Attack narratives, strategic decisions, and the YouTube effect

By: Sandford BorinsNow that the people have spoken, it's clear that both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservative Party made strategic decisions about their attack narratives, but with dramatically different results.We had expected the Liberals' would attempt to link John Tory with the Harris government, but a better narrative opportunity presented itself, namely the controversial and particularly unpopular – among Conservatives – Tory proposal to provide public funding for all faith-based schools.Yesterday, I went to the Liberal Web site and reviewed all 126 news stories they had posted since Labour Day. Of those, 42, or exactly one-third, were attacks on the PC Party. Twenty-nine of the attacks dealt with its position on faith-based schools, while only 13 used the Mike Harris redux theme.The PC Party went into the election with two possible campaign themes on its website, “I want a better Ontario” and “Leadership Matters.” Their public opinion polling showed that John Tory was more popular than Dalton McGuinty, so they went with “Leadership Matters.” This theme was an implicit attack on McGuinty's leadership, and much of the PC Party's campaign, for instance its commercials, promoted this theme.The problem for the PC Party was that the theme backfired – spectacularly. As John Tory faced growing internal dissension on faith-based schools, he didn't look like a strong leader anymore. The impression was sealed with his fourth-quarter flip-flop to relegate the decision about funding faith-based schools to a free vote of the Legislature.And Tory's argument that his success in the corporate world qualified him for political leadership was turned around to suggest he was out of his depth in the political world.One of the key characteristics of contemporary political campaigns is that the main contenders for the top job are being filmed every second they are in public. Any slip will be replayed on the main-stream media and posted on YouTube.So candidates try to eliminate any risk of slips. They do this by stage-managing the campaign as much as possible. The predominant format for a political event is a speech by the leader to party faithful, with a backdrop posting the key words and people associated with the theme (for example, teachers, nurses, doctors, or cops) standing close to the leader as human props.In contrast, as a teen interested in politics 40 years ago I remember my dad took me to hear Lester Pearson speaking to a full house of 15,000, including hecklers, in Maple Leaf Gardens.The danger for a party leader in the current campaign approach is that if his/her own supporters are not on board, there are bound to be embarrassing moments caught by the camera. John Tory's worst came when accosted by two middle-aged women who told him in no uncertain terms that he hadn't explained his position on faith-based schools to their satisfaction.Looking at the embarrassing moments on YouTube, John Tory had three: the encounter on faith-based schools, a reference to the University of Ottawa as the U of Zero, and a press conference displaying his limitations in French. The total hits for all three were 18,000.Dalton McGuinty's worst moment, his brush-off of a cancer patient, had only 1,600. While the numbers weren't huge on either side, the voters clearly were willing to cut McGuinty more slack.So the people have spoken. A campaign dominated by one surprise issue – support for faith-based schools – and characterized by attack narratives, produced a clear majority government. And, as the pundits have already made clear, it was as much a defeat for John Tory as a victory for Dalton McGuinty.

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