A few days before the federal election was called, like most political junkies I was anticipating the battle ahead and surprised that the topic wasn’t coming up in the morning chats at my rural Ontario general store. I raised the issue, and got blank stares. It wasn’t clear people knew an election was near, and the brief conversation indicated they didn’t particularly care. Months earlier, there had been heated talk about Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama, but this day, conversation quickly reverted to more local fare.

Except for one fellow, who confessed privately that he was having trouble as he contemplated voting. He was worried about his negative reaction to Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. It wasn’t Dion’s politics. It was the way Dion spoke.

The fellow was worried that he was unconsciously discriminating against a French-Canadian political leader struggling to speak English. That didn’t seem fair. But the fact was, he didn’t feel comfortable with or receptive to Dion. He found it hard to listen to Dion, or make sense of what he was saying. Besides, Dion didn’t seem like much of a leader – he seemed weak. Look at the way he sat on his hands during some of the votes in Parliament.

We talked for a few minutes. I mentioned that if leadership was taking tough stands, Dion probably passed the test. The carbon tax was certainly controversial. And look at his record in Quebec: he was a valiant defender of federalism in the last referendum, came to Ottawa in a dark moment with no political experience to be a cabinet minister, went head-to-head with Lucien Bouchard many times, stayed in the Liberal Party when Paul Martin was edging him out and instead won his way back to cabinet, and then made a successful long-shot bid for the party leadership. Dion had many faults, I noted, but in those actions he seemed like a leader.

I left it there. I wasn’t intending to make the case for Dion, or anybody else. Indeed, I was surprised he was even looking at Dion, since he leaned to the Conservatives, but clearly his dislike of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had opened him to scout other possibilities.

We had both learned from the discussion. What I had learned was whatever the reality about Stéphane Dion, the Conservative government’s fusillade of attack ads on his leadership – aided by media derision over his abstentions on confidence motions – and his personal bearing and awkward communication style in English meant he was going to have a very hard time in Ontario, the Liberal Party’s stronghold in recent years. Indeed, the election might well be over before it had begun: He was quite possibly Dead Man Walking.

I now know that was true. The election was over before it started. It hinged more on communication style and interconnected leadership image than policy, and was never about the economy despite all the headlines telling us it was. To the extent that it was about policy, it was about the one policy on which the government was particularly weak across Canada but which never got proper attention, and about one policy firestorm that it foolishly fuelled in Quebec but only got minor attention in voting decisions in the rest of Canada.

One of the oldest truisms of politics is that governments aren’t defeated by the Opposition. Governments defeat themselves. By that token, when the election was called, the Conservatives were in good shape. They had given the country reasonably competent administration, and for most Canadians unaffiliated with a party that’s what counts. Stephen Harper did have a mean, bullying streak and was a control freak – but what the heck, things weren’t out of control, as they had felt under Paul Martin.

Although the Conservatives had not yet built their base beyond the 36 per cent level that they had theoretically laid claim to a few years earlier when the Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged and finally realized for the united right in the last election, there were signs that the election could bring a breakout. The Tories were rolling in money, and they were able to duplicate the damage the Mike Harris Tories had done to Dalton McGuinty when he became Ontario Opposition Leader – label somebody who didn’t look like a movie star leader as not being up to the job. They had made inroads into ethnic communities and Quebec. It was possible that the Conservatives would claim their majority.

From that position, Stéphane Dion had only three choices. He could try to change the perception of his leadership abilities among the general electorate, through his own ads, his election sound bites and the forthcoming debates. He could try to blacken Stephen Harper, convincing Canadians they might want strong leadership but they didn’t want – or deserve – a bully. Or he could look for a game changer on policy – a wedge issue that might turn things around.

In that context, Dion’s decision last spring to edge toward and eventually support a carbon tax made sense – even if it is now widely considered responsible for his defeat. The environment was – and is – the Conservatives’ Achilles heel. They are out of step with far too many people in the country who are passionately worried about the environment. A strong environmental policy from the Liberals – and a zealot as leader who looked committed to implementing it – had the ability to draw votes from the NDP, Greens, many independents and perhaps even some red Tories. Of all the cards Stéphane Dion could play, it was the best one. Indeed, the election results were proof of it: Because he failed to make the election a referendum on the environment, and because the polls going into the last weekend suggested that it was not urgent to vote strategically to prevent a Conservative majority, he failed to draw the votes he needed.

