Everything else being equal, which never happens of course, incumbent governments would rather campaign in good economic times.
Good times or bad, incumbents will exaggerate the good, while their critics will underscore the bad. We can therefore expect that in the April 21 budget, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives will sing their own praises of economic and fiscal stewardship over nine years, and especially during this four-year mandate.
If the "economy, stupid" is a vote driver – let alone the vote driver, as Nanos Research's polling showed this week – then the opposition parties ought to have spent much of their time drilling down on the economy.
They have not done so, except to harp about the "anxieties of the middle class," which is precisely what the governing Conservatives claim to be their own preoccupation.
To the Conservatives' pitch of lower taxes and very large-scale benefits for targeted groups (income-splitting excepted), the opposition parties say little or nothing. Their silence implies consent.
The Liberals, for example, pledge to expand infrastructure spending and pursue new trade deals, which is exactly what the Conservatives pledge. Where they exist, differences are so marginal as to be lost even on the most attentive voter.
But, then, we know that most voters are not attentive, and that indeed the numbers indicating what is happening in the economy are often at variance with what large swaths of the electorate believe is happening. It is this gap between statistical reality and perception that allows each party to "frame" its own version of reality and sell it to the population.
We know, statistically speaking, that the federal budget is balanced, inflation (here as elsewhere) is low and unemployment is 6.8 per cent. All these benchmarks should work to the Conservatives' political advantage. So, perhaps, do all those spending announcements that the Prime Minister showers across the country.
We should remember, however, that in the mid-2000s (when the tide began to run out on the Liberals and the Conservatives came to power), the federal budget was in surplus, inflation was low, unemployment was lower than today and growth was very strong. Even with all those high cards in the Liberals' hand, they lost, for reasons that had nothing to do with economic statistics.
Behind today's encouraging headline statistics for the Conservatives, we know that the dollar has tanked and won't be rising from bed any time soon, year-over-year employment growth has been below 1 per cent for 15 months in a row, the trade and current-account deficits have widened (courtesy of the sharp decline in oil prices) and economic growth prospects have been slashed for 2015.
Public-sector job cuts and/or salary restraint has hit the big provinces of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. More layoffs are due in the fossil-fuel sector, whose slowdown will continue to ripple across the country, eliminating prospects for migrant job-seekers from provinces in Central and Eastern Canada.
The Canadian economy is now hinged on a very low dollar, historically low interest rates and the hope for higher exports to a faster-growing U.S. economy, plus super-charged real estate in Toronto and Vancouver.
That doesn't sound like a good recipe for long-term productivity gains, on which the country's future economic health depends. Without productivity gains, aging demographics will mean several decades of lower economic growth than what we have known.
The short-term prospects for the Canadian economy are therefore uncertain at best and middling at worst – certainly not the three-star future the government would have preferred. Aggregate economic growth is more likely to be at or below 2 per cent than above it, which would mean no change in the unemployment rate.
The Conservatives, as they have done before, can try to have it both ways by arguing that things have improved since the 2008 recession, so re-elect us; or, things are still tenuous so Canada needs a steady hand on the tiller, namely ours.
The undecided or lightly committed voter, in these uncertain economic times, might well seek a change at the top, especially after nine years of the same prime minister. They will want to know, however, whether someone else can at least run the economy, and preferably run it better.
If these voters cannot feel comfortable with the economic competence of Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau, and their parties, they will stick to the devil they know. So far, neither opposition leader has knitted together a coherent and compelling alternative economic narrative.