The 2015 federal election will require political parties to work harder than ever to capture the attention of the electorate. This story is part of Adam Radwanski's new assignment looking at how the party machines across the country are preparing.
Among the many theories floating around at the start of this year for why there would be a spring election, there was one about hockey.
At a time when shifting media-consumption habits make it increasingly difficult to capture voters' attention, some politically affiliated corners of the ad industry suggested the NHL playoffs offer the year's best opportunity to speak to millions of Canadians at once. So maybe Stephen Harper's Conservatives would buy up good commercial spots during the first round, then drop the writ suddenly enough that the opposition parties would struggle to get in on the action.
Like all the other early-campaign hunches, this one proved wrong. But the fact that it was even remotely plausible helps explain why we're headed into a pivotal period in pre-campaign messaging – one that could be very good to Mr. Harper, even without him pulling a fast one.
Because of both the playoffs starting on April 15, and the likelihood that once summer begins Canadians' attention will be even harder to capture than it is the rest of the year, the next couple of months offer the best remaining opportunity to use advertising to establish the state of play for the campaign. And only one party is really in position to take full advantage.
The Conservatives' net assets were worth $16.4-million at the end of 2013 (the last year for which such information is available). That's nearly double those of the Liberals and nearly triple those of the NDP. That gap presumably widened further in 2014, since quarterly returns show Tories totalling $22.9-million in revenues, the Liberals $17.2-million and the New Democrats $9.6-million.
Mr. Harper's party, then, is the only one that can afford to throw money around now without much worry about being able to spend the limit of somewhere in the neighbourhood of $25-million during the official campaign period. And as a bonus, $7.5-million in public funds have been allocated to advertise the merits of the coming budget.
There is general consensus among campaign professionals that advertising a few months out from the writ can be particularly effective at two things: addressing your weaknesses in ways that make rivals' attacks less likely to stick, and putting fears about opponents into the backs of voters' heads. Conversations with Conservatives offer some indication of how they will approach those goals.
Those who have worked on Mr. Harper's campaigns identify "motivation" as a concern he typically needs to address before each election. One such person called it "getting back to the inner Harper – why he's pursuing the policies he's pursuing, why he's got fire in his belly, why he still wants to be Prime Minister."
While empathy will never be his strong suit, and sweater-vests are unlikely to make a reappearance, Mr. Harper is seen as needing to prove he's fighting for middle-class Canadians – particularly when opponents are trying to make the case that quality of life has stagnated or declined. Already, recent radio spots have had the PM not just touting his tax cuts, but explaining why he believes they'll make life better.
As for any attack ads, the theme will be familiar: Justin Trudeau is a lightweight who is too much of a risk to entrust with power. But whereas previous spots made that case only broadly, a source familiar with Conservative strategy suggested the next round might identify specific policy consequences of taking that risk – economic, security-related or some combination of the two.
That raises the question of whether Mr. Trudeau will be able to respond with ads addressing his potential weakness.
One challenge is that demonstrating gravitas might require him to talk about policy specifics, and he doesn't have many of those at the moment. Recently launched radio ads have him aiming to show substance by promising to roll back Conservative tax and Old Age Security policies; it remains to be seen if the Liberals are prepared to roll out platform planks to give him more to talk about.
Then, of course, there is money. Despite dramatically improved fundraising in the past couple of years, the Liberals aren't exactly swimming in cash. To come close to matching the Conservatives for impact, they would need to be far more efficient than them with their spending.
That still leaves the Liberals in a more enviable place than the New Democrats, who face an unfortunate dilemma. The NDP's biggest liability is Thomas Mulcair being seen as an also-ran not seriously competing for power. Not only will it be difficult for him to counter that this spring; being less visible through advertising than the other two leaders could reinforce it.
For both opposition parties, there might be ways to punch above their weight. A trick that has been used previously is to run ads during political programming on CBC's or CTV's news stations, which don't cost much because of low viewership numbers overall, but are religiously watched by political journalists. They could also usefully aim to make ads compelling enough that they have potential to attract large online audiences.
But with their money advantage, it would take some work for the Tories not to help their re-election prospects in the months ahead. It's debatable whether Mr. Harper really could have locked down the best advertising real estate this spring if he had called a snap election, and all parties were emptying their bank accounts. But a half-year ahead of voters' date with the polls, the airwaves are his for the taking.