He chose a carbon tax, which experts acknowledged as probably the best policy option for the environment. But it would obviously be a tough sell, because he was upending the tax patterns we have all become accustomed to and because he is not a great communicator in English. It wasn’t his only environmental policy, but it was one that distinguished him from the Conservatives and NDP, so it’s what drew attention.

He wrapped it up in a Liberal approach to income distribution under the now more hallowed term “tax cuts” and invested the summer before the election in the policy – a policy, those who accuse him of excessive stubbornness should note, that he had opposed in his leadership campaign but had been proposed by Michael Ignatieff. Then, when the election came, Dion lost his nerve. The political climate had changed. It was getting harder and harder to talk of disrupting people economically with a carbon tax. The opening polls showed Harper apparently galloping into a wider lead and probably majority territory. And everyone was telling him, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Stupid is a good word, because there was a lot of simplistic thinking around the thinking on the economy as THE ISSUE. I remember helping a friend’s campaign in 1972 in Montreal and being told unemployment was the issue. The riding happened to include one of the wealthiest enclaves in the country, up the hill in Westmount, where the people responding to our polling dutifully showed they read the newspapers by telling us unemployment was important – the big issue.

But it didn’t affect them. For an issue to work politically, it has to be something that people feel personally, and believe certain parties and leaders will act in a way that is more favourable to them than other parties and leaders. Certainly the headlines this election were about the economy, as Wall Street icons toppled. But in fact, this election was starkly about the economy for only one party running nationally: the NDP. It stood to – and probably did – make some modest gains based on the Wall Street fallout. That’s not unnatural for a party that’s strong in the areas that had already been hit by layoffs, a party that loves to rail against big business and support the little guy. (Of course, with that shrill rhetoric it also damaged its effort to grab more conventional, centrist voters and leap over the Liberals into second place.)

The economy also had the potential to benefit another party running nationally: the Conservatives. Yes, benefit. Deeper into economic turmoil, perhaps people would boot out the party in power. And some of Stephen Harper’s comments on the economy in the election did hurt him in the public mind. But as the storm clouds from the United States moved north, it was probably beneficial for him. After all, it was hard to blame Stephen Harper for Wall Street follies – even if the opposition leaders wasted time trying to – and most people would be inclined to favour an experienced leader at the helm in troubled times if he wasn’t deemed responsible for the damage.

For the Liberals, the economy was a mug’s game. Their leader had no experience in that area – the advantage was actually with Harper. And the general public didn’t perceive enough differences between the economic policies of the Conservatives in power in recent years and those of the Liberals before that for the Liberals to argue convincingly that they would be better. In other words, the economy was not a wedge issue that could win the election for the Liberals. It had no power to draw votes from the other parties to the Liberals in the way an election framed as a referendum on the environment might have. And, for the record, Stephen Harper’s supposed lack of empathy for people hurt by the economy is matched by his lack of empathy for those calling for environmental action.

It wasn’t the economy, stupid. And it wasn’t about the environment when the Liberals flinched. So it ended up being about the government in power, and Stéphane Dion’s leadership, image and communications style. And he lost, badly.

After the English debate (which everybody agreed Stephen Harper won and Stéphane Dion lost), it did appear that the economic trauma and Dion’s unvarnished moment in front of Canadians had led his party to surge. Indeed, it appeared that the election had become very close and the gap the Conservatives had opened in the early days of the campaign had narrowed significantly.

But that’s worth thinking twice about. After all, in an election where the parties at the end didn’t finish all that far from where they had been for chunks of the previous year, it’s worth considering how much of that excitement of the daily polls was just a mirage of margin of error and different methodologies, stoked by the media’s need to have news hits each day.

Frank Graves of Ekos leans that way, believing that public opinion during the election “was relatively inelastic to events.” Mostly he saw Conservative support moving up and down based on how it looked the election would turn out. Consciously or unconsciously, when the Conservatives neared majority territory the public seemed to rein them in, but then when it looked as if a Dion government was possible, Conservative support picked up. That tendency, he feels, explains why Conservative support rose in the last few days even though our economic travails continued.

