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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 26: The NDP's Quebec retreat 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: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011, 12:08 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

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Hi Tom,

More polling from EKOS, this research showing the NDP rising now in Ontario and the Atlantic as well. (So much for the Rae-Days-hangover theory cited here and here). Capital is starting to pay attention, too, as you'll see here.

And talk of "Prime Minister Jack Layton" is bound to accompany all of this.

We're at a really fascinating moment in the campaign, where a tipping point is reached and either happens or does not. Any seismic shift of the NDP surge's magnitude has an almost Newtonian reaction built into it. A big lift in support of this kind takes place in the form of thousands of personal viewpoint decisions. But when folks look around and notice that everyone is thinking the same thing, they start to think about consequences. In that instance, sometimes folks decide to keep heading in their direction, and lock in their voting intentions. Other times, they pull back.

Mr. Layton is fighting the pull-back dynamic with everything he's got.

This morning, he took great pains to defend the bubbly euphoria of his campaign against some pointed questions about his approach to Quebec within Canada. In response to queries, he backpedalled on both his constitution-re-opening offer and on the supremacy of Bill 101.

Obviously Mr. Layton is looking to maintain a moment of protest voting and avoid discussing the longer-term consequences that will occur if masses of voters take that step. We'll see what happens. One thing is certain: Mr. Duceppe and his ally Jacques Parizeau will pounce swiftly on Mr. Layton's retreat, characterizing him as an unreliable travelling salesman, courting a blushing Quebec with instantly retracted promises. The pressure inside the NDP's Quebec wing must be intense right now; we'll see how they react to Mr. Layton's trimming as well.

Maybe even the Liberals and Conservatives, historic defenders of national unity, will hazard speaking for Canada - who knows? Here's a question for you, Tom. Which of the federalist parties - Conservative or Liberal - will move first to capitalize on Mr. Layton's awkward unity stance? I can see opportunities and threats for both.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011, 12:36 p.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

You close with an interesting question, John.

Mr. Layton's quasi-constitutional démarche ("bringing Quebec into the constitution") has been crucial to the NDP surge in Quebec, but it is also a potential weak point. If he doesn't really mean it, as suggested by this morning's comments, it could backfire badly on him. If he does mean it, it could backfire on the country!

I think it will be hard for Mr. Ignatieff to weigh in on this. He has adopted too many different positions in the campaign, and now is too badly battered by the polls to get much of a hearing.

Mr. Harper might have more of an effect, but I don't know if he will risk it. Conservative campaign doctrine emphasizes message discipline, and Mr. Harper has hurt himself badly in previous campaigns by freelancing in the final week. People in the Conservative war room will be saying, "Stick to the plan." That is usually the right thing to do, but in this case I'm not so sure.

If Frank Graves's polling is right (and we need to hear from the other pollsters before jumping to conclusions), I can foresee the day when you and I (and Scott Reid and Warren Kinsella) will be standing shoulder to shoulder against the socialist hordes. Invigorating prospect!

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011, 1:24 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

I think you are right about Mr. Layton's awkward situation. I'll be very interested to see how someone like Mr. Layton's avowedly-sovereigntist candidate in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie, M. Alexandre Boulerice, will react to today's retreats on reopening the Constitution. And as I said, I think Mr. Duceppe and Mr. Parizeau will have a field day.

As for the others, I guess I can make the case for either Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff to wade in. Either of them could make a fairly good showing of being Captain Canada, heaping scorn on Mr. Layton for fiddling with such serious issues in a way that points out just what an irresponsible political operation the NDP really is.

I can also, however, see the argument against doing so in Mr. Harper's case. Along with "stick to the plan," some voices would doubtless be whispering about not offending bleu-nationaliste sensibilities in the 418, where the Conservatives need to hold on.

What I cannot figure out, though, is the downside for the Liberals in making this play. You're right that it might not work, but I'm not sure what value there is in blasting away at the NDP on fiscal responsibility. Another puzzler regarding a puzzling Liberal campaign.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2011, 1:34 p.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

Yes, I would like to see Mr. Harper jump in and say that Mr. Layton is threatening Canada's future. Maybe there's some risk around Quebec City, but there may be a bigger risk nationally in not doing anything.

If Ekos is right, the NDP surge will cost the Conservatives a lot of seats outside Quebec.

I think Mr. Layton is trading on his personal popularity, which he has certainly earned fair and square, to introduce dangerous policies in the closing stage of the campaign when there is little time for voters to understand what he is saying. In terms of pure campaigning, it's an interesting strategy. Conventional wisdom is to get your big policies out early so voters have a chance to learn about them; but maybe if you're making a controversial appeal to an intense minority, it can pay to wait. The majority will get the message because of their intense interest in the subject, and the majority won't have time to figure it out.

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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