'Suddenly the balloon pops': Election campaign defeat can take emotional toll on candidates
Former candidates and observers say disappointment of an election loss has an impact on mental health
Running as an incumbent in the recent Manitoba election, Blair Yakimoski had an advantage over his opponents in the race for the Transcona seat.
That made the Progressive Conservative candidate's defeat by the NDP's Nello Altomare a surprise to many observers, including himself.
The fact that he lost by among the slimmest of margins — 115 votes — doesn't make it easier to bear.
"I'm devastated," said Yakimoski, who won the Transcona seat in the 2016 provincial election. "I didn't expect to lose. I felt I'd done a good job. I really had."
Given the nature of competitive elections, there are always more losers than winners — and some former candidates and observers say the disappointment of a loss at the end of a stressful campaign has an impact on mental health for those who aren't elected.
The consequences of running can last long after the elections signs come down, they say.
The day after the Sept. 10, 2019, election, Ian McCausland posted a message on Twitter, calling on all candidates who lost their races to reach out to their support networks. McCausland ran as a Liberal for the Assiniboia seat in the 2016 provincial election, losing to Steven Fletcher.
"I just remember this day, the day after the election, after losing as a candidate, as the beginning of a long slide into some dark depression," McCausland wrote.
As a self-employed professional photographer, McCausland says he felt his driven personality would be enough to sustain him.
"You're pumping air into a balloon and then suddenly the balloon pops. That's kind of how it feels," he said in an interview.
He also felt pressure to put on a brave face for his supporters during the campaign, even as his prospects for winning grew dimmer.
"As much as everybody likes to talk about how we're in a climate where people are supportive of people who reveal vulnerability, in fact, I don't think people want their leaders to be vulnerable."
'Weighs on my ... psyche'
Yakimoski says the campaign itself — including knocking on doors and asking people to vote for him — never stressed him much, but other parts of the job did. His discomfort with asking for donations nearly cost him his party's nomination in the leadup to the election, he said.
Yakimoski was the only incumbent in his party to face a nomination challenge before this year's provincial election.
"It no doubt weighs on my mind, or my psyche, throughout that whole period, because I'm part of a team, but I'm kind of not," he said. "Going through a nomination battle from your own party, you feel cast aside. You feel like you aren't wanted."
The motivations for jumping into the race vary widely across the field of candidates, but they all face similar pressures once the campaign begins, said Curtis Pankratz, a professor of sociology at the University of Winnipeg.
One of the most significant factors, according to Pankratz: candidates need to have the financial resources to sustain themselves and their families throughout the campaign.
This limits the pool of potential candidates to people of a particular social class, Pankratz says, thus limiting the types of policies that are proposed.
"You have less incentive to drastically change the system and policies if you're benefiting from the ones in place," he said.
Candidates also need a support base dedicated enough to donate money and knock on doors to get out the vote.
"You'd have to worry about how you represent yourself to your own volunteers, as well as the public," Pankratz said.
Social media has increased the pressure on candidates and amplified the criticism they receive, said McCausland.
"You're feeling completely under the microscope the whole time. People are judging your character and your appearance, your ability to articulate ideas."
While others may choose to disconnect when the world of social media becomes too toxic, candidates don't have that option.
"They have to pay attention. They have to know what people are saying. So it's a major stressor that's becoming more intense because of technology," Pankratz said.
The pressures of campaigning can extend to the candidates' families, something Pankratz experienced first-hand when his father ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the 1999 provincial election.
"I was really surprised how even good people, people that you know are good, just become malicious," he said.
Pankratz remembers the party leader coming to his house to discuss ways to attack their opponents with his father.
"It was so foreign to my dad and my family, the things you have to say about your opposition," Pankratz said. "It's not just what's done to you, it's what you do, as well."
Reflecting on his experience, former Liberal candidate Ian McCausland says it would have been helpful to have a mentor to lean on — "somebody who was separate of the campaign, who had no vested interests … who I could confide in, or turn to and perhaps express some of the concerns, or doubts, that I was feeling at the time."
Not everyone who loses an election feels devastated, though.
Karen Myshkowsky ran for the NDP in Southdale in the latest provincial election. On election night, it appeared she was headed to a win — until one final poll put her PC opponent, Audrey Gordon, over the top.
"I had people around me in that moment who … were so supportive," Myshkowsky said.
"They said … 'be proud.'"
She ended up losing by less than 500 votes, taking 38 per cent of the riding's vote, compared to Gordon's 42.
Myshkowsky credits her family for helping her weather the stress of the campaign, and reminding her to take time away to decompress.
Despite her loss, Myshkowsky said she plans to run again.
"I feel like I built something. And when you get this close … I don't want to leave that behind," she said.
In the meantime, Myshkowsky has returned to teaching at Glenlawn Collegiate.
"I'm probably lucky in that I got to return to something I love doing," she said, "and knowing that I'm … going to continue on and do this again in four years."
Not everyone has that luxury, Pankratz said. Some people may have left their jobs in order to focus on their campaigns, while others may find that old co-workers have a different view of them now that they have publicly declared their support for a particular party.
"Now they know your political perspective. You can't just kind of avoid the difficult topics," Pankratz said.
Blair Yakimoski hasn't decided yet what is next for him. He just finished clearing out his office at the legislative building, and is in the process of shutting down his constituency office.
He doubts he'll return to politics, or to his previous job as manager of a grocery store. He has received messages of support from friends and family, and had an offer to serve on the board of a local Ukrainian organization, which he said have given him a sense of value.
He says he's lucky to have the opportunity to find something new.
"You can always reinvent yourself. You can always try something new. You can always help," he said.
For now, Yakimoski will enjoy not having to pay attention to what other people say.
"It's kind of nice not waking up and having to read the news."