HALIFAX — The bid by Nova Scotia's Liberals for a third consecutive term in power was scuttled by an ineffective campaign and a leader who couldn't gain traction with the public, say political observers.
Despite entering the month-long campaign with a big lead in the polls and momentum from their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liberals suffered a crushing defeat to the Progressive Conservatives led by Tim Houston.
The Tories largely rode public dissatisfaction with the province's health-care system to a majority government in Tuesday's election, winning 31 ridings in the newly expanded 55-seat legislature.
Liberal Leader Iain Rankin had only been premier for six months before the party chose him to succeed former two-term premier Stephen McNeil during a leadership convention in February.
Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University, said Rankin was put in an untenable position from the start, following on the heels of the "strong and authoritative" McNeil.
"Rankin is a 38-year-old man who is quiet and he couldn't fill that space," Turnbull said Tuesday night, shortly after the results were announced. "And I think he struggled to connect with voters during that (pre-election) period."
Turnbull said revelations about Rankin's two drunk driving convictions when he was younger threw the leader and his campaign off. Rankin told reporters shortly before he called the election in July that he had been convicted of impaired driving in 2003 and 2005.
And then there was news shortly after the campaign began that party staff had pressured Liberal candidate Robyn Ingraham to drop out because she had previously sold revealing photos of herself on the website OnlyFans. Ingraham also alleged the party had told her to lie and instead cite her mental health issues as the reason for leaving.
"He just never got a narrative going … that really resonated with people," Turnbull said. "And once the campaign started, and Houston and NDP Leader Gary Burrill were able to have equal time, he just lost his lead and he kept losing and here we are."
Barbara Emodi, a political consultant and an ex-NDP communications director under former leader Darrell Dexter, is uncompromising in her view of the Liberal campaign, calling it "poorly administered."
Emodi said Rankin was over-managed by campaign advisers who seemed "ill prepared."
"He seemed to walk over and over again into situations that he was not ready for," she said in an interview Wednesday.
Emodi noted the Liberals failed to get ahead of the impaired driving issue, and she said the party didn't do itself any favours by limiting media access to Rankin during the final days of the campaign.
She said Rankin's campaign couldn't find an answer to counter Houston's strategy of focusing his entire campaign on the problems in the health-care system.
The Tory leader constantly highlighted the chronic shortage of family doctors, excessive waits for ambulances and a lack of available mental health supports as issues that needed to be urgently addressed.
"(Houston) took the health-care issue rather astutely, understanding it was his fastest route to election and (the Tories) did a wonderful job of doing that," Emodi said.
Emodi and Turnbull said the low number of COVID-19 cases in the province during the campaign period exposed Liberal weakness rather than strength.
Turnbull said Rankin didn't get the benefit of a COVID-19 bump at the polls because there wasn't the same sense of crisis around that issue compared with the health-care system as a whole.
As of Wednesday, the province had a total of 25 active reported cases of COVID-19.
Emodi said that in the end, it was Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, who proved to be the dominant figure credited by the public — not politicians.
She said in the minds of voters, COVID-19 had been removed as a ballot box issue. "That was what Rankin hoped would be his signature issue, but it was no longer what worried us most," Emodi said.
Rankin told reporters following Tuesday's results that he was proud of his record and intended to stay on as Liberal leader.
"I made sure that I was true to myself and I ran a positive campaign," Rankin said. "I wouldn't change anything."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2021.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press