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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Campaign explodes old notions

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003

Look beyond the kitten-eaters, the stagy, cringe-inducing events and even the fact that the race was over way too early: This was an election campaign of historic importance.

The presumed victory of Dalton McGuinty's Liberal Party in tomorrow's Ontario election will shatter a number of accepted truisms about how people vote. For years, it seemed inevitable that Ontario would continue to adopt successful U.S.-election strategies emphasizing voters' self-interest and savage attacks on opponents.

It didn't unfold that way these past four weeks, however, and because of that the province's political landscape will be irrevocably altered.

Ontarians resisted the siren call of tax cuts. The Progressive Conservatives successfully framed the central issue of the election -- the so-called ballot question -- around whether there should be further tax relief. This was their brand identity, but they couldn't make a sale.

The Liberals got out early on this issue to defuse it. For more than two years, Mr. McGuinty has been arguing that Ontario could not afford more tax cuts if it wanted to preserve its social programs. For the past four weeks, he has told voters that although he wouldn't cut their taxes, neither would he raise them.

His party is leading in the polls for two reasons. The tainted-water tragedy in Walkerton in 2000 opened the eyes of many people to the consequences of deep cuts in government spending. But the Liberal Leader also benefits because Ernie Eves squandered his reputation as a tax-fighter by delaying tax cuts in the 2002 budget -- a move that forced him to amend the sacred Taxpayers Protection Act.

"When you've got the true believers themselves backsliding on it . . . then it's very hard to come back in an election campaign and say it's the best thing going," said political analyst Brian O'Riordan.

The campaign also seems to have destroyed the belief that negative advertising is effective. The Tories attempted to belittle Mr. McGuinty in television ads that echoed their 1999 attack by saying he "still isn't up to the job." The Liberals ran ads that emphasized a positive message of hope and optimism, and did not retaliate after the leaders' debate as they did four years ago. Voter resistance to the Tory ads was so strong they were pulled after a couple of weeks.

The Conservative strategy failed primarily because the ads weren't very creative. "Essentially, all they did was stick the word 'still' in their 1999 ads," said David Docherty, a Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist.

It seems likely, too, that once voters started thinking about which leader was "up to the job," many of them took a hard look at Mr. Eves's record as premier and concluded that Mr. McGuinty might be the better bet.

The 2003 campaign is exploding the notion that Ontario voters are uncomfortable having a government at Queen's Park that shares the political affiliation of the federal government. It may have been a myth that voters ever cared about this -- it may just have been historical accident. But the fact remains that for the first time in 40 years the two capitals are expected to be governed by the same party.

The Conservatives attempted to link Mr. McGuinty to Ottawa by raising issues such as gun control and same-sex marriage, but the strategy never stuck. Ultimately, Mr. Eves killed the comparison by complaining that Mr. McGuinty wasn't following the lead on fiscal matters of Paul Martin, the presumptive prime minister.

Lastly, it appears the Liberals may have outrun their reputation for squandering huge leads in pre-election polls. In mid-August, an Ipsos-Reid poll gave them the support of 49 per cent of voters, compared with 36 for the Tories.

This had become a dead heat by the first week of the campaign, according to surveys by other firms, but the Liberal margin quickly re-established itself. An Ipsos-Reid poll last weekend gave the Liberals 48 per cent support and the Tories just 31 per cent.

It may be cold comfort for Tory strategists contemplating the wreckage of their campaign, but they made history.



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Party L E T
Liberal 0 72 72
PC 0 24 24
NDP 0 7 7
Indep. 0 0 0
Total 0 103 103
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Majority=52
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