The Daily Exchange: Can you beat somebody with nobody?
“You can’t beat somebody with nobody” is one of my favourite political clichés.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing both Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath is that they are “nobodies” to a large number of Ontarians.
When this election started, one polling firm found that approximately 40 per cent of respondents could not identify Hudak. A poll by Nanos Research released last week found that 55.9 per cent of respondents could not describe Horwath in a single word. (The figure was 43 per cent for Hudak.)
These results reflect the inability of Hudak’s and Horwath’s Queen’s Park teams to introduce them broadly to Ontarians prior to the election. Indeed, more than a year after his June 2009 election as party Leader, Hudak was so unknown that the Star’s Robert Benzie dubbed him “Tim Who-dak?,” while noting the PCs were spending “a considerable amount” of money to change this. Given the awareness results above, a value-for-money audit may be in order.
Hudak is a smart operator, and knows that one of the best ways for a politician to get known is to latch on to and ride an issue or scandal. The scandal that enveloped e-Health Ontario was – or should have been – in his wheelhouse, and he tried to make the most of it. However, it’s now clear that, from a personal branding perspective at least, Hudak swung and missed on this file far too often. Worse, he didn’t give himself enough at-bats. He let his MPP critics carry the e-Health file outside of Question Period; as a result, they appeared in many of the associated media stories instead of him. This may have been a good caucus management tactic, but it cost him dearly in terms of developing a brand.
Horwath’s problems are slightly different. Despite her best efforts to be front and centre on major media issues at Queen’s Park, and notwithstanding the sterling quality of the NDP’s research department, the NDP often seemed to be reacting to stories focused on others. Put another way, while the PC’s “owned” the government scandals and waste files, it’s unclear what the topics the NDP owned.
Why does this matter? It matters because elections are inherently chaotic, and trying to make a first impression during one is a risky proposition. Just ask Dalton McGuinty. Elected Liberal leader in 1996 with the initial support of only one caucus colleague, McGuinty entered the 1999 election with 25 per cent of Ontarians not knowing a thing about him. Not surprisingly, McGuinty and his “deserved reputation for anonymity” were routed by Mike Harris.
The events of last week also illustrate the risks of in-election introductions. For many voters, the first thing they ever saw from Hudak was his attack on the “foreigners” tax credit. While this may have kept some doors and minds open to him, it certainly closed a lot of others. As for Horwath, she focused her time in Northern Ontario (and on the Northern media), and generally avoided last week’s most-talked about issue. Further, their parties’ platforms lack sufficient weight to capture the public’s awareness and offset their awareness challenges.
So, back to my cliché. Like him or not, Premier McGuinty is a “somebody.” Although he may not be universally popular, he is a known quantity after 21 years as an MPP, 15 years as Liberal leader, and 8 years as premier. The Nanos poll I cited above found that only 2 out of 10 Ontarians could not describe him. This is a tremendous advantage, and nobody should underestimate its effect when voters mark their ballots.
All that said, there is still one big, all-in opportunity for Hudak and Horwath to introduce or reintroduce themselves to voters: the Leader’s debate. Given its importance to their chances, and its relative lateness in the campaign, it will be a make or break for both. Will Hudak be able to shake his newly-acquired “Angry Man” brand? Will Horwath succeed with solidifying her “Reasonable Teddy Bear With A Workable Plan” persona? Will either be able to lay a glove on “Premier Dad”? For their electoral sakes, they had better hope so.
- Erika Mozes, former senior adviser to George Smitherman and Gerard Kennedy
Response from Guy Giorno, former chief of staff to Mike Harris and Stephen Harper:
Erika makes a good point about name recognition.
It’s essential for a challenger to become known by the voters. It’s also essential for a challenger to define himself or herself – and this is best done early, lest one’s opponent fix the definition first.
I’ll return to that point in a moment.
Meanwhile, I agree that Dalton McGuinty possesses name recognition and is associated with the office of premier and that most voters have views about him.
