On Sunday, I described what I thought research would advise Michael Ignatieff to concentrate on in the English language leaders debate. Today some thoughts for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper. (Once again, this is not partisan advice, just a sense of what research would likely point up.)
With a 10-point or better lead in the polls, this election is yours to lose. The economy is strong enough for you to win re-election, and your opponents splinter the votes in ways efficient for you. You know your files, are a seasoned campaigner, and have a flush, united and motivated party behind you. In addition to the 40 per cent who already support you, another 10 per cent are open to persuasion, so a majority win is certainly possible, if you go after these voters with the right approach. If people tell you that your goal for the debates is to escape alive, that's setting expectations too low.
There are probably only two ways that you could lose.
The first is demeanour. Some voters love you; others detest you, that's normal. It's the voters in the middle that matter. These folks admire your diligence, your intellect, and think you are a competent steward of the affairs of government, but they would like to feel you are a warmer, more even tempered, less combative person. Your popularity spikes when you perform a song in public, because it gives people a human reference point for you. When debating your opponents avoid calling them socialists, separatists, unpatriotic or liars. Avoid looking like you are sizing them up for a run into the boards at every turn, let people know you don't detest the others, maybe even like and respect them as people.
The second is accountability. Your opponents are going to attack you aggressively: contempt for Parliament on government spending, the "in-and-out" Elections Canada charges, the RCMP investigation of your former adviser, a potentially damning report from the Auditor-General on G8/G20 spending, and heavy-handed looking tactics on the campaign trail. Try to defuse as many of these issues as possible in your opening statement: acknowledge that your government has committed its share of errors, and ask people to judge the government on its overall performance, not just its worst days. That won't be the end of it, but it will be a good way to start, and will make your subsequent efforts to pivot look more reasonable.
Incumbents need a "safe place" to go during these debates, when under fire from all sides. Serendipitously, your safe place is also your best pitch for winning votes.
Describe for voters all the opportunities that are opening up for Canada in markets around the world. Five-per-cent GDP growth is something to surf happily, forget about reminding us how vulnerable we all are. It's spring, things are looking up, let us feel good. Voters are more drawn to a pitch about accelerating good times than avoiding a hypothetical ditch.
Let people hear your conviction about how we will create more and more of the kind of jobs we want our kids to have, to improve the health and education systems we hold dear. When you talk about your desire to reduce taxes, broaden the appeal of this agenda by connecting it to higher order aspirations; helping us save for our children's education, provide healthy food and good shelter for our families, retire with dignity, let businesses spend more money creating jobs.
Finally, it's useful to acknowledge that some things may have annoyed or disappointed voters. And that you accept personal responsibility for the inevitable errors every government will make: your own commitment to accountability is one of the things that draws people toward you. Rather than signal weakness, as it might for some leaders, it will, in your case show that you are attentive to and in touch with the crowd at the local Tim Hortons.