Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Halftime Show: Liberals

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning (Saturday December 24, 2005 at 11:47 am)

As the various parties in the Canadian federal election take their rest, it’s time to do a quick roundup of the campaign so far, where it’s been, and where it could go. First, a look at the Liberals.

Faithful readers may have noticed that relatively few posts have been dedicated to Liberal policy. The gun registry and daycare question have each been showcased a few times, but more posts have starred Tory and NDP statements. The reason is simple: the Liberals aren’t offering much that is new.

The daycare proposal is a case in point. Rather than a new program, as their campaigning might suggest, the moneys pledged are simply the annual cost of extending the current program for an additional five years. Their just-released package for seniors similarly offers up nothing more than a discussion of past and present government initiatives. In a nutshell, the Liberals are running on their record.

By itself, this is a risky strategy. Regardless of Canadians’ impressions of the Liberal record, polling through this campaign has suggested a desire for change, suggesting that it doesn’t matter how well the Liberals have done. People are simply tired of them.

Which is why the Liberal campaign has a second string to its bow: fear. In 2004, “Team Martin” signs and a general lack of policy came from the deep belief on the part of new leader Paul Martin’s team that victory was theirs if only Canadians could all bask in his gentle decency. This belief, the natural product of ten years of fervent proslytizing while taking over the Liberal party, was doing little to prop up Liberal fortunes. And so, in the last week of the campaign, a new tactic was introduced, and the demonizing of Steven Harper brought about a slender Liberal victory.

We’ve already seen some similar efforts in this campaign. Paul Martin has raised the spectres of the Charter of Rights and national unity in a clear attempt to frighten voters away from other parties, presumably unable to adequately deal with these tasks. The theory runs that since there hasn’t been a failure under Liberal governments thus far, better to stay the course and stick with Liberals when such threats to the country loom. If these efforts weren’t enough, early reports suggest a more intensive negative campaign is being readied for after the holidays, to boost what has been a lacklustre Liberal performance.

There are a number of things to consider in evaluating the Liberal position. First, the general absence of policy announcements (relying instead on vague references to existing programmes and the Prime Ministerial appearance of the leader). The Liberals may be banking on the notion that presenting their substantive platform later on will make it more memorable — a significant advantage to be had in a lengthy campaign. Their low-key campaigning may stem, in general, from a similar premise: that this is simply a phony war, and that resources will be better spent in the high-energy kick after the holidays. Then, this theory goes, voters will be paying closer attention (what else do you do in Canada in January) and, given the shorter time before elections, there is less likelihood of the message wearing thin or voters becoming forgetful.

This strategy has a number of potential faults. The early part of the election was seized upon by the Conservatives to define themselves (more on this next post). If it has been successful, the Liberals will seem to be reacting rather than leading. Paul Martin has already spent a great deal of time early in this campaign on the defensive (even the pointless child care announcement was a hastily-concocted response to a Conservative presentation). This may continue if the Liberals don’t abandon their apparent campaign focus: the land is strong. The more Paul Martin has to respond, the less Prime Ministerial he looks — particularly given how poorly he presents himself when not reading prepared speeches.

Last time around, the fear strategy relied heavily on soft NDP supporters (and perhaps even a few harder Dippers) running to support Liberal candidates, lest a Conservative government emerge from the fray (and with it, policies they abhorred). This time around, the NDP leader, Jack Layton, has been trying to fight that result pre-emptively. Whether NDP voters will listen to him isn’t clear; but with that message coming out much earlier (and better performance from the NDP — more later), there’s a chance that a few would-be fairweather voters will stay NDP.

The other change (and perhaps more significant) has been the change of Steven Harper — a change in the target rather than the voters. Without preempting too much of the analysis of Conservatives yet to come, Harper’s early focus on defining himself and tactfully active work on diffusing Liberal attacks may ruin the effect of the fear strategy. Failure for want of adequate demons would eliminate the effect of the campaign on undecided voters, rather than those who might vote strategically to fend off a threat, and this is the prime target of most campaigning.

As the polls go, the Liberals have a few things to be happy about, and much to fear.

While overall support for the Liberals remains high, this is in large measure due to their share of the Quebec vote. Notwithstanding that their current standing in that provice, averaging just under 30%, isn’t high enough to fend off what looks like a Bloc resurgence (more on which later), 25% of Quebec’s 4-5 Million voters is a high enough number to significantly skew national figures without making any difference in seats. Liberal support has moved little in Quebec, though a slight upswing might have been observed. The only hope for the Liberals there is that enough Bloc support is composed of federalists upset with the Liberals who will lose their nerve come election day. The Liberals are bound, at present, to lose a few seats in Quebec.

In the Atlantic provinces, the Liberals retain a strong lead over the Conservatives, but a resurgent NDP vote may steal a few more seats away or even split the vote in enough ridings to increase Tory numbers. Layton’s campaign must falter for the Liberals to retain their position here, and as the Wonk has argued before, this region is crucial to any hope for a Liberal government.

Ontario, which many regard as a battleground, is more of a problem for the Liberals than it a first glance suggests. Fairly good overall numbers hide tremendous strength in the GTA (averaging 50% in most polling), and a dead heat beyond. In Southern Ontario, Liberals have a slim lead over Tories, while in Eastern Ontario, the Tories have a more convincing lead over the Liberals. Overall, there’s no reason to believe that the Liberals will be able to increase their seat count in Ontario.

The Prairies and Alberta remain a hard sell for Liberals. Strong overall Conservative numbers conceal growing NDP support in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The Liberals may find themselves in a two-way battle for second place in a number of ridings, but seem unlikely to make significant inroads. Alberta remains staunchly Conservative, where the party has the highest margin of any party in any polling district. Liberal hopes amount to no more than Anne McLellan retaining their lone seat.

British Columbia is the sole ray of sunshine at present. There, what looks like a tight three-way race is shaping up, in which the Liberals may have hopes of building on their 8 seats. That outcome will depend on the success of their fear campaign, as well as hopes that enough NDP support will swing their way to avoid vote-splitting and the election of Tory candidates.

Overall, the Liberals at present must hope that gains in BC offset losses in the East; but such an outcome is next to impossible. To retain their position, they must retrench their Eastern seats. To that end, the next phase of their campaign needs its fearmongering (and for that fearmongering to be successful) as well as a positive message for voters to choose (see “change” above). If they prove themselves incapable of either landing these punches or offering voters the change they seek, the Liberals will have to pray for Tory , BQ and NDP blunders to keep from losing seats and, possibly, government.

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