits scratched their tall foreheads. In the Open Election Prediction Thread, I offered swell prizes for the person who accurately picked the exact seat outcome. Out of more than 200 entries, on here and Facebook, no one did. In this morning-after entry – which attracted a wk.com record of almost 400 comments – theories abounded, but no consensus was reached.

Ditto the commentariat: Harper won because he’s an evil genius; Ignatieff lost because he had a lousy platform and Canadians didn’t like him; Harper won and Ignatieff lost because the progressive side of the spectrum is divided. And that’s just the first three columnists highlighted over on the invaluable National Newswatch this morning. There’s more discordant stuff out there to read, if you have the patience for it.

I’ve penned my own take in a coming issue of The Walrus – concluded on the morning after all the results rolled in – and I go at it for nearly 4,000 words. I won’t give away what I have to say (the magazine asked me not to), but suffice to say that, after believeing for a lifetime that “campaigns matter,” now I’m not so sure anymore. (But – here I go contradicting myself again – I think a big Conservative federal win means a big Conservative provincial win in Ontario is now gone, baby, gone. Take that, Timmy.)

Thus, The Lopinski Theorem: shit happens, good and bad. People will assign whatever meaning to the results that is consistent with their own biases and prejudices. In a country as big and as diverse as this one, it’s truly dumb to say one thing explains everything, isn’t it?

I’m a Catholic: I believe in divine mysteries. I like that there are some things I can’t explain, that they are ineffable. I draw comfort from the fact that there are some things which aren’t known facts, and that there art many, many things beyond the ken of my puny brain. I don’t need (or want) everything explained to me all the time.

Election 2011, per the theorem. Don’t try and explain it to me. Whatever you come up with will be wrong, and/or right.


  1. Excellent blog post. Warren.

    It’s entirely possible that enough people were sick of minority government that they handed Harper his majority despite any misgivings about his petty nature. Most people I talked with during the election just wanted elections to go away for awhile, but then again, I am deep in the heart of Tory country. (Though my vote mattered as the Tory candidate beat the NDP candidate by about 500 votes. It was very close in Saskatoon Rosetown Biggar)

  2. ottawacon says:

    Is it possible for a national leader to have a good campaign, but a party to have a fairly poor one? That is my overall impression, Ignatieff marginally outperformed Harper, but neither did a compelling job in making the election about what they wanted it to be about. But when you compared performance of the ‘machine’, it was not even close – on elements like ‘retail contact’, GOTV, the Liberals were either nowhere close to ready, or in far over their heads.

  3. Chris Pakkidis says:

    The truth is everyone is right and everyone is wrong – Regardless the reasons there are still systemic issues that need to be addressed by the Liberal Party going forward. I’m frustrated that there’s no forum for grassroots individuals to submit some many noteworthy ideas for consideration…

  4. Pedro says:

    Funny, Canadians heard crickets chirping in 1993 when the PC’s were decimated. The Liberals of today have every pundit and media outlet running national policy debates for the Liberals at no charge. If the Liberals can’t weed out some good advice from all the hand and head wringing about the future of the party with all the chattering going on, then it’s going to be a really long road back.
    Best advice – lick your wounds and get to work like the right side of the political spectrum did after 1993.

  5. Wayne says:

    An analysis that would make Dan Gardner proud!

  6. I really have to laugh at the Lopinsky theorem. All I see is a whole bunch of people, journalists, hacks and flacks, who earn a decent living portraying themselves as pundits, with secret knowledge from the Tree of Politics. Pf course, Lopinsky, and 99% of your readers know this, which is what makes the irony amusing. They are simply copying each other in making unsupportable predictions and observations, whilst the adoring public laps it up, and thinks they are `doing`politics. When they all blow it, they have to quickly invent a plausible story about why they weren`t really wrong. In a few days, the groupthink dynamic will have set in, and they will all decide what totally unpredictable factor collectively lets them off the hook, and they will return to their resting position of purveyors of secret knowledge.

    • Michael S says:

      Same thing happened after the financial crisis. Different experts. But exactly same game. Exactly.

  7. Pat Heron says:

    What I take from Election 2011 is that bullies win: we don’t love them but we fear and respect them. Good guys lose: we love them but we don’t fear or respect them.

    • Pedro says:

      Typical loser attitude.
      How about “Don’t get mad, get even!”
      Half-full, half-empty,
      Take yer pick just do it away from the media and Parliament Hill as has been suggested.
      If we have to hear this stuff trotted out in the media for the next 4 to 10 years many will only get more sick of the whining.

