In Tuesday’s Sun: what is the effect of an attack ad on the attacked?

Whenever political parties unleash new ads – as is happening this week in Ontario – reporters inevitably call up the so-called experts.

They call political scientists, image consultants and pollsters. They call political strategists.

But they never call up the people the ads are actually about: the political leaders themselves. If they did – and if the leaders said what they really think – it might be pretty revealing.

In 1993, when John Tory, Allan Gregg and others cooked up an ad that mocked Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis, those of us in the Liberal Party war room were livid. But Chretien’s own reaction was revealing.

He didn’t seem surprised or as angry as the rest of us. He was calm. In retrospect, it almost seemed like he was expecting the Conservatives to stoop that low – so he rose to the occasion.

“God gave me a physical defect, I’ve accepted that since I was a kid,” he told a teary campaign gathering, on his way to a massive Parliamentary majority. “When I was a kid, people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.”

That was the Fall of 1993. More recently, in 2009, another Liberal leader was the target of another barrage of Conservative attack ads. Over and over, Canadians were told Michael Ignatieff was “just visiting.”

At first, Ignatieff dismissed the ads. He laughed at them, but it sounded hollow. It was apparent that the ads bothered him a great deal – and that he was privately worried that they would hurt him in the coming election.

They did, of course. Ignatieff lost his own seat, and the once-great Liberal Party was reduced to its worst showing in history.

Which brings us to the present. For the past year or so, the Conservatives have been targeting another Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau. Almost from the moment Trudeau received the tarnished Grit crown, Tories have been running nasty ads about him.

There is a theme that runs through the ads. They show him doing a strip-tease at a charity event. They show him sporting a Pirates of the Caribbean-style goatee, and with long locks. They show him speaking with the faintest hint of a lisp.

Without saying so, it is clear what the Harper Conservatives are doing. They are not simply attempting to depict Trudeau as not being “up to the job” of Prime Minister. As a former Ignatieff advisor remarked: “They’re trying to suggest he’s effeminate.”

Harper and his party would strenuously deny this, naturally, just as they denied they were mocking Jean Chretien’s face. But it is hard to shake the suspicion that the Cons feel Trudeau isn’t manly enough.

Trudeau, perhaps, knows this too.

It arguably explains some of his own behaviour: the boxing matches, the flashing of biceps, the singular brutality with which he has dealt with some within his own party – the Senators, dissidents, pro-lifers.

Trudeau doesn’t speak to anyone at Sun News, so we don’t know whether his insistence on displays of derring-do are authentic, or if he is trying to make a point. But it’s not unfair to wonder if the Conservative ads don’t keep him awake, some nights.

If a reporter ever gets around to asking a leader what he or she thinks about an attack ad, the response is predictable: that it’s offensive, it’s silly, it’s outrageous.

But in their unguarded, private moments, is that what they really think? Probably not.

In the meantime, however, we’ll continue to hear plenty of blather from the political scientists and the image consultants.


Bricker does my thinking for me

I know, I know, pollsters get things wrong, these days.  Believe me, I know.

But Ipsos, Abacus and the precious few others who actually, you know, talk to real people still do fine work (and it’s why my firm uses them, by the way).

Darrell’s tweets below neatly summarize what I said to Lala over the weekend: (a) too many Liberal voters think they’re going to win, (b) so they haven’t paid enough attention to the intensity of Hudak’s vote; (c) the Wynne campaign has been all over the map – attacking the NDP, then talking up NDP-Liberal coalition; (d) attacking Hudak for his plan – but two weeks after the fact; and (e) believing everyone in the province remembers a budget that no one remembers, and calling that their plan.

Again: I would be surprised if half the province is actually aware there is a campaign going on.  And those circumstances always favour Conservatives. Ask Stephen Harper: he’s been winning for a decade with a smaller, but more-engaged voter base.  Apathy is his (and Hudak’s) friend.



Olivia vs. John

Olivia Chow attended literally dozens of community get-togethers and fun fairs and whatnot over the weekend. She was non-stop.

John Tory’s campaign? Well, um, their chief spokesperson was on Twitter, (a) attacking Liberals and (b) defending Tim Hudak’s dalliances with the Tea Party.

Adam Goldenberg reminds me a little of the neo-Nazis I used to interview

They dressed up bigotry and hate with lots of fancy words, as I recall. But it was still bigotry and hate.

Ignatieff’s one-time speechwriter isn’t in any way a far-Right lunatic, of course. But I won’t link to his recent error-ridden, appalling anti-Catholic op-ed in the Globe. For the same reason that I don’t, say, link to David Irving or Ernst Zundel’s stuff.

Oh, and Justin Trudeau? Great job there, pal, not “reopening the abortion debate.” You have instead opened the floodgates to the kind of ugliness that Goldenberg now spews in the Globe. Well done.




