Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and his daughter works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
For all the talk about campaign strategy, most energy expended by campaigns is on tactics.
Putting a successful event together. Doing interviews. Moving from place to place without incident. Prepping and debating. Shooting an ad. Raising money. Getting out the vote.
All three campaigns have been pretty good, tactically. Yes, they've had candidate eruptions, but for the most part these have been dealt with pretty crisply. A bus broke down, but it didn't turn into a meme.
But with a few weeks to go, all three major parties will want to take a moment and review strategy. What's been working, what needs to be tweaked or tossed? Here's what I see:
The NDP may have bet too heavily on being front-runners, and on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau flopping. They gambled that there was plenty of anger at Conservative Leader Stephen Harper to harvest, and that Mr. Trudeau would fade from view quickly. All that had to be done was make party Leader Thomas Mulcair seem less tense, more prime ministerial.
Well, Mr. Mulcair seems less tense, but he's probably not truly feeling that way.
Some days, the NDP campaign sounds like it's almost anti-change. We won't spend to grow the economy, won't tax the wealthy, won't rule out the pricey jet, won't scare anyone, won't break any eggs. A sturdy enough strategy if Mr. Trudeau had sunk like a stone.
But if the NDP is in third place in Ontario, this approach might not get the job done. Less angry, less Senate, more mail delivery, cheaper child care, and a better minimum wage … the question they may need to ask is: If it hasn't captured enough of the collective imagination so far, will it by election day?
Is "less right than him, more experienced than him" the right fuel? Worth an NDP brain trust huddle.
If you believe the latest Ekos poll, the "steady as she goes" strategy is working fine. But if you like a side of caution with your polling (and gaze at other polls, too) you'd ask this: Are we leaving the impression that nothing will get better if you re-elect us? Do we take it for granted that voters understand we would build lots of infrastructure, spur lots more jobs, increase export opportunities, cut more taxes? Had we better be more explicit?
The CPC strategy seemed also to assume that Mr. Trudeau would fade out of the gate. And that the economic duel would be with Mr. Mulcair and his fellow New Democrats Nathan Cullen and Peggy Nash – not Mr. Trudeau and past Liberal heavyweights Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien.
In the last couple of days, Mr. Harper has started to make a more active case for re-election. "We'll create a million jobs" is a lot more appealing than "Vote for us or don't. See if I care."
The key choice for the Conservatives to wrestle with now: to focus on driving down interest in Mr. Trudeau or to polish and push their own growth agenda.
"Real change. Middle class. We'll invest in you now." This consistent positioning has had the result that people hear a leader they aren't sure of saying things they like the sound of.
The challenge for the Liberals is a different one than that of the other parties. At first, they needed to find a way to get ahead of the NDP in Ontario. If this has been accomplished, winning becomes about beating Conservatives.
Advertising is the most obvious area to focus on. It's one way to remind voters why they wanted change, and to harden that desire.
So far, Liberal advertising has largely been of the positive, "Here's who I am, here's what I'm for" variety. Mr. Trudeau's personal reputation is about being positive and respectful, an asset not to be squandered. Still, Liberal success depends on enough people wanting change, and on their choice for change to be Liberal. Both parts of that equation may bear repetition, not just the second.
Paul Simon's lyric, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" is pretty true about how voters hear political pitches. Entering the home stretch, all three parties can take a moment to consider whether their pitch is perfect, or needs a tweak.