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Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath waves to supporters before conceding defeat in Ontario’s election at her headquarters in Hamilton on June 12.

AARON HARRIS/REUTERS

While Liberals venerate Kathleen Wynne and Progressive Conservatives tear a pound of flesh from Tim Hudak while shoving him out the door, the party that forced last week's Ontario election is still trying to figure out what to make of its result and the leader who achieved it.

Andrea Horwath's NDP came into the campaign with a legitimate chance to compete for government. It was relieved to exit with 21 seats, the same number it came in with, and a very modest uptick in its share of the popular vote from 23 to 24 per cent.

To some New Democrats, the failure to gain ground is reason to jettison Ms. Horwath and her brand of populism. Others contend they were the victims of bad luck, with Mr. Hudak's plan to slash government rallying centre-left voters behind the Liberals, and should be grateful not to have lost ground.

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Neither argument entirely holds up. The reality is that Ms. Horwath's leadership approach has been a partial success, attracting a chunk of new supporters to her party, but has been undermined by strategic and tactical mistakes that have caused the NDP to lose an almost equal chunk of past supporters in the process.

As maligned as the NDP's shift away from its traditional left-of-centre turf was by former party stalwarts, an exit poll by Innovative Research Group for The Globe and Mail – conducted through an online panel on June 12 and 13 surveying 850 people who voted – found that the new focus on pocketbook issues was an overwhelming positive with people who cast ballots for New Democratic candidates. And beyond that, it was also a net positive with supporters of every other party, making them likelier to vote NDP even if they didn't do so this time.

The NDP seems in particular to have made headway with people who usually vote for the PCs. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents who voted for the Tories said their view of the NDP had become more favourable during the campaign, next to 20 per cent who said it had become less favourable. The NDP also split with the Liberals for second-choice support among PCs. And a series of value tests suggest many of the people who voted NDP came from something other than its traditional base.

That would help explain why more people voted for the NDP in this election than the previous one. And it points to further growth potential in future, which could help Ms. Horwath make her case to stay on as leader.

What she will have to answer for, though, is all but writing off her previous base. That phenomenon apparent from Innovative Research's finding, through the value tests, that the NDP got only 30 per cent support from the "core left" group with the strongest faith in big government. And it helps explain why the NDP couldn't pick up more than three new seats, while losing three urban-left enclaves in downtown Toronto.

This would be where the strategic and tactical mistakes come into play.

If the NDP wanted to bring the Liberals down this year, it probably should have done so earlier. Instead, Ms. Horwath gave the Liberals time to roll out a budget packed with measures aimed at luring left-of-centre voters, then played into their hands by rejecting it.

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The NDP's platform could have made up for that by outflanking the Liberals on a couple of social issues, but it made no attempt to do anything of the sort. To her detriment, in other words, Ms. Horwath all but wrote off many people who had voted for her previously – some of whom evidently got the message.

The NDP's equal failing was to be bafflingly unprepared for the start of an election it had forced. Lacking a coherent message out of the gate, and the resources to match the other parties in advertising or communications efforts, it allowed the perception of a two-horse race between the Liberals and Tories to quickly take hold. Innovative Research's surveys showed that more than half of all voters saw the campaign that way by the time it ended, which was a huge problem for Ms. Horwath when a lot of potential supporters were hell-bent on stopping Mr. Hudak.

In the campaign's final days, the New Democrats flooded a few ridings with ads presenting themselves as the Tories' main opponents – helping pick up a couple of new seats and keep a couple of others they were in danger of losing. But that should lead them to wonder what might have happened if they had elbowed their way in more quickly and more broadly.

Those are the sorts of hypotheticals they're now left pondering, and having kept her head down this week Ms. Horwath will soon have to address the inevitable and warranted second-guessing.

Abruptly changing her party so that many of her own members can barely recognize it, she asked a great deal of their faith. To maintain it, she will need to convince them that she learned from her mistakes, and that going forward she'll be able to expand her tent rather than mostly just move it.

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