The buzz coming out of Ottawa about an exciting new narrative has reached fever pitch. Thomas Mulcair is up, and Justin Trudeau is down, and suddenly we have a real three-way race heading into this fall's election. Nothing is as it seemed!
But for all that pundits are advising them to tear up their playbooks, federal parties are tuning out the noise and doubling down on strategies devised before poll numbers swung.
That much is obvious from the new television ads unveiled this week by the Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals. Despite collectively signaling a major ramping-up of pre-campaign efforts, any of the ads could have been scripted months ago.
After spending the past couple of years treating Mr. Trudeau as their primary threat, and all but openly cheering for Mr. Mulcair to pull centre-left voters away from him, Stephen Harper's Conservatives aren't about to toss away years of preparation because of what might be a blip. So they've released one spot in which actors recite talking points about the Liberal Leader not being ready to be prime minister, and another in which Mr. Harper speaks about the responsibilities of office in a way intended to strike an implicit contrast.
Having only just recently started making headway in raising Mr. Mulcair's profile, the New Democrats aren't about to prematurely declare victory because of an encouraging few weeks riding the coattails of their provincial cousins in Alberta. Their ad, in which Mr. Mulcair follows a montage of service-industry imagery by talking about being raised on "middle-class values," also seemingly aims for an implicit contrast with Mr. Trudeau and his privileged upbringing. But rather than trying to capitalize on its apparent momentum by presenting Mr. Mulcair as some sort of unstoppable force, the NDP went with a low-key offering that suggests it's still focused on getting Canadians to know who he is.
Meanwhile, having received by far the most unsolicited advice recently (from commentators and disgruntled members of their own party) about the need to change things up, the Liberals continue to steadily build their case for Mr. Trudeau. Shown interacting with a young family, he makes an increasingly familiar pitch that he'll help people for whom it has become harder under Mr. Harper to make ends meet, while touting his (long-in-the-works) platform plank to shift tax burden from middle to upper-income earners. It's not the sort of ad a party puts out when it thinks it needs to turn things around.
Each of the ads, in its way, reflects an emphasis on discipline and an aversion to reactiveness. And for now, at least, that's probably wise.
In The Audacity to Win, an account of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign that's particularly popular among some members of Mr. Trudeau's team, Barack Obama's former campaign manager David Plouffe stresses the importance of settling on a path to victory and sticking with it. After locking in the broad strategy relatively early, he argues, campaigns can remain focused on execution – but only if they ignore the inevitable second-guessing when there's turbulence.
Such advice seems especially useful leading up to the first federal election in this country that will be held on a fixed election date. Parties have more chance than previously to map out their plans and do the organizational heavy-lifting; they are also in an endless phoney war in which the political bubble obsesses over who's winning and losing before most voters start paying close attention.
But as that phoney war gives way to a real one, there will also be a fine line between staying focused and not being nimble. More so than in the two-party U.S. system, and probably more so than here previously, there is a volatility to a decidedly non-tribal Canadian electorate. As evidenced by the recent Alberta election, not to mention the last federal one, there's really no way to know a campaign's dynamics until it begins in earnest.
When all the noise is coming from inside the bubble, as it is now, the parties are wise to ignore it. It's when it starts coming from outside it that they may need to tear up their scripts.