Election campaigns: Why the best narrative wins

By: Sandford BorinsTo the typical voter, an election campaign is a confusing cacophony of conflicting accusations and competing promises.But if you step back from all the shouting for a moment and think strategically, you'll realize the election campaigns are about narratives. Each party is trying to construct a winning narrative.The government and the official opposition are both constructing redemption narratives, but the roles are reversed.For the official opposition, the story is that the current government is responsible for serious problems (for example economic mismanagement or public corruption) and it deserves to be replaced by a new government that will both fix the previous government's problems and enact wise new initiatives.The federal Conservatives' campaign in 2006 was a textbook example of this narrative, accusing the governing Liberals of corruption (the sponsorship scandal), setting out a plan to fix the problem (the Accountability Act), and promising to enact wise new policies, most notably the GST cut and the Universal Child Care Benefit.For a first-term government that is running for re-election, the narrative is that four years ago it was elected to fix the mess left by the previous government, it's now done that and has also enacted many wise new policies.But its work has just begun, and it has many more new initiatives to offer in a second term. A first-term government has the advantage of being able to run a second time against the opponents it defeated in the last election.Both Ontario's official opposition PC Party and the governing Liberals have begun to construct their narratives. The PCs will accuse the Liberals of dishonesty, corruption, and mismanagement, and offer to do better.The Liberals will continue to run against the Harris-Eves legacy. To complete the narrative, the PCs must decide which of their many promises to highlight. The Liberals must go beyond their record for the last four years to offer a vision for the next four.The election will be decided by which narrative is more convincing. And this will depend on two factors: which party is more effective at demonizing the other for its failures in the past, and which paints a more compelling vision for the future.For the third party, the NDP, the narrative is somewhat different. Their target voters are working people whose interests have been ignored by both the Liberals and the PCs. So their narrative deals with the failures of both the Harris-Eves Conservatives and the McGuinty Liberals, along with a set of policies for the future.One critical difference between this and previous elections is the referendum on electoral reform. The NDP could come out strongly in favour of proportion representation, arguing that under this system its share of seats in the legislature will increase to match its share of the popular vote, with the result that it will almost always hold the balance of power.Its policies would then stand a much better chance of becoming law than under the current system.Next week, I'll continue the discussion of election campaign narratives, looking at tactics, particularly how parties can attack each other, and how they can defend themselves from each other's attacks.

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