    • Chris Pakkidis says:

      Agreed. Right now we are in the bully, lets be at war with everyone environment. Rob Ford in Toronto, Harper Federally. Let’s hope decent family man McGuinty turns the tide once again.

    • nastyboy says:

      Boo Hoo. Politics is a street fight. Wear a cup.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Campaigns matter. Just look south. More important than campaigns and polls, however, is that voters matter, and collectively they usually choose wisely. Harper asked for stability. He got stability. That’s really all there’s to it. The Liberals can take this opportunity to get their house in order, or let that crackpot Apps continue on with his nonsense.

  9. Bill From Willowdale says:

    I don’t think it was too difficult to see what happened in this election.

    The sixty percent or so of the country that don’t support the Conservatives wanted changed. The NDP made an appeal to Quebecers, was successful and got the ball rolling with some good polling results in the province. The rest of that 60% group moved to the NDP except some Blue Liberals that went to the Conservatives. Our First Pass The Post system allowed the Conservatives to win a large number of vote splits in Ontario and, as a result, we get a majority Conservative government.

    Am I missing something?

    • Paul says:


      60% of the country also voted against J Chretien 3X and he won 3 majority governments. 58% voted against Dalton last time and he won a massive majority.

      This is the Canadian system. None of us will complain if Dalton wins another majority with 38-45% of the popular vote. It just works both ways and has benefited the liberals more often than not. Why do people complain about it and want to change it?

    • JStanton says:

      … here is another way of viewing it:

      Mr. Harper won 40% of the 62% of those registered that voted.

      So he won only 24% of registered voters.

      I’m too lazy to figure out the number as a percentage of population over 16.

      10% … 8%?

      In other scenarios, one would call that a dictatorship. Whether it’s a tyranny or not, we shall see soon enough.


      • The Doctor says:

        So was it a dictatorship when Jean Chretien won a majority government with 38% of the popular vote? I’d be interested to hear your take on that.

        • JStanton says:

          … would you…. would you really?

          Alright then:

          Comparing Mr. Chretien to Mr. Harper is like comparing God to… an altar boy.

          Mr. Chretien had spent 30-odd years in successively senior governmental and corporate posts before he became PM. Mr. Harper had worked in the mailroom of the company his father also worked in, and as a spokesman for a marginal interest.

          Mr. Chretien as a consequence has probably not needed to raise his voice off the links or outside of the House in more than 40 years, while Mr. Harper has to shout and scream just to ensure his caucus don’t speak to the electorate.

          While members of government and the Civil Service willingly followed a man of Mr. Chretien’s stature and accomplishments, Mr. Harper has no such gravitas, and hence, his dreadful manners and undemocratic methods.


          • nastyboy says:

            In other words it’s OK when the Liberals win with less than 41%.

          • The Doctor says:

            Way to avoid actually answering my question. There’s a political job for you out there somewhere.

          • Ron says:

            in all seriousness why so angry?
            Have you been so indoctrinated (or have I) by the media that you hate the man that much?

  10. Michael Bussiere says:

    Anecdotal evidence only. People I know voted for Harper, but hate him and are afraid of him!

    • The Doctor says:

      Yeah, that’s because Harper is like Darth Vader. Via his Jedi Knight powers that have now been directed to evil ends, he telepathically sends waves of fear into these people’s brains, so that, with trembling hands and sweating with fear in the voting booth, they mark an X beside the CPC candidate’s name.

      I’m not making this up.

  11. BillD says:

    What we as a party need right now, is not a leader but a rebuilding. We need thoughtful process and grassroots re-alignment. We need a Mitchell Sharp and we need three wise men from Quebec.

  12. tceh says:

    Orange surge = Orange Fodder for the Conservative 24/7 campaign machine(tm)

    Give it 6 months and this election win for the NDP will feel like a ongoing hangover. I could be wrong, maybe all that young inexperience will get up to speed faster in a hostile HoC environment

  13. sezme says:

    It’s not that campaigns don’t matter, it’s just that the Conservative campaign started in 2009 while the Liberal campaign started 6 weeks ago.

    • Warren says:

      Excellent point.

      • Paul says:

        Also Liz May put 2000 volunteers on the ground and turfed a cabinet minister. The local candidate’s work can make a difference although it is only 10-20%. So campaigns matter somewhat.

    • Philip says:

      Exactly! We are no longer looking at campaigns in terms of days and weeks but years and quite possibly in our case, a decade. Harper created the winning conditions before the writ dropped. Liberals will have to do the same. I believe a Mr. Sun Tsu had something interesting to say on this very subject.