These characteristics are usually true of an incumbent. They do not, however, always translate to victory.
Take the fact that voters associate the incumbent with his office. This gives an incumbent the edge when people are asked who is best suited for the office. But that does not assure the incumbent of victory. The “best premier” rating is typically a lagging indicator – it is one of the last numbers to slip after other metrics show voters changing their minds. Indeed, several incumbents have been defeated while still holding “best premier” designation in the polls.
Does it help to be the incumbent? Sometimes yes, but not when voters want change. It definitely doesn’t help to be an incumbent when the people demand change. Both the PC and NDP strategies hope to capitalize on the desire for change – in the case of the PCs, that means change away from broken promises and high taxes.
Which leads back to the question of defining oneself and one’s opponents.
It’s an understatement to say that Liberals’ branding of Tim Hudak has been unfocused, disorganized and incompetent. I lost count of the number of different Tim Hudak “narratives” the Liberal brain trust has tried to push over the last year: He has no experience. He has bad experience. He lacks ideas. He has the wrong ideas. Worry because he won’t do what he says. Worry because he will do what he says. He’s no Mike Harris. He’s too much like Mike Harris. On and on the inconsistencies went.
(As for this “Tea Party” stuff, do the Liberals seriously believe that the tireless efforts of one serial blogger constitute a proper branding campaign?)
Meanwhile, Tim Hudak was able to travel the province, getting coverage in regional and community news media, and defining himself as an agent of change.
To return to Erika’s argument: The incumbent premier is Dalton McGuinty and Ontarians certainly know that. We’ll soon see what the voters do about it.
Response from Jeffrey Ferrier, former communications director for the Ontario NDP:
As premier, Dalton McGuinty does have higher name recognition than his two opponents. That has its advantages. Some voters who know McGuinty see him as Premier Dad. They know about accomplishments like full-day kindergarten and they like what they see. It also has its disadvantages. Others know McGuinty more for his record. That includes presiding over the hollowing of Ontario’s manufacturing and resource economy, the loss of 300,000 good-paying jobs in those sectors, and sharp hikes to the cost of living.
Sometimes, higher name recognition benefits the incumbent. Mitchell Hepburn. Leslie Frost. Bill Davis. These are all long-serving premiers who benefited from incumbency and high name recognition. But there are no guarantees. Just ask Bob Rae.
What does this all mean for Tim Hudak and Andrea Horwath?
For starters, I think it’s a stretch to frame their lower name recognition as some kind of failure. It may come to a shock to Queen’s Park types, but the reality is that few people pay attention to provincial politics between elections. Want proof? Invite your friends over to dinner and regale them with stories about question period. Watch their eyes glaze over. Then you’ll know the truth about how tough it is to engage voters between elections.
Now, the election is on, and voters are paying attention. So how are Hudak and Horwath doing?
Hudak is having some difficulties. In person, he’s a gregarious, quite likeable guy. But that part of Hudak has been lost to the voters thus far. The PC leader has cut an angry image, especially during his nasty back-and-forth with the Liberals over immigration tax credits. More recently, the PCs seem to have hit the reset button, and they’re trying to introduce voters to the real Hudak. I think that’s a smart move on their part.
Horwath is having more success. She and her team are running an effective campaign. Horwath is getting her name and face out there, talking about the issues she wants to talk about, like jobs and affordability. She is coming across like the smart, competent leader she is. From what I hear from the NDP camp, they’re going to stay the course and keep the focus on their leader and her plan. They believe the more people get to know Horwath, the more they like her, something that portends well for them on October 6.
One final note. Erika, I know you led off with the “nobodies” comment in jest, but I do want to say something that I think we can all agree on. McGuinty, Horwath, and Hudak care deeply about Ontario, its people and its future. Each one has done something very noble in stepping forward to seek elected office and serve the people of this province. And in that respect, each one is indeed a somebody.