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Michael Coates is president and CEO of the Americas for Hill & Knowlton Strategies; he led Stephen Harper's debate preparation teams in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 federal elections


With the election over and the Conservatives removed from power, the second guessing of Stephen Harper's decision to run again – and criticism of his campaign strategy – is well under way. The truth is that, after almost 10 years in power, finding a path to victory was always going to be difficult for Mr. Harper. But he has left his party in a better position for the next election precisely because of his decision to run this time.

Pundits are already busy cataloguing the list of mistakes by the Conservatives: ads that lowered expectations about Justin Trudeau's readiness to govern; a historically long campaign, part of which was conducted during the Duffy trial; a debate strategy designed to show Mr. Trudeau as weak and ineffectual; using the niqab as a wedge issue. They all appear to have failed.

With opinion polls showing the Conservatives stuck at 30 per cent and only limited growth potential, Mr. Harper's strategy largely depended on Mr. Trudeau making mistakes and the Conservatives being in a competitive position to take advantage. To his credit, Mr. Trudeau campaigned passionately and effectively, and those mistakes never happened.

Even so, tactics by the Harper campaign that were designed to keep the "change" vote divided did succeed in keeping the race tight until the end of September. If change could only be accomplished by voting for the New Democrats, the Tories reckoned, there was a chance of swinging enough Liberals to the Conservative cause to eke out a narrow victory, or at least keep the Liberals to a minority. Toward the end of September, though, Tom Mulcair's principled stand on the niqab wedge backfired on the Conservatives, leaving Mr. Trudeau as the beneficiary of the "Anyone But Harper" movement.

The Conservative strategy was a long shot from the beginning. Winning a fourth term after almost 10 years in power is unheard of in modern politics. But it's equally true that there was no guarantee the party would have done any better under a different leader. The idea that when a leader departs, his or her supporters will automatically move to a new leader is naive. The new leader must be considered and accepted by the base. If there isn't enough time for this to happen, or the new leader is found wanting, then the results are even worse. Just ask Brian Mulroney or John Turner.

Although this election was a loss for Mr. Harper, his appeal to the base was consistent until the end. Most governments have great difficulty retaining their political base after the inevitable compromises of government. But he entered the election with about 30 per cent of voter support, and that's the way he left it.

This is a lesson that he learned from his mentor John Howard of the Australian Liberal Party. If the core voting block remains intact even when the party loses the election, then usually the party can stay within striking distance of power. In Australia, Mr. Howard chose to run again after four terms as Prime Minister and was defeated by the Labor Party in 2007.  The Labor Party was reduced to a minority in 2010 and then in 2013 the Australian Liberal Party, under Tony Abbott, was re-elected with a strong majority.

Mr. Harper knew the risks in running for a fourth mandate, but he also knew that his base was loyal to him. Victory was a long shot but a loss is recoverable for the party. The Conservatives won 99 seats seats and are in a strong position to capitalize in the next election (particularly now that we have a fixed election date). By stepping down now, rather than before the Oct. 19 vote, Mr. Harper gives his party an opportunity to think about how to expand its base and also gives the next leader time to win over its current supporters.

This is why, even though victory eluded him, the Conservatives are in a better position for the next election because of Mr. Harper's decision to run in this one.

Eds Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Australian Liberal John Howard ran after two terms and was defeated.  In fact, he ran after four terms as Prime Minister and was defeated.

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