Paul Wells on 'accidentally' predicting the federal Liberals' demise

My first print column of 2011 was accidentally prescient. I say “accidentally” because I didn’t even realize one of the points I was making. Re-reading the piece with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see not only how Stephen Harper managed to hold power, but also how the NDP could make such strong advances. Yet I ignored the evidence at the time and continued to treat the NDP as a non-story until that became impossible in late April. My bad.

The column used a then-new poll to show how completely public faith in the Liberals had shattered:

A new poll from an upstart Ottawa polling house, Abacus Data, asked respondents how they felt about the three big national political parties. Abacus found respondents were likelier to agree the Conservative party “keeps its promises” than the Liberals or New Democrats do. They were also likeliest to agree the Conservative party “has a good team of leaders,” “has sensible policies,” and is “professional in its approach.”…

Abacus found Canadians have less trouble agreeing about the Liberals. When comparing the three parties, respondents were least likely to agree that Michael Ignatieff’s party “keeps its promises,” “understands the problems facing Canada,” “looks after the interests of people like me,” “defends the interests of people in my province,” “has a good team of leaders,” “stands for clear principles,” “has sensible policies,” or is “professional in its approach.”

But look on the bright side. The Liberals did not finish behind the Conservatives and New Democrats on every measure. Among the three parties, respondents were likeliest to agree it’s the Liberals who are “divided” and “will promise anything to win votes.”

There’s a rule of thumb in campaigning: when there’s a gap between the way voters perceive a party leader and the way they intend to vote, one of those two numbers must move. Either voting intentions will move into line with perceptions (people abandon the party they used to think they liked) or, less dramatic, perceptions move to meet intentions (people finally decide they like the party they’ve been planning to vote for). Michael Ignatieff could change none of the catastrophic perceptions I’ve listed during the campaign. Voting intentions moved to meet those perceptions. Today Michael Ignatieff is doing more or less what he was doing in 2005.

What lessons will hindsight be teaching a year from now? That will be easier for contributors to our comment board, who are always right about everything, to answer than it is for me. I am not yet gifted at learning the lessons of hindsight beforehand.


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