David McLaughlin is a former Conservative Party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.
In a marathon, do you measure success in time or distance?
When that marathon is an election campaign that is more than 80 days long, time loses all meaning. It is going the distance that counts.
But in business, time is money. And money is at the core of any party's campaign blueprint.
Put the two together – time and distance – and the blueprint reveals itself.
The very length of this election call is the strategy. The long election is the single most important factor guiding the parties' overall approach to coping with this unusual test of political endurance.
For Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the best-financed party, this is a campaign of attrition. It has three features:
First, wear down opponents with a constant barrage of negative advertising that eventually penetrates voters' consciousness. Second, spread leaders' debates over the long Writ period to avoid any defining moment that could spark a change dynamic. Third, use their superior voter ID programs in individual ridings to identify, persuade and "get out to vote" on advance poll and election days. Time allows all this to happen on their terms.
For Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats, the best-positioned party for growth, this is a campaign of momentum. Driving that must be a desire for change amongst voters. It becomes a single message of change in advertising, big crowds at campaign rallies, and positive reviews of their leader's performance in debates, at events, and with the media.
To do so successfully, they need to fend off the "'too risky" attacks from the Conservatives and grow the plausibility factor of Mr. Mulcair as a viable and increasingly acceptable alternative to Mr. Harper as prime minister. He needs the lengthy campaign to show this. He needs time to show he can go the distance.
For Justin Trudeau's Liberals, the best-second-choice party, this is a campaign of relevance. They need to show they still matter as a viable option in a Stephen Harper referendum campaign where the first question in people's minds is "Should we keep Harper?" If the answer is no, then the Liberals need to be positioned to compete for the same "change" vote as Mr. Mulcair.
The Liberal path to victory runs through Mr. Mulcair, not Mr. Harper. Their campaign will show enthusiasm for Mr. Trudeau at events, attacks on Mr. Mulcair as not the right kind of change, and promotion of key policy planks to attract a viable coalition of voters to begin to win seats where he can. The Liberal slogan of "hope and hard work" is really the reverse: hard work to stay in the game and hope the other guy makes a mistake in a long campaign. Time is Mr. Trudeau's only friend.
But there is a subtext at work here in the decision to have a long campaign. It is about party realignment and the next election, not this one.
The lengthy campaign will drain the resources of only two parties: the Liberals and New Democrats. If a minority Parliament results on October 19th, Canadians will go to the polls sometime again in the next two years. Neither of those parties will be financially ready for an imminent election. Assuming Mr. Harper wins even a minority, it has all the prospect of proving a stable one. The appetite amongst his opponents for an early election will be severely dampened with empty bank accounts.
The NDP would be confirmed as the real alternative to the Conservatives as a governing party from the centre-left, while the Liberals moderate centrist position in the political spectrum would be confirmed as an increasingly fringe one. It would amount to an historic role reversal for those two parties and the ascendancy of polarization as the dominant narrative in Canadian party politics.
Election 42 is no sprint; it is an endurance race. That suits Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives just fine. For he and his party are not just playing for this election but the one to come.