      • Brent Sienna says:

        Forget Sun Tzu I always prefer Conan the Barbarian’s approach to life –

        To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

        Now that I think of it, that sounds a bit like Harper as well. Harper the Barbarian! By Crom!

        Just pictured Harper in a loincloth…. not a pretty picture, must go drink heavily now

  14. Bill M. says:

    Day 3 of a Harper majority and the the TSX is down for a 3rd straight day.

    Let me invoke hyperbole here and clearly state that the markets have spoken.

    Now, I have no photos of fund managers bailing on Harper, perhaps Thomas Mulcair can verify their exsitence.

  15. Joey Rapaport says:

    Don’t think Liberals should worry, Mulclair and the Joke of an NDP caucus in Quebec will ensure they’re back in 4 years!

  16. JH says:

    Those folks sitting around taking comfort from the fact that 60% of the country didn’t vote for the Conservatives or that ‘everybody’ hates Harper, shouldn’t dwell on it. That’s the nature of politics these days in Canada, as has been proven over sucessive elections recently. That kind of belly-button gazing, especially for Liberals, will only distract from the contemplation of the massive rebuilding that needs to be done. It will only be an excuse not to get on with it.
    And someone who knows more about this stuff than I (WK?) will have to comment, but I think this War Room strategy stuff has to be revisited. It seems to me that the Liberal’s scandal-a-day fodder for the media, actually distracted from a cohesive message for the campaign. In addition to MI being thrown off from time to time by the Conservative war room, his own people had him taking a scattershot approach that did not serve him well.

    • Robert W says:

      Interesting point. IN the “battle of the war-rooms” the LPC war-room cohort seemed to be eating its CPC colleagues lunch. However, perhaps one element of their winning effort was the fact that they kept their powder dry, ran things more simply and let their leader focus on their very simple message.

  17. Lopinski Theorem be damned. WK, ask your prescient and now-famous Gut. You Gut will reply:

    “C’mon Warren. The Conservatives won because of vote splitting between the Libs – NDP – Greens. Unite the Centre-Left or else it will happen again and again and again.”

    Listen to your Gut. He Knows….

  18. Al in Cranbrook says:


    I recently had a book handed to me with a exhortation to be sure to read it, as it would forever change my view of the world, and leave me feeling a helluva lot better about it all. I’m about 3/4 through it, and I can only say that this was an understatement.

    The book is called “The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves”, by Matt Ridley. If you’re looking for a tad bit of cheering up, I simply cannot recommend highly enough that you…and everyone else here…find a copy and get right into it. Whatever anyone thinks they know about this world, and the actual history of how we arrived at this point, I guarantee they will be astounded to learn just how much they did not know, and that every time they put down the book they will feel a sense of enlightenment and optimism all too rare these days in a world that seems eternally determined to beat every last breath of it out of us. It’s a truly amazing and brilliantly written, and easy to read, expose that tears through ideological nonsense and pessimistic balderdash with startling clarity that leaves one wondering how (or more to the point, why) they could have overlooked such obvious truths.

    I am certain beyond a whisper of a doubt you will be thankful.


    (PS: If Andrew Coyne and/or Paul Wells happen to stumble upon this post, I keep finding myself thinking that both of you in particular would definitely want to make time for this read!)

    • Thanks Al. What does the book say about the state of our oceans, global climate and species diversity? Just wondering…..

      • Al in Cranbrook says:

        Bill, you would be amazed!

        Let’s just say that AGW is but one more instance amongst a litany of such dating back literally hundreds of years of “end of the world” scenarios predicted by scientists, each one with all the very same degree of doom and gloom, pessimistic certainty that is the hallmark of this nonsense.

        Historically, bad news/pessimism sells and is good biz, while good news and a dime/loony still won’t getcha a coffee.

        Quick f’rinstance, from memory: Currently about 27% of the world’s arable land is required for food production to feed some 6.5 billion people, or at least the best part thereof. However, if the world had to rely upon the state of food production in 1960, the percentage of land required to feed our global population would require over 80% of arable land…meaning, of course, there would be little room left for parks, forests, wildlife, and other ecological wonders we take for granted. Or half the population of the world would have by now perished due to starvation.

        And we can all thank in large part the availability of fossil fuels that made this possible.

        The disconnect between modern, ideologically inspired environmentalism and real world exigencies is, frankly, astounding in the extreme.

        The facts, both historically and economically, presented by Ridley are, to put it mildly, eye-popping and mind-jarring.

        …if not actually life altering.

