Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Election Post-Mortem, Part Three: The Conservative Party

The Conservatives

When it comes to the outcome of an election campaign there's success, and then there's success. It all depends on your definition of success. And it depends on your goals.Certainly there's lots of room to put different spins on these results for the Conservatives. I will say this though: from a campaign execution perspective, this wasn't a great campaign for them.

You certainly can't say this campaign was a failure for the Conservatives, that would be silly. They're still in government, that's the more important measure of success, trumping all others. And they increased their seat count, giving them momentum, and increased moral clout to claim a mandate, if not the ability to push it through. And they have an opposition in disarray, which will help them on the mandate front.

Still, they didn't get the majority they'd hoped for, usually private hopes but sometimes public as well. One could argue that failing to get a majority alone makes this campaign a failure for the Conservatives. After all, look at all they had going for them: the longest minority government (I think) we've had in Canada, they implemented the bulk of their policy agenda, they used the levers of government and billions of taxpayer dollars to woo selected voter groups, they used a substantial financial advantage to weaken the Liberal leader to the extent the party had its worst electoral showing in recent history, and the ballot box question was their, if you will, money issue: the economy. All that, and no majority. If they couldn't get one now, one could rightly wonder if they ever will. After all, at some point the Liberals are going to get their act together. I hope.

The more Machiavellian among us though would reach a different conclusion: a strengthened minority may have been just what the Conservatives had been hoping for. Oh, sure, they'd have learned to live with a majority, I'm sure. But a minority, and the Liberal fondness for knifing the leader, means no time for their main opposition to renew and fundraise in the midst of a leadership campaign, nor time for the new leader to find their feet before the next campaign, meaning an even weaker main opposition while oppose the Conservatives in the next election. Looking at the long game, this is a pretty good result after all.

But enough of the results, what of the campaign? In 2005/06, I thought the Conservatives ran a slick, well-orchestrated and choreographed campaign that won the public over. This time, while the plan was there I thought the execution was off, and only the incumbency advantage, Liberal weakness, and the economic crisis prevented this thing from being a much tighter race.
Much of the groundwork was layed by the Conservatives before the campaign with the Not A Leader ad campaign. Going into the campaign, having made leadership a major issue the plan was contrast Harper's leadership with Dion's, remind Canadians things are pretty good and if it ain't broke why risk an unneeded fix, and release targeted and tested policyettes to support the narrative and build support amongst key demographics.

There was no over-arching vision, no grand plan for Canada. We Liberals talked about it being a crucial election, about reconciling the economy and the environment as the issue of the 21st century. The Conservatives talked about steady management. It comes down to our differing views of the role of government. From a campaign perspective neither is wrong, and for the Conservatives it was a particularly good incumbent strategy.

For all our big-spending policy initiatives, the Conservatives got just as much media bang with their much smaller ticket items. More importantly, I think they resonated more strongly with the demographics they needed to reach. Giving EI parental benefits to the self-employed, for example, really resonated with women, as did the stuff around truth in labeling. While we fired cluster bombs the Conservatives launched guided missiles. They also communicated them to the target far more effectively, their messaging, backdrops and tour were all very effective.

Also impressive in my view was the inroads the Conservatives made into Canada's ethnic communities. There were several notable missteps – they very badly bungled the Komagata Maru apology – but by and large, Jason Kenney's work paid dividends. Just in ridings I observed, Conservative efforts to woo the Chinese and Jewish communities paid off. There were a lot of very tight races in urban centres, many of which swung Conservative, and the importance of the Conservatives' ethnic vote initiatives can't be understated in those results.

Much like the NDP wasn't impacted by gaffes very much, neither were the Conservatives. The first week of the Conservative campaign was filled with war room gaffes, and much to the chagrin of at least myself to be sure, there was zero impact on their popular support. It was interesting. The evolution of the role of gaffes is probably a meaty enough topic for another post.

Where they seemed to get into trouble, in my view, was when the defining narrative became the economy. It's ironic, because this should be their issue (and they did manage to reclaim it in the end), and they recognized this by insisting the debate format be modified to lengthen the economic debate.

