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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 25: The Liberals and Layton's 'French kiss' Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 25, 2011, 6:54 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

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Hi John,

We're into the final week, and things aren't looking so great for the Red Team. They've been sliding all Easter weekend in the Nanos tracking poll. No sign of a bump from Mr. Ignatieff's half-hour Sunday show. Meanwhile the NDP continues to climb in Quebec. The Globe and Mail has endorsed the Liberals for official opposition, but I don't suppose that's exactly what Mr. Ignatieff was hoping for.

Yet I'll never forget how in 2004 the Liberals gave the Conservatives a lesson in campaigning, pulling out a victory in the final week when things didn't look so good for your team. You taught us that "it's never over till it's over." We made some costly mistakes in that week, but the Liberals did a lot of things right, as I recall. Would you like to explain how you achieved that victory, and whether those same strategies could help the Liberals now?

Tom

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 25, 9:34 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Thanks for the gracious opportunity to talk about happier days.

The last two weeks or so of the 2004 campaign were really about asking Canadians to think twice about electing a Conservative Harper government. Our research showed that Canadians were poised to make Stephen Harper their prime minister without having a very clear sense of who he was or where he was coming from politically. Mr. Martin's campaign set about filling in the gap, defining Mr. Harper as someone who was hostile to certain political precepts which we knew a majority of Canadians held dear.

The principal vehicle for this was the debate about health care. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein had kicked the issue into high gear with unguarded remarks about privatization of some of the system. We knocked together a "health care tour" for Paul Martin, showcasing his commitment to medicare and validating his credibility on the issue with legions of MDs, nurses, health policy experts and medicare advocates at one hospital, clinic or care facility after another, day after day after day. Mr. Martin backed it up with a serious, costed policy commitment, the pledge to bring the first ministers together immediately upon re-election and hammer out a health care accord "for a generation." All of this set a positive contrast between Mr. Martin, the Liberal defender of medicare, and Mr. Harper, who insufficiently distanced himself from Premier Klein's views to deflect the attack.

The Liberal campaign caught a pretty big break when Randy White, a Reform-a-Tory candidate out of central casting, unburdened himself on videotape of a social conservative, attack-the-Charter agenda which sounded a lot like what we'd been warning would happen if Mr. Harper came to power. To maximize these real-world events, we synched our paid television advertising and bought heavily, hammering home the message that Mr. Harper had plans for Canada which we knew most voters wouldn't support.

This set up a very compelling tactical message aimed squarely at soft NDP supporters. These Canadians were bluntly told by Mr. Martin, by our advertising, by our local candidates, their canvassers, courier pigeons, smoke signals and balloon-a-grams that only by switching to the Liberals they could head off a Harper government and its hidden agenda of social conservatism and two-tier medicare. The campaign's final weekend saw a stampede from the NDP to the Liberals, especially in Ontario, generating Mr. Martin's healthy minority government win on June 28 at standings of 135 to 99 for Mr. Harper's Conservatives.

When you look at the factors that were in place, and the steps Mr. Martin's campaign took to maximize them, you can see how difficult it would be to replicate this in the week ahead.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 25, 2011, 10:18 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

Very interesting, John. From our side, I remember that we were unable to shift gears in the final week in 2004, even though it was obvious that your side was gaining ground. We finished the campaign in precisely the wrong way, with a cavalcade of victory from Edmonton to Calgary. That probably helped the shift to the Liberals accelerate over the final weekend.

When I look at what the Liberals have been doing this time, it seems as if they have been trying to repeat some of what worked in 2004, e.g., emphasizing health care and warning of Mr. Harper's hidden agenda. But as you say, so much has changed since then. The charge of hidden agenda against Mr. Harper is blunted by his five years in office, and Jack Layton has become a more impressive figure to voters on the left. Hence it's much harder, I think, to touch off a stampede from the Dippers back to the Liberals, though the Red Team obviously has to make the attempt.

As Heraclitus said, you can't step into the same river twice. He wasn't writing about campaigning, but he could have been. No two campaigns are ever exactly the same.

Tom

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 25, 11:07 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I'd be inclined to agree, were it not for a wholly new Liberal appeal that has materialized in the form of an attack ad, bought into the television rotation this morning. The ad makes a kind of anti-politician pitch, seeking to lump together Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton as "career politicians" one presumes in contrast to the relative newcomer, Mr. Ignatieff.

Trying out a new theme at this stage of a campaign can be done successfully, but it needs to be supported with compelling earned media dramatizations and outside validations. The letters are particularly important; after a month of election talk, the public is discounting pretty heavily a lot of what these folks say, especially if it's new. Back in 2004, the validators from the medical world were mission-critical in lifting Mr. Martin into the role he sought as defender of medicare. Simply saying it doesn't do it.

But the real story here isn't so much the Liberal approach as the NDP surge that has occasioned it. We have seen the NDP soar in English Canada before; what's really new here is the party's breakthrough in Quebec. Even if the seat yield in the province turns out as low for Mr. Layton as some of the allocation models have it, something fundamental will have occurred in this campaign. The New Democratic Party will now stand as a truly national organization, in some respects more of one than the Liberals or Conservatives.

However, this success for the NDP is going to come at a price. Jack Layton's NDP embraces Quebec nationalism more fully than has any other federalist party at any point in time. Brian Mulroney's offering included reopening the Constitution, as does Jack Layton's. But even the Boy from Baie Comeau's beau risqué courtship of sovereigntists stopped short of Mr. Layton's position on language rights, where he would essentially subordinate federal language policy to provincial law within Quebec. Mr. Harper's 2005 Laval speech promised affirmations such as a UNESCO seat and recognition of Quebec as a nation. Mr. Layton, by contrast, appears intent on offering Quebec a fairly large-scale opt-out of the Canada Health Act as a whole, if this article by Mr. Layton's chief strategist is any indication.

This is uncharted territory for the NDP, which has traditionally supported a strong central government as a brake on the reactionary tendencies of various, mainly western, provinces. Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent were all squarely in that tradition. This is indeed something new under the sun.

It's not clear that this important development will receive the attention it deserves during the campaign. I'm a little surprised the Liberals haven't given it any attention, given the importance of the national unity franchise to their political brand. But whenever it comes, the consequences of Mr. Layton's "French kiss" will be fascinating to watch unfold. Seeking to accommodate nationalist Quebeckers has proven either limited, as has been the case with Mr. Harper, or disastrous, as it turned out for Mr. Mulroney. It will be very interesting to watch what the emergence of a powerful nationalist Quebec wing will do to Mr. Layton's NDP.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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