        • So Ridley’s message on the environment is ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’? What exactly does your phrase “ideologically inspired environmentalism” mean? Is science an ideological construct? Ridley’s book indeed sounds astounding in the extreme.

          • Al in Cranbrook says:


            Perhaps instead of digging for a reason to justify not spending $30 on a very informative book that just might put at peril some personally held ideological beliefs, take a ride on the wild side and give it a spin.

            You don’t think environmentalism, certainly of the sort that’s behind all this AGW stuff as though it were literally religion, involves ideology??? Really??? Science, by its very definition, is detached from ideological/religious premise…or so it supposed to be. This is hardly the case among proponents, including too many so-called “scientists”, of AGW.

  19. mike says:

    Your second last paragraph was Rumsfeldian.

    The Unknown

    As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don’t know
    We don’t know.

    -Donald Rumsfeld

  20. H Holmes says:


    There is some simple things at play.

    The Universe and everything in it will always achieve balance.

    if you elect a hard right federal government.
    Then the hard left provincial governments are more appealing.

    If you elect George W Bush, The only other person that could win is Obama.

    I would think with McGuinty in power in Ontario, there would a lot of people wanting a blue alternative federally.

    Same as when Chretien was whipping the Cons, Harris was dominating Ontario.

    McGuinty will win easy. He is the Tomato in between Ford and Harper. Layton is in the Cheese.

  21. Bradley says:

    Forget any of your theories
    The reasons for the LIberal collapse can be summed up in one word


  22. Dude Love says:

    Dalton is not out of the woods yet. If more of these “secret deals” with the various unions start coming out, then Ontarians will be very peeved.

    I am an OPSEU member and am quite appalled that the government would cut a side deal like this to placate the public sector union before the election.

  23. Andrew Opala says:

    Yes, I agree, or maybe I don’t. Campaigns do matter all the time except when they don’t.

    If we applied buyer psychology and the decision making process from marketing to voter psychology, we would have:
    1. Problem Awareness
    2. Information Search
    3. Evaluation of Alternatives
    4. Purchase
    5. Post-Purchase Evaluation

    The campaign deals with pushing 1, backing it up with 2, and really really trying to influence 3. If your campaign can’t figure out what 1 is, then even if it is well executed it will miss the mark on 2 and 3.

    Warren, even though you are giving Ignatieff credit for running a good campaign, people have been fed the problem from Day 1 by the conservatives. So no problems proposed by the liberals during the campaign had any meaning. I don’t think the campaign was run well. But I’m not really an insider. Perhaps you could poll non-party members on these three points. You may discover we “really didn’t know what this election was about” and chose our own reasons for voting the way we did.

  24. Ted says:

    I don’t think you can say campaigns don’t matter. They do. Only you have to re-define what you mean by campaigns. The Harper Conservatives have used probably over $100M taxdollars (government ads, per vote subsidies, tax credit subsidies, expense reimbursement, 10 percenters, etc) in an ongoing campaign since they got elected. Everything they have done in government has been a campaign for a majority government. Everything.

    The problem – no, “a” problem – with the Liberals is that they decided that the 36 day campaign was all that mattered. And that Canadians would forget the prior 2 and 6 and 40 years.

    Nasty hatchet job personal attack ads are not the only US campaign phenomenon that Harper imported. The constant campaign is too.

  25. Hollywood says:

    I give to you as a gift a Wikileaks copy of the NDP’s 2015 platform. If you people want to get back second place then here it is:

    “We are, like, going to do good stuff. Like, for the people. And NOT to do anything that’s, like, just plain wrong.

    “And we have this guy, named Jason, who’s like really smart with numbers and stuff. And he’s going to make our budget to make sure we have, like, enough for everything or else he’ll call his dad, who’s kinda cool for a dad.

    “And no more rules that are hard to understand about, like, signing people up so we can, like, run.


  26. ben burd says:

    As usual I think you are all wrong. The instant gratification demanded by the consumer coupled with the ability to make instant visceral decisions based on one’s gut leads to viral “leadership politics” Get used to it: ideas, will not work unless you are giving the consumer some money or appealing to their venal biases. Dalton is done, Hudak will be carried so far by the FordNation and the electoral mess will be tempered by the calming effect of Horvath talking sense and looking unlike the other wild men. In other words another election mess.

  27. this all reminds me of the story my father told me about some parents who would come into his classroom (high school teacher) and ask him about little Johnny…why little Johnny wasn’t doing as well as he should be in class; why little Johnny’s potential was not being reached; … my father would dare not say…but he told us; do you think that little Johnny might just be stupid?