Urban Ontario meets Rural Ontario

[I’m outside Toronto, in a small convenience store. A man in a uniform, holding a clipboard, is sternly addressing a young man about propane gas storage.]

Officious official: And what is your emergency response procedure, please?

Young man: Hey, Mom _ what do we do when something goes wrong?


Ipsos’ numbers + H&K’s ridiculous seat projection widget =


I don’t believe it, myself, but H&K’s thing fun to play with I guess (but just remember, kids, Hill and Knowlton are the Satanic overlords who brought us the Persian Gulf War).

My take, in easy-to-digest bullets:

  • No one is paying attention at all.
  • The people who are paying attention find the choices uninspiring.
  • None of the parties have much money to spend.
  • All of the parties are exhausted by the length of this campaign.
  • There is no single galvanizing issue…
  • Turnout will therefore be very low.
  • Low turnout, low engagement always favours the conservative option (which is why they like vote suppression so much).

So Hudak had an unhappy get-together with the Globe and Mail editorial board, according to Canada’s most-boring newspaper columnist?

Big deal.  Harper has won successive victories by flipping the bird to those of us who make up the news media. For Conservatives and conservatives, being hated by ink-stained wretches and wretchesses is a good thing.

So, again: I don’t see a majority for Hudak.  But if he has a good debate (and if Horwath does, too, and she likely will) – and if his GOTV is superior (and it likely will be) – a PC minority appears to be in the cards.

Less than two weeks to go. That debate is going to be pretty important – if anybody bothers to watch it, that is.


In Friday’s Sun: coalition volition

It was Kathleen Wynne’s campaign event, but it was also a testament to Stephen Harper’s political skills.

Let us explain. There the Ontario Liberal leader was, on Wednesday: in a Toronto–area classroom, a gaggle of smiling kindergarten kids gathered behind her. She was there to announce something or the other, but it doesn’t really matter what it was. What matters is the following exchange between Wynne and the assembled news media, when she was asked about the governing Liberals’ relationship with the New Democrats.

Said Wynne: “I’m not going to pre-empt the decision of people on June 12. I’m just not going to do that.”

A reporter, sounding amazed, interjected: “You’re NOT ruling out a coalition?”

Wynne responded right away, cheerfully stepping into the yawning chasm that Stephen Harper has carved out of our political culture.

“I’m not ruling out anything,” she said, and you could almost hear the air go out of that classroom. Wynne had twice refused to rule out THAT. She hadn’t said THAT, true, but her meaning was clear. She was ready to consider THAT.

And, THAT, of course, is the word that Stephen Harper, through a lot of hard work and no small amount of dishonesty, has rendered completely radioactive: COALITION. In other places, in other countries, “coalition” is a perfectly sensible way of governing oneself. In Israel, a nation many of us rather admire, they do it all the time. So too in other democracies.

But in Canada, no. Here, Harper has transformed “coalition” into something that is fundamentally anti-democratic. Here, coalitions are akin to revolution; they are anathema. To save his skin, Harper has successfully persuaded many people that coalitions are illegitimate – despite having agitated for one in 2004, when he was in Opposition. Once in power, it became lots of dark warnings about “a coalition of Liberals, separatists and socialists.” That sort of thing. It worked.

Kathleen Wynne was right to refuse to rule out a coalition with the NDP, following Ontario’s election June 12 conclusion. But, in politics, right is rarely the same thing as smart. In other words, she made a big mistake, one Ontarians are likely to be hearing quite a bit about in the coming days. Three reasons.

One, Wynne has been bombarding the airwaves with anti-NDP attack ads for weeks. She has even (rashly) gone to the trouble of narrating the attacks ads herself. How can she expect voters to now understand her sudden desire to leap into bed with Andrea Horwath? To many, it makes no sense. Either the NDP is a threat to democracy, or they are a partner in governing. They cannot be both.

Two, Wynne has effectively given Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak an excellent way to change the channel on his current dilemma. At the campaign’s outset, you see, Hudak announced his “million jobs plan,” and who can be against creating a million jobs? But then, immediately thereafter, the PC leader also declared his intention to fire 100,000 public servants.

To voters, that didn’t make much sense. How can you say you are going to create a lot of jobs, and then simultaneously flush a lot of jobs?

Wynne’s surprise announcement gives a relieved Hudak a stick with which he will beat the Liberals, and change the aforementioned channel on his own problems.

Thirdly, and finally, Wynne’s timing was terrible. One should never, ever indulge in coalition-talk around elections (ask Stephane Dion). For one thing, it suggests to everyone that you think you are going to lose. For another, it looks like you are trying to circumvent the people’s will with a dirty backroom deal.

Kathleen Wynne was, as noted, quite entitled to talk up coalitions. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t just handed an undeserved victory to her opponent.

Ask Stephen Harper. He knows.