A fair bit has been written over the last week, analyzing why the federal Conservatives called the election so early. The issue arises because by law we now have fixed election dates in Canada, but the law allows the government to call the election sooner than the required minimum period before election day (the writ must be dropped to allow for at least a 36 day campaign before voting day). In this case the Prime Minister asked the Governor General to dissolve the House of Commons 77 days before voting day — October 19, 2015.
The common narrative is that the Conservatives called the election so early because they have considerably more money than their opponents and they can therefore take advantage of the situation by outspending the opposition. The opportunity to do so arises because Canadian election spending limits are determined using a formula that allows a certain amount of additional spending for each day of the writ period. Put simply, the Conservatives have the money needed to spend the limits. The opposition aren’t even close.
This narrative is correct. That is almost certainly one of the key reasons for the early election call. But it’s not the entire story. There is another, equally compelling, reason for starting this election in early August.
I’ll start with what is a now well-known political axiom: if a politician fails to define his or herself, then they leave that opportunity to their opponent. The best, and most recent, example of that was the Conservative’s early and consistent campaign (advertising, statements by the PM and his Ministers, conservative spinners and commentators, and so on) to define Justin Trudeau. The messaging, in various forms, was that Trudeau isn’t up to the job. It started right after he was elected and was very aggressive for a number of months. It dissipated in intensity, but has continued up to the present, becoming more pointed again leading up to the election.
The Liberals did little to counteract the campaign. Their main thrust was to complain publicly about the Conservative’s negative campaigning, but they largely ceded the ground to the Conservative campaign. There are differing views on whether it has worked, but I believe that it has and that Trudeau has an uphill battle in trying to define his image more advantageously.
The target was Trudeau, as Trudeau was the leader who could replace Harper as Prime Minister. Of course the NDP had Mulcair, but few seriously entertained that the next Prime Minister wouldn’t be Liberal or Conservative, as every Prime Minister has been one or the other stretching back to the 1800’s.
But things changed recently, when the NDP defeated the PC’s in Alberta to form the provincial government. Shortly thereafter the polls shifted significantly federally as well and the NDP surged, moving from third place and 10 points back in early May, to a tie for first by the beginning of June. Since then the NDP have slipped into the lead by a small margin. The NDP winning in Alberta was quite the shock, given Alberta’s “conservative nature”, raising as a legitimate possibility that they might win government nationally.
As the Liberals have slipped into third place Mulcair, naturally, has leapfrogged Trudeau in importance, creating a very interesting situation. Mulcair, has been around for a long time. He served as a Member of the National Assembly in Quebec for 13 years, and was a cabinet minister for many of those years until he and Charest had a falling out. He was then elected as a Member of Parliament in 2007 and followed Jack Layton as leader in the spring of 2012.
Yet despite 21 years of almost uninterrupted public service and despite having led the NDP federally for more than 3 years, I don’t believe that Mulcair is defined yet. To be clear, I do believe his image is well-developed in Quebec, but the NDP have been so marginal federally for such a long time, that in the rest of Canada I just don’t believe that voters have paid enough attention to him, to have a sense of who he is. Remarkably, that creates the opportunity to define Mulcair as the Conservatives would like to define him. Such are the realities of politics.
The second reality is that the power to decide when the election will be called offers a huge advantage. Because the Conservatives, and the Conservatives alone, knew when they were going to drop the writ, they could time their arrangements accordingly: when to start the leases for the campaign plane and buses (and when the artwork and execution had to be done), campaign office leases across the country, sign and stationary purchases, staff contracts, and the list goes on and on. Further, the Conservatives could plan the first few weeks of the campaign, rallies, tour, etc., knowing that it would happen. These advantages are significant and add up.
But as important as all of this is, the real advantage was the opportunity to define Mulcair. You see the most effective tool for getting your message out is TV advertising.There are a bunch of reasons for that, but trust me — TV is king. What is less well-known is how TV is booked and purchased. I would explain that, if I could, but I don’t really understand the process either. What I do know is that TV takes time. Not the time to produce the ads, (you’d have to expect that the Liberals and NDP had content ready to go in anticipation of the election, and TV ads can be produced overnight), but the lead time to book TV. You can’t book TV overnight. More to the point, it takes time to book TV ad slots on the right programs (again, an interesting topic for another day), being programs that your target audience is more likely to be watching.
Boiled down, I’m saying that the Conservatives, by knowing when the election would start, could book a week or perhaps two of prime placement TV advertising, without a single NDP (or Liberal) ad airing in response. Being so effective, TV advertising allows the Conservatives to take their shot at defining Mulcair and reinforcing their earlier defining of Trudeau.
This week the Mulcair ads paint Mulcair as a career politician that we just “can’t afford”. Trudeau continues to be “not up to the job”. Whether these ads will be effective, remains to be seen. It is the middle of summer and TV is watched less this time of year than at any other. Public interest in the election is also at an all time low. It still doesn’t seem real, and typically the public only dials in during the last couple of weeks.
But the ads will have some effect. Even if it is only 2 or 3 points, those could be critical points. In a tight three-way race, everyone is looking for an advantage. I believe the Conservatives found one.