    The Liberals were just plain stupid to put Ignatieff in as their leader. I remember the photo shot of him in Montreal at the Liberal convention when he lost the leadership…he was like a little boy sitting down with people all hovering around him…I think he actually was crying.

    Not the kind of guy you want to lead the party….Had you Liberals a leader (this is not hindsight) this election would have been a landslide victory for you.

    • sezme says:

      Well sure, but where does one find a true leader? Apparently, these are hard to come by, even if your cause is just. What I mean is that… the competition among possible Liberal leaders wasn’t that inspiring. I think Bob Rae would have done okay strictly on personality, but if you think the Cons were harsh to Dion and Iggy, they’d positively cremate Rae. The Libs should start the search by thinking outside the old white mailbox…

      • Paul says:

        You have to be prepared to go 2 elections with someone. By election #4, Canadians were not buying the theory that Harper would put tanks in the street or cancel healthcare.

        I wonder what would have happened if Dion had run 2X. Probably better numbers.

  28. james Smith says:

    Lopinski’s theorem; Schrödinger’s cat of poly sci


  29. Cath says:

    “Thus, The Lopinski Theorem: shit happens, good and bad. People will assign whatever meaning to the results that is consistent with their own biases and prejudices. In a country as big and as diverse as this one, it’s truly dumb to say one thing explains everything, isn’t it?”

    I like this line WK. This can be applied to just about anything and that philosophy is also going to make it extra difficult for a new party to emerge I think.

    Actually, watching the going’s on with the NDP right now – I see them crashing sooner rather than later and the novelty in Quebec wearing off VERY quickly. That bodes well for the regrouping and redefinition of the LPOC. I would also be less inclined to jump into a merge with these guys just in case they screw up so badly that a merger with them wouldn’t be smart.

  30. Cath says:

    I don’t understand how you can say that Ignatieff had a good campaign.
    Isn’t the contest about winning? If he had had a good campaign you wouldn’t be, as a party where you are?

    Or, by suggesting that Ignatieff had a good campaign are you simply “assigning whatever meaning to the results that is consistent with” your own biases and prejudices?

    You just proved your own theory correct.

  31. Craig Chamberlain says:

    We had the election we did because the NDP surge that ensued from its momentum in Quebec made a lot Blue Liberals and Red Tories IN ONTARIO very nervous about the prospect of having PM Jack Layton — so enough of them voted CON to tip the scales. Otherwise, Mr. Harper would have been returned to a minority government.

  32. Paul R Martin says:

    Mr. Lopinski and the Ontario Liberal war room will soon have a chance to test the theory that Ontario voters want a different party in power in Queens Park than in Ottawa. In Ontario, Liberals may get squeezed again. They have been concentrating on the Conservatives, yet the Ontario NDP has a very able leader. Today’s story that the Ontario Liberals bought labour peace by providing a secret wage increase to public servants will not help. Both the Conservatives and Liberals will have several issues that they can use to attack the Provincial Liberals. It should be a very interesting battle this fall.

  33. Paul R Martin says:

    You are very feisty today Warren. The provincial election will be this fall and a lot can change between then and now. Still, I think that the Ontario Liberals will lose despite the best efforts of a very skilled election team.

  34. Hollywood says:

    I am amused by the constant returns people here make to simplistic solutions which would have won this election for the Liberals.

    Face it: You finished behind an NDP party that had a platform “as nutty as squirrel poop” as Kinsella put it. Your vote has gone down every election.

    Time to face the hard truths:

    – You were anti-western bigots for too long.

    – You exploited regional tensions for short-term gains. (All of which have now come back to haunt you.)

    – You placed too much emphasis on leadership over policy. (I agree with the poster who suggested that Dion should have been given a second election. The NDP and Conservatives gave their leaders second chances.)

    – Your grassroots loyalty was motivated by graft and patronage rather than policy and commitment to a cause. (Which is why you can’t raise funds right now.)

    – You vaguely lumped yourselves as a “party of the left” thus abandoning your right wing and the former PC voters to the Conservatives. Martin did this during the 2004 campaign to salvage a minority. Then it became part of your mantra.

  35. Political Outsider says:

    “I think a big Conservative federal win means a big Conservative provincial win in Ontario is now gone, baby, gone. Take that, Timmy.”

    Just for the record, what would have been the best result for Tim Hudak? A Liberal landslide? An NDP tsunami? A three-way split?

    I’m sure Mr. Hudak thinks a Blue sweep of the GTA and eight-and-a-half seats in Toronto is just fine, thank you very much.

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