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Election Ringside, April 4: Regional polls and the anaconda's head

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John 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: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 4, 2011, 9:08 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan Subject: Election Ringside

A lot of interesting data bubbling about as week two begins to unfold. Various polls show the Conservatives building their lead in British Columbia and solid in the prairies. In Quebec, Conservatives appear poised to start gathering federalist votes from across the ideological spectrum. Last week's Atlantic forays, including the blockbuster electricity announcement, are making for a hot set of races in that region, especially in Newfoundland. But if the Tories are pulling away elsewhere, the race in Ontario appears to be heating up. Research is showing the big Conservative lead being halved in that province.

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The Liberals in Week 1 accomplished two must-do objectives: successfully reintroduce Michael Ignatieff to Canadians; and land a policy offering that allows folks to feel respectable in voting Liberal. These are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for a successful Grit outing.

What should the Liberals do next to give Stephen Harper a run for his money?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 4, 2011, 9:58 a.m. ET To: John Duffy

What more can the Liberals do? Not much, as far as I can see. They are already doing a good job at the level of technical campaigning (a big improvement over 2008). They framed the campaign on their terms by defeating the government on the contempt-of-Parliament issue. They are putting on a smooth leader's tour and getting a lot of sympathetic reportage in the media. They are running a hard-hitting negative ad targeted at Mr. Harper where he is perceived to be vulnerable. But nothing seems to be working, as Conservative numbers go up and Liberal numbers go down day by day in the Nanos tracking poll.

It may be that the Conservative prewrit ad campaign did damage to Mr. Ignatieff's credibility that is irreversible, at least within a five-week writ period. But I do think the Liberals have a larger strategic problem. As Scott Reid said yesterday on Power and Politics, Peter Donolo's plan was to deal first with the NDP and then turn on the Conservatives. The first step seems to have worked, as the Liberals' tax-and-spend policies have driven NDP support down. But now the Liberals are stuck with a left-wing platform that won't do anything to erode Conservative support. It reminds me of the Saxon King Harold, who thought he could deal with the Danes first before taking on the Normans. We saw how well that worked in 1066.

Also, Mr. Harper has gotten out in front on regional issues. His loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill hydro plan will be a big vote-winner in Newfoundland and indeed elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. And he appears to have headed off opposition in Quebec by accelerating his promise to compensate the province for adopting the HST. As far as I can tell, the Liberals don't yet have a position on either issue. If the Tories can hold their Quebec seats and pick up several in the Atlantic provinces, they could be well on their way to a majority. At this point, the Liberals have to hope for a major Conservative screw-up or some outside event, like the stock-market collapse of October, 2008.

Nothing like a bit of triumphalism after one week's campaigning! I'll probably be eating my words before the campaign is over, because no campaign I've ever been involved in has been smoothly predictable from start to finish. To quote Donald Rumsfeld, it's the "unknown unknowns" that get you.

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From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, April 4, 2011, 10:56 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Astute and comprehensive analysis, Tom. However, there are a couple of things I'd add to round out the picture.

Yes, the Conservatives' nationwide lead is growing, but where things really matter for the Grits right now is in Ontario. It is there that Mr. Ignatieff has lavished his efforts last week, and here that the Liberals are closing the gap. So they are showing some ability to produce intended results.

I think the question for the Liberals is whether the effort they need to hold Ontario (and the Atlantic) doesn't drain them of the resources needed to prevent a Conservative majority from forming everywhere else. They may be "bled white" defending their fortress from an attack that is mostly meant to pin them down. Notice the pattern so far: Tories contesting Liberal-dominated areas such as Newfoundland and 905 Ontario. The Grits are furiously fighting them off, but there's not much talk of playing for new seats.

How to counter, as the clock ticks down? On the broad, national front, I expect the Liberals will start in fairly hard on the Prime Minister fairly soon. Having set out the positive message, there's now some permission for them to do so. Look for a unifying "bad behaviour" thesis about Mr. Harper on everything from prorogation, Afghan prisoner handling, election-law violations and citations for contempt of Parliament through to offering a one-on-one debate, then trying to back out of it. I also wouldn't be surprised if the Grits started flirting with a little regional politicking. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is seizing on Mr. Harper's offer of federal support for "clean energy projects," a pledge made to cover Quebec's reaction to the Atlantic electricity deal. If Mr. Harper tries to stiff Ontario, the Grits will be tempted to fan the flames, adding a regional dimension to the behavioural issue.

When one is being remorselessly squeezed by an anaconda, the usual strategy is to go for the head with everything you've got. I expect the Liberals will start moving in this direction.

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From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, April 4, 2011, 12:04 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

The leaders' debates, April 12 and 14, will be crucial for the Liberals if they are, indeed, going to aim at the head of the anaconda (lovely metaphor). It will not be easy, though. Mr. Harper has a good record of remaining calm and self-possessed during these debates. Mr. Ignatieff will risk looking shrill if he launches a furious attack. I'm looking forward to the contest, because Mr. Ignatieff has enormous media experience, and I'm curious to see how he goes about this new challenge.

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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