Cruise control the best campaign strategy for Kinew & Co. NDP just needs to keep eyes on road, steer away from political potholes to send Stefanson government packing
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What would it take for NDP Leader Wab Kinew to lose the next provincial election? Quite a bit. With his party polling almost 30 percentage points ahead of the Tories in the all-important electoral battleground of Winnipeg, there would have to be a seismic shift in public support for Premier Heather Stefanson to keep her job after the next election, scheduled for Oct. 3.
Manitoba elections are won and lost in Winnipeg. When the Tories are that far behind in the capital city, it’s mathematically impossible for them to win government. Worse, the Tories have been well behind in Winnipeg for more than a year-and-a-half, with no signs of a turnaround.
The Tories have been well behind in Winnipeg for more than a year-and-a-half, with no signs of a turnaround.
However, history reminds us not to underestimate the power of election campaigns. Front-runners can fall off the rails in the dying days of a campaign and underdogs can mount last-minute comebacks. It has happened at both the provincial and federal level. However, there are usually good reasons for it, especially when opposition parties blow substantial leads in the weeks leading up to an election.
The best example of that is the bungled 2014 election campaign of former Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak, who was well ahead of then-Liberal premier Kathleen Wynn in the polls until he made a fatal error. He promised voters he would slash the civil service by 100,000 positions as part of a hard-right austerity platform. It frightened the daylights out of Ontarians.
Even though the Liberals were suffering from multiple political scandals and had been in office three terms, Hudak’s platform was so egregious, voters decided to stick with the status quo as the lesser of two evils. Hudak snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. He blew it. Had he campaigned on a moderate platform and advocated for incremental change, he would have likely become the next premier.
His loss is a reminder to all opposition parties on the verge of taking over government that the most successful path to victory is to promise almost nothing. Governments tend to defeat themselves over time — as the Manitoba Tories are doing now — and their opponents need promise very little to assume the reins of government.
Who remembers what former Tory premier Brian Pallister promised during the 2016 election campaign? Beyond a pledge to reverse the hated one-point increase in the PST and a commitment to balance the books over time (two terms), the Tories didn’t promise much, at least not in the way of radical change. They didn’t have to. Former NDP premier Greg Selinger had already driven his party into the ground. The Progressive Conservatives were simply there to take over.
Kinew is in the same boat. He doesn’t have to do anything beyond pointing out government’s flaws to win the next election. He just needs to rag the puck.
The NDP will lay out a plan to “fix” health care by hiring more doctors and nurses and providing hospitals with “increased, sustainable funding.” They will pledge to reverse the “cuts” to front-line services and provide Manitobans with “hope” for the future. To calm the fears of those afraid of a return to the “dark days” of NDP tax hikes and prolonged deficits, Kinew will likely promise voters the budget will be balanced under his watch. That shouldn’t be hard to do after the Tories are expected to unveil a balanced budget in the spring. Beyond that, the NDP doesn’t have to commit to much to win government.
If they do wade too deep into the ideological swamp, they could be in trouble. Just as hard-right austerity measures and 1990s-style “tough on crime” platforms don’t sell well in urban Manitoba, nor does anything perceived as too left-leaning — tax hikes, radical labour law changes, anti-market agendas, etc. Those may find support in core NDP constituencies, but not in the swing ridings the NDP needs to win. There will be a faction within the party that will want to advance those policies. It will be the job of Kinew and the central campaign to pour cold water on them, just as former NDP premier Gary Doer did in the late 1990s on his path to victory.
Given how far behind the Tories are in the polls in Winnipeg, it would take a catastrophic campaign by the NDP — one as devastating as Tim Hudak’s — for Stefanson to return to the premier’s office. That seems highly unlikely.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.