Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was so certain of her party’s victory in a string of Vancouver Island ridings that her campaign team did not make a serious effort to counter attacks mounted by their New Democratic Party rivals.
The Greens are now digesting some of the lessons learned in a similarly overconfident campaign. Like Ms. May, B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix didn’t want to “go low” in the provincial election in 2013. As New Democrat organizers prepared their election-night victory party, they didn’t rehearse for the concession speech that Mr. Dix eventually had to offer.
After Monday’s disappointing results, Ms. May and the Greens are reconsidering their own campaign tactics.
Ms. May believed her party was leading strongly in seats on Vancouver Island that ultimately went NDP. She blamed NDP attack ads, including a leaflet that went to households across Vancouver Island, that warned the Greens would join forces with Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party to roll back access to abortion. “Does the Green Party really share your values?” it asked.
Ms. May criticized the NDP at the time for what she termed “misinformation,” but the party did not launch a counteroffensive. Now, she says, she believes the party should have been more forceful.
“We were wrong, we didn’t respond in kind – we didn’t respond at all,” Ms. May told reporters late on Monday night. “We didn’t think that smears and attacks would be sufficient to erode the leads we had."
The Greens held their two Vancouver Island seats in Monday’s election, and picked up a third in New Brunswick. The party also laid the foundation for future growth, doubling its share of the popular vote in 162 ridings.
But the Greens were expecting more electoral success, particularly in the ridings of Victoria and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke. Both re-elected New Democrats. National campaign manager Jonathan Dickie said Wednesday he believes the Greens’ support in those two ridings collapsed in the past few days of the election campaign.
The Greens began the election campaign neck-and-neck with the NDP. At the halfway point, their tracking showed Jagmeet Singh’s NDP pulling ahead. “It concerned us, but … it seemed mainly at the expense of the Liberals and Conservatives,” Mr. Dickie said. That changed in the final days of the campaign, when Green-leaning voters started jumping to the NDP as well.
Ms. May maintained that her campaign would not go negative, although she struggled at times to contain her frustration. “I try to find a wellspring of compassion for all, but Mr. Singh is straining my patience,” she said during one campaign stop.
In the 2013 provincial campaign, the NDP believed its lead in the polls was so strong that it couldn’t lose. It stuck with its “change for the better” messaging almost to the end. By the time it launched a counterattack against the rival Liberals, it was too late. Voters had made up their minds that the party was not ready to govern.
In a postmortem review written months after the disastrous campaign, the NDP’s campaign director Brian Topp concluded that the positive-only message was a strategic error. “This campaign demonstrates again that negative messages about leaders cut through and are remembered, unless they are countered in kind,” Mr. Topp wrote.
There is another similarity. Like Mr. Dix, Ms. May is unscripted and authentic. Both leaders eschewed the conventional trappings of political message boxes and theatrics, instead relying on a depth of knowledge about topics that allows them to speak without notes.
But in the 2013 campaign, Mr. Dix didn’t leave voters with a clear message about what the NDP was offering. “It emerged over the course of these days that our leader’s speaking style … was not serving him as well during the campaign … and did not make for memorable television,” Mr. Topp concluded. (Mr. Dix, who resigned as NDP leader after the campaign, now serves as Health Minister in the NDP government under Premier John Horgan.)
Mr. Dickie said Ms. May would do better in a campaign that focused on substantive issues. But Mr. Singh excelled at connecting with voters. “We saw how effective that was for Jagmeet Singh; he became more effective about talking about their core message," Mr. Dickie said.
He added it will take some weeks to dissect the campaign results before the Greens will be able to say what needs to change before the next campaign.