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flanagan and duffy

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: Friday, April 15, 2011, 12:16 p.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

Hi John,

Now that platforms have been released and the debates are concluded, the parties' war rooms, specifically their rapid-response teams, become the main actors. What we saw yesterday will be typical: attacks on the past records or current actions of candidates and campaign volunteers, followed by speedy damage control from the other side. As long as the damage control is fast, none of this serve-and-volley game matters much to voters unless something can be linked to the leader.

This phase of the campaign will be longer than usual because platforms were released, and the debates were held, so early. Although it's boring to voters, it's important because you never know when something will stick to a leader, producing screaming headlines across the country.

All of that is fairly predictable. And then there are unknowable unknowns that come out of nowhere, like Helena Guergis obtaining and releasing the letter asking the RCMP to investigate her conduct. But the principles of damage control will still be the same: Respond quickly, deflect any damage away from the leader, immediately counterattack against some past or present misdeed of the other team.

From: John Duffy Sent: Friday, April 15, 1:50 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I agree with you, Tom. There is a certain humdrum quality, baked into the campaign by now, to the way in which these roils come in, are damage-controlled, and then slide more or less across the Conservative campaign's back.

The reason for this is not just skilled tactical performance; frankly, I think Conservative damage control has been weak on some occasions. It's lack of feedback. Stories don't last if no one's paying attention, and the surest barometer of attention-paying is movement in the polls. When that isn't happening - when story after story rolls into the Tory campaign only to slide off without causing damage as measured in polling - the kind of self-reinforcing who-cares dynamic you describe sets in.

Immovable poll numbers are the rock upon which rests Conservative imperviousness to damaging stories. And what in turn grounds this bedrock? I think the answer is that the damage done to Michael Ignatieff's image by the Conservatives' long-term advertising barrage. Despite a strong earned media campaign, Mr. Ignatieff remains in a difficult position when it comes to attracting voters whose alliegence to Stephen Harper may be shaken by events. Paid negative television advertising is proving to be the gift that keeps on giving for Mr. Harper.

From: John Duffy Sent: Friday, April 15, 3:11 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I think there's some truth in what you say about the effect of negative advertising, particularly in the pre-writ period. That's why all Liberals should support Mr. Harper's proposal to get rid of the subsidies. It's that extra money that makes pre-writ advertising possible. Even though the Conservatives are recipients of the largest amount of subsidies, Mr. Harper wants to get rid of them. I'm sure you'll agree it's the greatest act of political altruism in Canadian history!

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Friday, April 15, 2011, 3:43 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

Can't say I see it that way. I am not expert in party finances, but I can tell you that while the Conservatives may use the subsidies as top-up funding that goes towards extras like pre-writ advertising, my strong guess would be that it's core funding for the opposition parties. You're being disingenuous - especially for the guy who came up with the " Punic Wars" strategy, which has everything to do with hobbling the Liberals permanently by crippling their funding.

Speaking of advertising, I expect we'll start to see some new stuff on all sides pretty much any time now. Mr. Harper has to seal the deal. Mr. Layton may be surging after strong debate performances. And Mr. Ignatieff has to find a way to get people to start paying attention.

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.