The Conservative Campaign

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Political News Wednesday, November 18, 2015 View Count = 1206

The Conservative Campaign

Harper after loss

Election 360 Logo 3“The Conservative Campaign" is written by Tom Flanagan from the University of Calgary. 

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Tom Flanagan and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The Conservative campaign never really moved the dial. The party started and ended at about 30% in the polls. It has now been pushed back to its core support in western Canada and rural Ontario, roughly where it was after the 2004 election.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that the basic conception of the Conservative campaign was fundamentally flawed. Making economic management the central theme was okay, but beyond that the campaign was too defensive, almost paranoid. “Protect our economy”—what kind of slogan is that? Fear of what opponents might do in government is important, but it can’t be the only motivation. A campaign has to offer positive benefits to voters to secure their support.

Indeed, the Conservatives did offer benefits, such as enrichment of the Universal Child Care Benefit, income splitting for parents, and raising of the TFSA contribution limit; but these had already been legislated in the spring budget, so there was little new to be said during the campaign. Even worse, making the offer so far in advance allowed the Liberals to craft their own counter-offer—richer benefits for most parents, a tax cut for everyone making more than $45,000 in taxable income, and higher taxes only for the “one percent” reporting more than $200,000 in taxable income. It was rather like the 2000 election, when Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day revealed his flat tax proposal early, allowing Jean Chrétien to respond with his own package of tax cuts.

Contrast this to the 2005-06 campaign, which first brought the Conservatives to power. Then they offered a GST cut for everyone and the Child Care Allowance for parents. The details were held back, so that no other party could outbid the Conservatives. And it was affordable because Paul Martin’s government had run a surplus that could now be spent without going into deficit (that came later with the Great Recession of 2008).

Experience suggests that a conservative party cannot successfully run only on a theme of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility, except perhaps when government spending has gotten completely out of hand. In normal times—and this was a very normal time—a conservative party has to show how its free-market, fiscally responsible policies will make ordinary people better off—and that means better off in the next four years, not in the past. The Conservative party of 2015 seemed to have forgotten the lesson of 2006.

Another problem was that the Conservative campaign was so centred around the theme of Harper’s leadership. This might have worked before the Duffy scandal, when Harper was widely respected if not liked, but the Duffy revelations did damage to his personal brand that had not been repaired by the beginning of the campaign. The leadership trope was such an obvious failure that by the end of the campaign, the party was reduced to running ads saying that Mr. Harper was “not perfect” and the election was “not about” him—quite the contrary to what the campaign was supposed to be.

Against this backdrop, dropping the writ early for an eleven-week campaign seems to have been another mistake, though it did cut off hostile third-party advertising. It was supposed to allow the Conservatives to capitalize on their financial advantage, but money cannot substitute for message. If you have nothing compelling to say, saying it over and over doesn’t help. The long writ period ­allowed the campaign to be disrupted by external factors such as the Duffy trial, the refugee crisis, and the niqab decision from the Federal Court of Appeal. Since the Conservatives didn’t have a persuasive message of their own, their campaign was easily thrown off track by such developments.

The niqab issue, suddenly propelled to the fore by an unexpected decision from the bench by the Federal Court of Appeal, gave the Conservatives an opportunity for wedge politics against the NDP, which they exploited to win twelve seats in Quebec. But it backfired in the larger Canadian context. The anti-Harper “change” vote was like a see-saw; and when the NDP went down, the Liberals went up. It was strategic voting on a grand scale by voters who wanted Harper gone and who did not particularly care whether the NDP or Liberals finished the job.

All in all, it was a big disappointment for the Conservatives but not a catastrophe. Their organization and core vote remains intact, and if they find the right leader to replace Harper, they can be competitive again in the next election. Of course, that’s a big “if.” Ask the Liberals about the difference between being led by Michael Ignatieff or Justin Trudeau.

[Note: An earlier version appeared in The Globe and Mail on October 20, 2015 at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/conservatives-had-the-money-but-forgot-the-message/article26883457/]

Tom FlanaganTom Flanagan is a retired professor of political science and a former campaign manager for conservative parties. He is the author of Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the 21st Century (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014) andResource Revenue Sharing, Property Rights, and Economic Incentives,” Frontier Centre for Public Policy (2015). 

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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