Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A cautionary tale for the NDP

Not too far from here, not too long ago, there was an election. The campaign had raged for months between two party leaders who weren't well loved by either their party or the people. An underdog yelled from the treetops that there was a third option, and no one heard. Or at least, they acted as though they didn't.

And then, when the distance to the election was being measured in days instead of weeks, something incredible happened. That third option surged in the polls. At first he was rivaling the liberal option for second. Then he pulled ahead just a little bit. And in the final days he actually started to tie the conservative frontrunner and even lead him.

The final results were 38.3% for the conservative frontrunner to 36.5% for that implausible third option. The liberal trailed distantly at 19.1%.

We're of course talking about the race for governor of Maine. The conservative Republican is now-governor Paul LePage. The third option was independent Eliot Cutler. And the liberal Democrat was Libby Mitchell.

And one might argue that this isn't such a cautionary tale for the NDP; were they to do as well as this it would be an incredible trimuph. But here's the rub: Cutler won the votes on election day. But he placed third in advanced polling before people realized he was a viable option, handing the election to LePage.

Here in Canada, the NDP surge first started being talked about last Thursday, the day before advanced polling began - and the day before the Easter long weekend. Many people cast their ballots on Good Friday. Would the average voter have even heard about the NDP surge at that point? And had they heard it, would they have thought it a rogue poll that only pertained to Quebec anyway? Today, we're seeing more polls putting the NDP firmly in second place nationally and gaining. But how many anti-Harper voters cast ballots for the Liberals this past weekend thinking they were the only viable alternative? With a record 2 million Canadians voting in those polls, how much damage will that have done to the NDP's high hopes?

Here is Eliot Cutler's take:
Marie had read about my plans for reforming health care in Maine and wanted to know more. She quickly told me that she already had voted; because she didn't say that she had voted for me, I was certain that she hadn't.

After we had talked for three or four minutes, she suddenly looked up at me, stricken.

"Oh dear," she blurted out, "I think I made a mistake!"

"Don't fret," I reassured her. "You can make up for it by persuading two of your friends inside to vote for me!"

Marie ran up to me three times during lunch to report her conquests, which ended up numbering six. But despite her efforts I lost the Maine gubernatorial election.

An Independent starting with zero name recognition in a five-person race, I finished a close second, losing 38% to 37% but winning nearly twice the votes cast for the Democrat.

According to our internal polls, I had the support of only 15% of Maine voters when early voting was about to start in mid-September. By mid-October, after Marie already had voted, I was still in the low 20s. In the end, more than 207,000 voters marked their ballots for me, and perhaps several thousand more would have had they not voted early.
The cautionary tale is this: the NDP may have peaked too late, for 15% of people have already cast their vote.

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