They got their wish, but the problem is they showed-up with nothing to say on the issue. They kept running their front runner, stay the course, steady leadership campaign, but having raised the importance of the issue in people's minds, just saying trust-us wasn't good enough anymore. The opposing parties ganged-up on Harper in the debates, and Dion's five-point action plan looked all the better in the absence of anything tangible from Harper. Which is why he came out guns-firing to attack it at the start of the English debate.

And here, as it has so often in the past, the Harper love for heated rhetoric got the better of him. Comments that the other leaders were hoping for a recession reminded people Harper can be petty and mean underneath the sweater. His advice about stock buying opportunities painted him as aloof and out of touch. Liberal numbers began to rise.

However, the Conservatives were able to right the ship. They cobbled together a platform. They dialed back some of the insensitivity. And they stepped-up their attacks and negative ads on Dion to ensure there was no credible alternative on the economic file. With a little help from CTV and Duffy to reinforce the opinion of Dion in the public eye they had seeded earlier, the damage was reversed.

Except, of course, in Quebec, although they did recover their 06 levels. It was in Quebec, where the culture cuts and the youth crime proposals became major issues. Here all the good work the Conservatives had done in Quebec was undone by two relatively minor missteps. Much like the Liberals couldn't harden gains on the economy when things like the CTV thing re-enforced perceptions of Dion in the public, it didn't take much for Quebec to be reminded of what they disliked and distrusted about the Harper Conservatives. They reversed the culture cuts(far too late) but it was too late; once the narrative is set it's very hard to overturn.

How the culture cuts weren't flagged by a Quebec minister or by someone in their Quebec caucus, I don't know. Perhaps its Harper controlling mentality, but a little consultation could have won them their majority.

In the end, I think the Conservatives ran a solid campaign that made a few mistakes but recovered from them, communicated effectively, set the narrative for much of the campaign, had a few challenges but also got some lucky breaks, and the incumbent bump. And that's how you win an election campaign. A little better execution, ie. more tangible economic initiatives earlier, and a better ear for Quebec, and they'd have gotten a majority.

A weak opposition, and a boatload of pre-election spending to define the opposition helped too. When issues did begin to break our way, having to overcome the negative images made it that much more difficult to gain support, and solidify it.

I just wonder though if, in closing, they've hit a ceiling of support. With all they had going for them it should have been a majority for them. If the Liberals are able to right their ship, the holy grail moves ever further out of reach. While counting on more Liberal disarray wouldn't be a bad bet, I wouldn't bet my electoral strategy on it.

Leadership issues: None. Three elections and two minorities for a Liberal leader and the knifes would be out. But while I think it would be natural for some Conservatives to be asking themselves if Harper really is the man that can take them those final steps to Valhalla, his grip on the party is too firm to allow such thoughts to even be thunk.

Tomorrow: Part Four: The Liberal Party

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penlan said...

Jeff said:

"...they used the levers of government and billions of taxpayer dollars to woo selected voter groups..."

Could you explain that a little more? I'm not sure it was "billions" but more like "millions". Unless I've misunderstood you.

Also, it was a set-up right from the time Dion was elected leader to use the negative "Not a Leader" ads, as you know, & I think they had already planned, way back then, to use the whole Leader issue, low-key & the main focus right out of the gate, of the calm, collected, sweater guy as their campaign theme. 2 years of planning this worked extremely well.

Whoever the new leader will be of the Lib party will be in for exactly the same kind of attacks based on their personality/character - whatever the Cons choose as a negative to define & frame whoever is chosen. And then Harper will be fronted as the complete opposite in the next election.

The U.S. Swiftboating tactic has now been in play ever since Dion was chosen leader & it's never going to go away & will forever be used by the Cons from now on. Nasty stuff but now a reality in Canadian politics.

The Rat said...

Jeff, come to the dark side, Jeffff. More power there is in the dark side, more power. Jefffff, I am your FATHER!