ANALYSIS: In Alberta and elsewhere, New Democrats have mastered the art of the negative election ad
Within a day of the official launch of the 2019 Alberta election, the Alberta NDP had already dropped a nasty negative ad.
The ad attacked United Conservative Party (UCP) leader Jason Kenney for comments he made 20 years ago about a campaign he was involved in 30 years ago, in which he challenged the idea that same-sex couples ought to have the rights as couple of the opposite sex.
The ad begins with Kenney clearly boasting about his part in helping to overturn “the first gay spousal law in North America.” (The issue involved a law in San Francisco.)
Then there’s a swell of the kind of ominous tones you hear in any negative ad as a female voice intones that “Kenney stopped dying AIDS patients from seeing their same-sex spouses in hospital.”
And then, the voice actor does what she gets paid to do: Feign a tone of horrified incredulity as she asks: “Is this a premier?”
As attack ads go, it’s a pretty good punch.
“In order for a so-called negative ad to work, it has to have a centre of truth. It has have an essential truth,” said Warren Kinsella, the author, political commentator, and president of the Toronto-based consultancy The Daisy Group.
Kinsella is a veteran of Liberal election war rooms that supported the campaigns of Dalton McGuinty in Ontario and Jean Chretien at the federal level.
That “essential truth”, in this case, is that Kenney is mean or at least can be mean to his opponents. The cheeky smile that appears on Kenney’s face in that NDP ad after he boasts about defeating a same-sex law is the “killer” part of that ad where that “essential truth” is revealed. Kinsella said he expects the ad to take some of the starch out of the UCP numbers.
But then the NDP, whether provincially or federally, has developed a reputation over the last couple of decades as a party that is definitely not afraid of throwing a punch — and the harder they can hit, the better.
“It’s true. That’s their reputation. They’re good at it,” said Kinsella.
In the 2008 federal election, the NDP whipped up one of the all-time nasty attack ads. It was in French for Quebec voters, aimed at Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Among other things, the ad warned that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for war — as battalions of animated soldiers came marching towards the viewers while images of Harper and George W. Bush floated at the top of the screen.
WATCH: The 2008 NDP election ad attacking the Conservatives
“It was one of the harshest ads to be run in Canadian political history,” said Dennis Matthews, a vice-president at the Toronto-based public affairs firm Enterprise Canada.
Matthews is a veteran of Harper-era campaign war rooms and helped design and write some of the advertising and marketing material that powered some of Harper’s successful election campaigns. He was in the Conservative war room in 2008 when that NDP ad dropped.
“It was over the top, but it really hammered the Conservative vote in Quebec,” Matthews said.
In 2017, the NDP fired some shots at incumbent BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark with vague insinuations she was corrupt. In 2013 in Nova Scotia, NDP ads tried to scare voters away from Stephen McNeil’s Liberals with dark warnings about threats to the health care system. And in the 2015 federal election, an NDP dropped what amounts to the meanest insult of all for a progressive voter: The NDP suggested Justin Trudeau was just like Stephen Harper and Donald Trump.
When asked what they don’t like about politics, voters and even politicians themselves often say they don’t like all the negativity, particularly at election time when there’s a plethora of attack ads often from all parties.
But here’s the thing: When it comes to the chance to hold on to or seize power, political parties like the Alberta NDP and many others go negative because going negative works.
“People pay more attention to those ads,” Kinsella said.
“And negative ads do bring down the support of your opponent,” Matthews said.
WATCH: Kenney says NDP attacks on him are “desperate”
Negative ads are not designed to turn a supporter from one party to a supporter of another party. Instead, they are all about damaging an opponent’s ability to recruit volunteers, fundraise and, most of all, to suppress an opponent’s voter turnout.
The most important thing political parties do leading up to and during a campaign is identify their supporters and then get those supporters to the polls. A strong negative attack ad could, in the case at hand, get potential UCP supporters doubting their commitment to voting.
No one expects a UCP supporter to turn into an NDP supporter. But, there are UCP supporters who may have wished that Brian Jean beat Kenney for the UCP leadership 18 months ago and a good negative campaign against Kenney could get that kind of supporter to stay at home on polling day.
Negative ads are also intended to sap morale of the opposing campaign.
The Alberta NDP has been running an online campaign attacking Kenney for weeks now, mostly through a website, trying to help accomplish all of these objectives.
Kenney has vowed that his party’s political messaging will be positive and will avoid personal attacks. In that way, it’s a vow very similar to the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made for the upcoming 2019 federal election.
But it’s a vow that’s easy to keep when you are, as Kenney is, ahead in the polls by a long shot. It gets a little tougher when the numbers for you and your party start to fall.
“When the numbers start to change, watch out, here’s comes Willie Horton,” Kinsella said, referring to one of the most devastating and infamous attack ads ever, released by supporters of George H.W. Bush attacking challenger Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime.
The ad blamed Dukakis, a state governor, for allowing Horton, a convicted killer serving a life sentence, to get a weekend furlough and then commit rape, assault and armed robbery. The ad was condemned as racist, but it had a devastating effect on Dukakis, who was soundly defeated by Bush.
But negative ads or negative political messaging can also have serious backlash effects.
Federal Liberals were widely ridiculed, for example, when they tried to scare voters in the 2006 federal election campaign with an ad warning about how, if Harper won, we would see an increase in “military presence in our cities. Canadian cities. Soldiers with guns.”
This ad, part of a series of “scary Harper” ads, started off with some scary drumbeats, followed by a grainy black-and-white image of Harper.
But federal Liberals benefited from an attack gone wrong back in 1993 when the Progressive Conservatives ran an ad that some — including some conservatives — saw as mocking Jean Chrétien for his crooked way of speaking, a result of Bell’s palsy Chretien had as a child.
This attack ad, mild by today’s standards, was widely credited for helping to turn the tide against Kim Campbell and in favour of Chretien.
Perhaps one of the most entertaining attacks ads came in the 2015 election when the NDP candidate in the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s, author Noah Richler, decided to put together a video attacking Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Richler would lose to Liberal Carolyn Bennett and would later chronicle the creation of that ad in his book The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
But it was an ad that gave the the NDP war room trying to support the national campaign of Thomas Mulcair fits even if it delighted political pundits.
Many of the New Democrats in Mulcair’s war room in 2015 ended up in Alberta, after Notley won power, and are still there. That’s because in Canadian political circles, each major party borrows heavily from and builds on earlier campaigns at all levels.
Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats all tend to draw from the same group of pollsters, advisors, operatives and war room generals which means that tactics and strategy you might see from one party in a federal election years ago be put to use in a provincial election the same party is contesting now.
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