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Jeffrey Simpson: From an election advantage to a strategic failure

Think for a moment of all the efforts the Harper Conservatives made long before and during the election campaign, and then contrast these efforts with the lack of results.

The Conservatives used every trick in the political playbook to try to win re-election, but unless every opinion poll is wrong (a possibility, of course), they are headed for defeat. If they lose, it will not be for lack of trying.

Remember the April budget, larded with benefits: larger family-allowance cheques, expanded contributions to tax-free savings accounts and income splitting. Recall that, by design, not long before the election was called, the Conservatives sent out the family-allowance cheques with fanfare and publicity.

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In the months before the campaign began, the government showered the country with billions of dollars of spending promises. It invented a quickie fund for arenas, recreation centres, libraries and the like. The government demanded speedy applications for the fund's money so that Conservative MPs could announce projects before the election. Which, of course, they gleefully did.

Was it possible in the many months before the campaign to watch television without seeing Economic Action Plan advertisements, paid for with taxpayers' money, extolling the virtues of Conservative policies? Then there was the television campaign paid for with party money denigrating Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who was claimed to be "just not ready." It was a double-barrelled assault before the writ was issued.

The election was called prematurely, its elongated length designed to maximize the Conservatives' advantage in having more money to spend than their opponents. So the length of the campaign was altered to benefit the Tories, just as the Harper government previously had amended the Canada Elections Act with changes designed to benefit the party.

Foreign policy, in a manner of speaking, was used domestically, as the government welcomed state visits from the Prime Minister of India and the President of the Philippines, leaders of countries whose Canadian diasporas the Harper Conservatives were targeting.

The Conservatives lined up all their ducks: massive spending announcements, tax cuts, a balanced budget, ubiquitous taxpayer- and party-funded advertising, an elongated campaign, followed by mid-campaign announcements to curry favour, capped off by the wedge issue of the wearing of the niqab.

They had a strategy, directed by the party's chief strategist, Stephen Harper, and to this point it has failed. Failed to the point that, compared with the 2011 election results, the Conservative Party has lost about one-quarter of its support.

In 2011, the Harper Conservatives took office with a shade under 40 per cent of the popular vote; today, their share stands at about 30 per cent in opinion polls (31 per cent, according to Ekos Research and Ipsos Reid, and 29 per cent, according to Nanos Research). Worse, Mr. Harper now trails Mr. Trudeau, he of the "just not ready" ad campaign, as the preferred prime minister.

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Put another way, in four years of Mr. Harper's majority government, the Conservatives lost large numbers of those who had supported them without picking up many new ones. They shrank, and never recovered, despite all their best political efforts.

Conservative-minded political parties have changed since the Second World War – Progressive Conservatives, Reform, Canadian Alliance and now the Conservatives. If this Harper Conservative Party were to receive only about 30 per cent of the popular vote, it would be the worst defeat in terms of the share of overall votes for what we might call conservative forces since the federal elections of 1949, 1953, the initial Pierre Trudeau win of 1968 and the election of 2004.

The Conservative political world has, therefore, narrowed. Geographically, it has been routed in most of the country's largest cities. It has suburban strength, to be sure, but not as much as the party had hoped for or needed. It will be the second or third party in at least seven provinces.

More than anything else, it has become a party of farm-country Canada. The only age cohort in which Tories lead is the over-65 group, a cohort that is growing in numbers but not one around which to build the future.

When the narrowing of the conservative political world began is a matter for conjecture. It quite likely was at least spurred, if not initiated, with the advent of the Reform Party, which changed the nature of conservatism.

When the votes are counted, unless an as-yet-undetected surge changes the direction of the campaign, Canadian conservatives will have much soul searching ahead of them.

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