Another poll out there showing an unfavourable situation for the Liberal Party, and for Michael Ignatieff, generating the usual reaction on all sides. Other recent polls have been equally unfavourable, others slightly less so. Still, some undeniable patterns have emerged, and they’re worth considering briefly.
What the polls, particularly the leadership figures, show largely is the power of multi-million dollar ad buys. Advertising can work, particularly when the buy is massive and you’re the only ones doing the talking. Thanks to their massive fundraising advantage over the other parties, but particularly the Liberals who, years later, still haven’t adjusted to the no longer new fundraising regime, the Conservatives enjoy the ability to negatively define their opponents with an advertising blitz, knowing their opponents don’t have the ability to effectively counter-punch.
Leadership numbers can be over-hyped, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. They’re not everything – the NDP likes to trumpet Jack Layton’s high leadership numbers, but they’re not giving much air to NDP support numbers: Jack raises the brand, but only so far. Leadership numbers can be a drag on party support numbers though, and we’re definitely seeing that. We may elect 308 MPs but in Canadian politics, leaders matter.
Now, we can bemoan the situation. We can call for intra-election spending caps. Campaign finance reform. We can release attack ads attacking attack ads. It does nothing to change the reality: the ad advantage this fundraising gap enables allows the Conservatives to go into any election campaign with a built-in advantage, and forces their opponents to always have to play from behind. And whining ain’t gonna change anything. People are tuned-out from politics, they are influenced by ads, and that’s that. (Though we should really figure out how to raise money one of these days)
We saw the pattern before with Stephane Dion, and we’re seeing it again with Michael Ignatieff. Going into an election handicapped is a burden, but it’s not an insurmountable one. Between elections, the Conservative money advantage is formidable. But the spending caps of the campaign period are a leveler and more people tune in to see what’s what, if only briefly.
So while they tune in with a pre-conceived negative notion of the opposition leader that needs to be overcome, one of two things will happen. Either what they see from the leader will reinforce the negative preconceptions forged by advertising, or it will shatter their preconceptions and lead to a re-evaluation by voters.
It can go either way. With Dion, while he improved as the campaign went on, his poor skills as a retail politician on the trail played into the negative narrative the Conservatives had planted with their pre-writ ads, and the perception was cemented in the minds of Canadians. When the next campaign begins, it will be up to Michael Ignatieff what story is written. Lowered expectations are great, and the public’s expectations of him couldn’t be much lower, but they’re only great if you can beat them.
It can go either way. But it’s important to emphasize it CAN go either way. So I don’t worry that much about every poll, although of course I am disappointed we’re not doing better. But I think we’re doing the right things on the opposition front, we’re making the right moves on the policy front, and we’re doing the right things on the organizational front. And I believe Michael Igntieff will prove to be a formidable campaigner, and he’ll surprise some people.
Once we’re into a campaign, we’ll either break the pattern, or we won’t. Until then, talk is cheap.
Well, for the governing party, at least.