The Surprising NDP Surge: Image and control in Election 41

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If the first week of this campaign was all about the “reckless coalition,” the last week is all about the “NDP surge.” That the NDP should be solidly in second place and, according to some, closing the gap on the leading Conservatives is certainly surprising. Yet the reasons for this boost in popularity are clear and have, it seems to me, at least as much to do with image as with policy.

We started the campaign with images of a thinner, slow-moving Jack Layton walking with the aid of a cane or walking stick. I remember musing on CTV News Channel that this kind of image would either hurt the NDP (Layton as old, frail and weak) or help them (Layton as courageous and determined in the face of both cancer and hip surgery). To their credit, many Canadians were able to get past the instant, surface reading of white hair, walking stick and small steps. Layton emerged as someone with whom many voters could identify: a trustworthy and very human figure, perhaps less slick and polished than the Jack Layton of previous elections, all to the good.

Layton also used humour from the very start of the campaign to assuage any fears about his health and differentiate himself from his rivals. In the campaign’s very first press conference, he suggested he could undress and show reporters how well his scars were healing before admitting that it wouldn’t make for very good television. Instantly, he defused much of the concern and made himself all the more approachable.

When faced with the coalition question that hamstrung Ignatieff and obsessed Harper, Layton smiled and indicated he was willing to work with any party and get things done in Parliament. Now quite apart how one feels about this as a matter of policy, what worked for Layton was how consistent he was in his position and how comfortable he was with the question both in terms of a possible coalition with the Liberals and a previous letter of agreement with the Conservatives.

As the election campaign wore on and Layton’s health returned, we saw more of the usual vigour, culminating in a very solid performance in both the English and French debates. Here again, humour served him well, as did the easy smile. His body language was more relaxed than the others, with his suit jacket open, hand on hip and fluid gestures. In comparison, Ignatieff – the skilled academic debater – seemed stiff at first and his voice betrayed great frustration with Harper’s calm and confident demeanour, and Layton’s pokes (in particular the reminder that Ignatieff had missed a number of votes in the House of Commons). Igantieff would hit his stride in the last half of the French-language debate but by then, it was perhaps too little, too late.

Meanwhile, Stephen Harper’s efforts to run a tightly-scripted, “bubble” campaign also helped to differentiate Layton. The NDP media events seemed less tightly scripted and simply more fun. People laughed more and shouted less. They interacted with Layton and stood all around him. In contract, Harper’s team tended to physically isolate him from the crowds and reporters. Too many Conservative photo oppsshowed him alone or perhaps with one or two individuals. What’s important to me in all of this is how Harper’s approach helped to set Layton apart: the NDP Ying to the Conservative’s Yang.

It needs be said too that for all their efforts to run a tightly controlled campaign as they had done very successfully in past elections, the Conservatives were thrown off message by one misstep after another. From complaints by reporters and ejections from events, to questions about the behaviour of senior advisers, this will not be remembered as a strong campaign by the Conservatives. In contrast, the NDP were able to stay largely on message every day of the campaign.

In a sense, the seeds of Jack Layton’s success in this election were sown by the Conservatives and their sizeable war chest. Months of bitter, personal attack ads targeting Michael Ignatieff worked and worked well. In spite of a solid election campaign in many respects (including many comfortable moments with supporters and reporters, alike), the Liberals simply could not make up the ground they lost as the Conservative attack ads ran uncontested for so long. When they did respond with their own ad campaign, the Liberals used much the same approach (complete with scary music, quotes out of context and unflattering pictures of the other party’s leaders). In doing so, the Liberals largely gave up any moral high ground they might have held on the issue and lost an opportunity to set themselves apart (see my previous posting for more thoughts on this). In contrast – there’s that word again – the NDP ads have tended to favour humour over fear. Though attack ads in many respects, they are designed to make us smile more than cringe.

It’s too soon to tell how the election will unfold, of course. The Conservatives may yet emerge with a majority. The Liberals may yet rebound. Some scandal or slip up may yet end and reverse the NDP surge. Even so, this election campaign will I think be remembered for the clear contrast that emerged between two political leaders. In their clothing, speaking style, event management and interpersonal communication style, I can’t remember two more different candidates than Stephen Harper and Jack Layton. I suspect Trudeau and Stanfield offered a similar contrast but being all of eleven years old when last they met, I’ll reserve judgment.

3 responses to “The Surprising NDP Surge: Image and control in Election 41”

  1. steroids says:

    the ndp is doing far better than expected

  2. […] them to Official Opposition status for the first time in the party’s history. As I described in an earlier post, Layton’s performance was energetic, positive, often humourous and inspiring. In many ways, it […]

  3. […] I wrote in an earlier post, Jack Layton’s unprecedented success in the last federal election was due in large part to his […]

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