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: Thursday, April 28, 2011 2:03 PM
To: John Duffy
Subject: Election Ringside
Today I'd like to reflect on negative campaigning, which can turn out very differently in a multi-party system like Canada's than in a two-party system like that of the United States. In the USA, if you effectively attack your opponent, two things are likely to happen. You will suppress some of his vote (i.e., some of his erstwhile supporters will stay home on election day), and you will bring some of his supporters over to your side. In either case, you benefit, though obviously you benefit more in the second scenario than in the first.
In a multi-party system, both of these things can happen, but there is also another and unintended possible consequence, namely that your attacks on an opponent promote voting for a third party. I think this is part of the explanation for the rise of the NDP at the end of this campaign.
Conservative advertising attacks on Michael Ignatieff began two years ago, ran steadily on TV for three months before the writ was dropped, and continued during the campaign. Practically all observers, whether they approve of the strategy or not, believe they have been highly effective in undercutting Mr. Ignatieff's credibility. In Quebec, the Conservatives focused their attacks more on the BQ, accusing the party of ignoring "the regions" in favour of Montreal. All three opposition parties ran extremely negative campaigns against the Conservatives, accusing Mr. Harper of being a liar, a dictator, etc.
Amidst this welter of negativity, the NDP got off relatively unscathed because no opponent focused on them. (The Conservatives did run one anti-Layton ad early in the campaign, but it was only a tiny part of what they did.) The other three parties did a fine job of destroying each other's credibility, leaving Mr. Layton as the last man standing (with the aid of his cane!).
I think the moral of the story is that negative campaigning can work for you in a multi-party system as long as you can be sure that you have only one main opponent. That was largely true in 2004, 2006, and 2008, where the Liberals and Conservatives were each other's main opponent, at least outside Quebec. The problem is that there seems to be no way to predict when a new contender may emerge, or an old party may suddenly get new life, thus turning negative campaigning into an unguided missile.
I think this will be an interesting conundrum for party strategists to ponder in future elections. I don't claim to have an answer, but I can see the problem.
From: John Duffy
Sent: Thursday, April 28, 2011 11:28 AM
To: Tom Flanagan
Subject: Election Ringside
I couldn't agree more, and would expand on this theme. As in, you might want to go get a beer. We're only doing one post today, so I'm going to let a few thoughts roll.
The whole Conservative campaign has been wrapped around the kinds of in-your-face plays you are describing. And a lot of the story of this campaign is that -- surprise -- folks don't like things in their faces.
Now, I've described in detail over several postings (e.g. Election Ringside, April 14 and Election Ringside, April 27) my own take on Mr. Harper's efforts. I see what he's been doing as positioning himself against the odium of the political system when on stage, while arguably fuelling that odium offstage in advertising and social with the kind of negative plays you describe so well.
The shorthand for the recent article Will Harper regret strategy of running not to lose? is to say that Mr. Harper went after Mr. Ignatieff but all the benefit went to Mr. Layton. But that's only part of it. What's happened mid-this-week is that Mr. Harper's campaigning stopped hurting the Grits and is now threatening to cost the Conservatives their majority. That's a different, albeit complementary dynamic -- one much more pregnant with irony. Mr. Harper conjured the down-with-politics genie, but it didn't stop with gobbling on Mr. Ignatieff, it started munching on Mr. Harper as well. Aladdin's uncle comes to mind.
It's part of a bigger issue. The Conservative campaigning approach has been built around two realities: a low ceiling on the popularity of right-of-centre viewpoints in Canada, and a low-engagement political environment. That's governed pretty much everything this government does, in and out of campaigns.
Mr. Harper's proposed solution to this political conundrum was best seen in 2008. In that campaign, he parlayed to a near-majority by creating conditions where three quarters of a million Liberals stayed at home, rather than vote for the caricature that had been made of Mr. Dion. Mr. Harper made the Conservatives big by making the Liberal vote small. This year's campaign has sought a reprise of that success. But seeking to work around the low conservative-minded ceiling by working a low-engagement environment hasn't just pervaded the 2011 campaign. It's been the basic story of Mr. Harper's government, something I've argued in other posts ( Ringside: March 29) and elsewhere.