Richard Johnston, a principal investigator of the Canadian Election Studies for many years who is now a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, has studied federal elections since the dawn of polling in Canada and says a common pattern is for the governing party to lose support throughout the campaign because it is now under fire from parties who can get equal attention. By that thesis, the apparent surge in Conservative support at the outset of the election may have reflected polls as Stephen Harper was making his case against a dysfunctional Parliament, but once the campaign started it was almost inevitably going to erode.

In a study of the 2004 and 2006 elections with Mark Pickup, Johnston found that the final polls tended to underestimate the Liberal vote by over 3.5 percentage points in both years and overestimate the NDP by 2.9 percentage points in 2004 and 1.6 percentage points in 2006. Strategic voting on election day might account for some of that change, but Pickup and Johnston also mentioned it was possible that the government – the Liberals in both instances – got an extra nudge at the end as people contemplated their vote. The results this time, when Conservative support grew at the end, may reflect a similar development.

Johnston’s hunch when we spoke the day after the election was that the economy and debates didn’t swing public opinion and the only event that did was the conflagration over culture cuts and youth crime in Quebec. That brought the Conservative totals down nationally, and also obscured how they were improving in crucial Ontario. He mentioned in an interview that he had noted public opinion dropping for the Conservatives before the debate, and then dug into his raw data. The change occurred on September 23, those figures suggested. “What happened around then?” he asked, uncertain. “You should find out.”

Intriguingly, that was the day NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe joined the audience at a concert in Montreal organized by artists protesting $45 million in cuts to culture funding announced by the Conservative government last August. Stéphane Dion in British Columbia also joined the attack. So maybe it was culture, stupid.

If so, Stephen Harper’s inability to rein in his contempt for artists – lefty artists and their swishy gala fellow travellers – prevented him from getting his prized majority. That doesn’t mean he won’t get it next time. He is an incremental man, resolute, with a plan for boosting the Conservatives over the long haul. On the other hand, it may well be that, like Brian Mulroney, he is only presiding over an interregnum, and in time will be elbowed out by a resurgent Liberal Party (or the many people in his own party he has plunged his stiletto into). Certainly it will be an interregnum if he can’t remake his style and party so that Canadians feel more enthusiastic about what he offers as leader. It takes more than perceived competence or respect – the leader and party need to have an emotional bond with the Canadian populace.

The Liberals will get a new leader now – not that the immediate alternatives are all that grand. The two apparent dauphins, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae, are flawed, and going back to the past with John Manley or Frank McKenna would be even riskier. There will be talk about a need for renewal or a new policy – there always is after an election defeat – but there are enough Canadians who are comfortable with Liberal policy for the party to win an election (which is why the Conservatives fear moving too far from traditional Liberal policy and fall into trouble when they do). Certainly the Liberals must address their continually deteriorating party machinery and financing.

Jack Layton, like Stephen Harper, can only continue to plug away, building steadily, hoping that the Liberal Party will completely collapse and he can repeat what the Labour Party managed in Britain, becoming a contender for top spot.

Two major sore points from the election will probably remain undiscussed. If we had proportional representation, the Green Party would have won about 21 seats – indeed, maybe more than 30 seats if their support in the polls at 10 per cent had held up. Imagine how different the political climate would be with Elizabeth May and 20 or 30 other Greens in Parliament.

And when we laughed at Stéphane Dion for opposing government policy but not voting against it, we may have shut the door on an option to help us through minority governments. If the Bloc Québécois continues to pull 30 to 50 seats out of Quebec, majority governments will be hard to attain (although not impossible – ask Jean Chrétien). We need to learn how to handle minority governments in a way that doesn’t lead to constant elections (that learning would be even more urgent if we moved to proportional representation, of course). It requires a political psyche that respects leaders who can compromise, swallowing their pride and going along with objectionable policies. I’m not sure, however, they’re ready for that in Parliament, the media or the general store. And I suspect Stéphane Dion would agree.