If you live in Ontario, and watch much television, you're probably well familiar with the ads by now.
In one, Kathleen Wynne criticizes Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak. In the other, the Premier takes a run at the provincial NDP. In both, she does so while walking through a suburban neighbourhood, and starts by trying to make clear she's not making personal attacks.
There is plenty of room for debate about whether the ads are any effective. To some, they make Ms. Wynne look like a straight shooter; to others, the combined effect of her message and delivery and the camera angle and the empty street behind her is unflattering, and at odds with the sunny image she normally tries to cast.
But whatever one thinks of the production, the mere fact that Ontarians are seeing so much of the spots speaks to a big advantage for Ms. Wynne's Liberals. In the run-up to an election campaign that could start soon after Thursday's budget, theirs has been the only one of Ontario's three major parties that has been able to afford big ad buys to get its message out.
Once the writ drops, all three parties can be expected to spend at or near the roughly $8-million limit for the official campaign period, even if they need to borrow significantly to do so. In the pre-writ period, though, a party with more cash at its disposal is able to flex its muscle – and in this case, that's clearly the Liberals.
The available data suggests the Tories have recently come close to matching the Liberals in fundraising, though still trail them. But they have had the largest debt of the three parties, and their executive put unusually tight controls on how much more of it they can run up. To the extent it does have decent cash flow before the campaign starts, an opposition party may face more operational costs than a governing one, because of the lack of resources that comes with incumbency.
That helps explain why, while Mr. Hudak's campaign team recently showed reporters a new ad that attacks Ms. Wynne, nobody seems to have actually seen it on TV.
The NDP, meanwhile, is simply nowhere near the other two parties in fundraising. It has nothing comparable, for instance, to the annual fundraising dinners that reportedly netted the Liberals $3-million and the Tories $2.7-million last month. In last year's round of by-elections, which offered a big opportunity for the parties to build their war chests, the Liberals raised $2.5-million, the Tories $2.1-million, and the NDP less than $500,000.
Unsurprisingly, the New Democrats haven't even gone through the motions of launching province-wide TV ads, let alone bought space to air them.
That's left the Liberals as the only one blitzing the airwaves. So whereas a succession of federal Liberal leaders have faced attempts by the Conservatives to brand them before they get to brand themselves, Ms. Wynne got to make her own introductions to casual followers of provincial politics with last fall's "running" ad.
Now, while continuing to introduce herself, she's getting a clean shot at framing the agendas of the other two parties – drawing upon her party's research to hammer away at the perceived vulnerabilities of the other two leaders. And she's able to do so with a spot that lasts a full minute, which is unusually long (and expensive) for a political ad airing in primetime.
Just how successfully the Liberals are capitalizing is difficult to gauge. That their scandal-plagued party continues to poll well over 30 per cent may have something to do with the ads, but there's not enough available data to test that correlation. And whether the ads have achieved their primary purpose of preconditioning voters for the case the Liberals want to make during the campaign will only be known – if ever – once the votes have been counted.
If the Liberals manage to hang on to power in a spring campaign, though, their ability to outspend their rivals in the run-up to it will be a significant part of the story. And if they lose anyway, there will be plenty of behind-the-scenes finger-pointing about squandering all those extra dollars.