I hadn't been in the Free Press News Café more than 30 seconds Tuesday night when a municipal politician who had come for a pint and some gossip confronted me. Of course, he had the election on his mind.

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This article was published 5/10/2011 (3547 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

If more Tory supporters had voted, Theresa Oswald would have lost Seine River.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

If more Tory supporters had voted, Theresa Oswald would have lost Seine River.

I hadn't been in the Free Press News Café more than 30 seconds Tuesday night when a municipal politician who had come for a pint and some gossip confronted me. Of course, he had the election on his mind.

"The Tories are going to kill (NDP Health Minister) Theresa Oswald tonight," he said. "It's a done deal."

The councillor went on to explain how the Tories had identified nearly twice as many votes as they needed for former city councillor and Tory candidate Gord Steeves to knock off the high-profile Oswald in Seine River. And how more PC voters than expected had showed up to advance polls.

Listening to him, it wasn't hard to buy into the logic. The Tories were expected to be the most formidable election-day team, getting out the vote in ways and numbers never seen by a right-of-centre political party. Throughout the day, sources and partisans of all shapes and sizes offered their predictions, many conjuring scenarios where Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen became premier.

If the stars aligned outside of Winnipeg and the Tories won Dauphin, Swan River, Interlake, Brandon East and Dawson Trail, then the job inside Winnipeg would be so much easier. Just take down St. Norbert, Kirkfield Park, Seine River, Fort Richmond, River Heights and Southdale, and McFadyen is in.

Even if all those seats didn't go McFadyen's way, it would have been difficult to find an informed source that didn't believe the Tories were going to win at least 25 seats. The polls looked promising, the campaign was well-funded, and there were really smart people running the election-day effort.

How could we have been so wrong?

When the smoke cleared Tuesday night, the Tories were at the same seat total where they were in 2007. Their share of the popular vote had risen to nearly 44 per cent, a level at which most parties in a parliamentary democracy start thinking about forming government. But that increase in voter support was highly inefficient, as Tory voters piled on in safe Tory ridings and failed to show up in competitive ones.

Take away all of the tenuous Monday-morning quarterback blather, and that is the one inescapable fact about the election result: Progressive Conservatives did not show up in key ridings. Why is a matter of great debate.

Conservative sources complained on Wednesday that in key ridings like Seine River, less than half of the constituency residents that were identified as Tory supporters actually showed up to vote. In winning, Oswald collected 5,495 votes, nearly 1,000 more than Gord Steeves. But if Tory numbers are correct, there were another 4,500 Tory-leaning voters who stayed home or voted for someone else.

You can see why Tories all over Manitoba are banging their heads against walls this morning.

So what happened? It seems pretty obvious that even after identifying all those potential Tory votes, the party simply did not do a good enough job of getting out the vote. This was supposed to be a Tory strength and the key to victories by right-leaning candidates in the municipal and federal elections.

However, in last fall's municipal election, this strategy was used in one or two wards. In the May federal election, once again, Conservatives needed only to concentrate on two or three ridings. It may well be that in a provincial election, where there were as many as 12 seats where the result really was in doubt, the Tory machine was just spread too thin.

What of the Tory campaign? There is evidence to suggest one or two small mistakes may have dampened core support and kept some people home on election day. Top of this list was the improbable claim that the Tories needed four more years to balance the budget than what the NDP had forecast. McFadyen tried to tie this odd pledge to an allegation of NDP accounting fraud, but it served only to shake support in his leadership.

Finally, there is a lot of debate within the party about the decision early on by the Tory brain trust to not go after Premier Greg Selinger directly in negative campaign advertisements. Senior advisers like Sen.Don Plett, a major contributor to some of the edgier federal Conservative ad campaigns, wanted to go harder at Selinger. McFadyen and other advisers felt it was OK to attack the NDP record, but didn't want to put the focus on Selinger's character.

Many Tories believe not going after Selinger in the same way the NDP went after McFadyen -- remember that in addition to selling Manitoba Hydro, the New Democrats accused the Tory leader of peeing in Manitoba lakes -- was a fatal mistake.

The only thing we know for sure is that mistakes were made. Even though the Tories did not lose that much ground to the NDP, and are strong on popular support, it remains a shockingly poor showing by a party that has spent a very long time in Opposition.

Unfortunately, that is politics. Sometimes you're looking at a done deal. Other times, you're just done in.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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