NDP Leader Howard Hampton began today’s final day of campaigning in Toronto with two stops at two subway stations along the TTC’s Bloor line. In both locations he stumped briefly with local candidates and shook a minimum number of hands before hopping back on his bus; rather than ride the rocket, he chose to clog up downtown streets on his way from one subway station to another. Why? Because in the subway he’d have to meet real voters, which, in the language of campaign strategists, is called a “high-risk situation.”
High-risk situations gone awry have become the “other story” of this campaign: ordinary folks have been popping up from the undistinguished masses to confront politicians and make them look bad. There was Beverley Cassel, the retired Sarnia woman who confronted John Tory about faith-based education. There was Mike Brady, the cancer patient who refused to shake Dalton McGuinty’s hand. If memory serves, some guy in a grocery store yelled at Tory too—there were so many instances it’s all become a haze.
Most political campaigns are built upon the principle that such unscripted moments are anathema. Both Hampton and Tory tried to make hay out of McGuinty’s retreat into a “campaign bubble” in the last week of the campaign, but the truth is that they all play this game. Tory ducked out of numerous television interviews in the days leading up to his flip-flop on faith-based schools. Hampton didn’t pull any no-shows, but his appearances are often kept just as cursory and antiseptic as everyone else’s. He is so determined to stay on message—to keep repeating the same mantra over and over again without interruption from ordinary people—that the media who are following him full-time on his tour have invented a Howard Hampton drinking game: they must swill up every time Hampton uses the words “say anything” or “promise anything” when describing McGuinty.
One Liberal strategist told me he was amazed at how much “high-risk behaviour” Tory was engaging in, especially in the later stages of the campaign. This, by the way, was something Tory’s team believed was among his greatest strengths: his willingness to walk into unscripted situations with his eyes wide open and his ability to connect with people and turn those situations in his favour. Turns out that his abilities in this regard may have been overrated. But the value of the skill itself might be overrated too: the leader who meets the fewest voters wins.