It will be an uphill battle for Horwath to top 2018 election performance: political scientists

By Alan S. Hale July 6, 2021

Despite NDP strategists’ insistence that Andrea Horwath remains a vital part of the party’s plan to attract voters ahead of next June’s election, experts say they’re skeptical the Opposition leader can build on her success of 2018.

Heading into her fourth election as party leader, campaign director Michael Balagus says Horwath is “nothing other than a tremendous asset.”

An Angus Reid poll from June 21 showed the NDP ahead of the Liberals with 33 per cent of voter intention, closing in on the PC’s 37 per cent support.

But political scientists say the party will be challenged to top its 2018 performance when Horwath couldn’t capitalize on a golden opportunity to lead the NDP to victory against a collapsing Liberal Party and a controversial populist PC leader in Doug Ford. They say the problem isn’t so much Horwath as it is the NDP brand itself.

“I think that had she been the leader of a different party, she would probably have done better than she did while being associated with the NDP,” said Lydia Miljan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

Balagus said Horwath blew away most expectations three years ago and has several things working in her favour ahead of next spring’s vote — such as name recognition and a presence Ontarians respond to when she is able to step beyond her role of criticizing the government.

“Everybody wrote her off heading into the campaign, and she was, without doubt, the best performing, best campaigning leader,” said Balagus of the 2018 election.

The problem with the NDP, argues Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto, is the party is not built to actually win elections, striving instead to win enough seats to hold power in opposition. While the New Democrats may be riding high in the polls, he said he expects the race to come down to the PCs and Liberals as election day draws nearer.

“I don’t even know what [Liberal Leader] Steven Del Duca looks like, and yet I expect he’s got an excellent chance to become premier,” said Wiseman, who is U of T’s director of Canadian studies. “That’s just because the Liberal brand is so amorphous, and because of that, is so strong.”

The NDP has a brand problem, echoed John Milloy, director of Martin Luther University College and a former Liberal cabinet minister.

At a time when left-wing social ideas are gaining popularity, Horwath bears responsibility for not bringing those movements into the NDP fold effectively, he said.

“There’s this whole ‘woke’ generation and protests against Ryerson University’s name, and all these are traditional NDP issues, and they’re not connecting. Part of the reason for that is that I could not tell you what it means to be a New Democrat in the province of Ontario today,” Milloy told Queen’s Park Today.

“What does Andrea Horwath think of big business or Bay Street? Is it corrupt and rigged and we need to clamp down on it? What does she think of social assistance? You never get a sense from her about how she understands the world.”