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NDP surge teaches useful lesson on low-engagement voters

Illustration by Anthony Jenkins

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Lots of people who are deeply involved in party politics have very strong opinions about their own and other parties. For them, party brands are like sports-team brands: well defined and hardly ever changing. Whenever I need to be reminded of how this works, I talk to my pals who glorify the Toronto Maple Leafs for reasons not apparent to the rest of the world.

To political insiders, a Liberal is progressive on social issues, activist on economic issues and above all pragmatic (often just a nice way of saying will do whatever it takes to win). Using the same lens, a Conservative distrusts government, hates its cost and is driven to win (perhaps a bit joylessly).

That brings me to the New Democrats. For those in other parties who are deeply immersed in politics, the NDP is the radical fringe of Canadian politics, the not-so-distant intellectual cousins of Soviet-era communists. The folks who campaign on "make the rich pay," "nationalize the banks," abandon free trade, etc. People who may or may not mean well, but are dangerously naïve.

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Being very close to politics, especially when other people are moving further away, can occasionally cause a blind spot to develop: You can think that everybody else sees things just the way you do, even if they don't.

Today, we hear again the assertion that the NDP isn't gaining ground in Ontario because voters there are still upset with former NDP premier Bob Rae. Hmmm. Mr. Rae left office 16 years ago. Since then, the number of eligible voters has increased by several million, with lots of younger and immigrant voters for whom events in the mid 90's are not all that relevant. The economy and the fiscal situation of Ontario has strengthened and weakened since then, a few times. Lots of people can't tell you what happened last year in politics, let alone 16 years ago.

So, in my view a lot of people who aren't normally consumed with politics are looking at the NDP with fresh eyes, as it occupies centre stage in the last days of this election campaign. What do they perceive?

First, a leader with a passionate, friendly, easy manner. A guy who knows his way around a Tim Hortons and looks like he would draw a crowd to his table over a double-double.

They'd hear him say politics has too much mud-slinging and not enough progress on things that count for average folks. They'd listen to him go on about wanting to work with other people and parties, about hiring more doctors and nurses, "rewarding job creators," "strengthening your pension" and "making your life a little more affordable." The language is not that of class warfare, and the goals don't sound weirdly utopian. These voters might compare Mr. Layton's pitch with the urgings of Stephen Harper to avoid a coalition, to cut taxes, to strengthen law and order. Or the entreaties of Michael Ignatieff to rise up in defense of our democracy. The NDP themes might well compare favourably, as far as themes go.

I'm making no judgment here about the merits of voting one way or another. Nor am I suggesting that voters who take a deeper look at the NDP platform will conclude that it makes sense for them. My point is that strategists in other parties, as the clock winds down on one of the more fascinating electoral contests I can remember, must challenge themselves to be clear-eyed about what some of today's lightly engaged voters see when they see the NDP. To succeed in beating back this new threat requires a no-nonsense understanding of what it's about.

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