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September 8th, 2015

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Following the maxim that you shouldn't wear white after Labour Day, none of the major political parties will be waving the white flag just yet either.

Conservative Party leader Prime Minister Stephen Harper takes questions from the media at a campaign stop in Ottawa, Aug 31, 2015

But as the extra-long election campaign called by the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister crosses the hump from pre-season into prime time, there are signs the governing party's machinery is not running as smoothly as it once did.

  • The Conservatives are actually running third in the number of candidates nominated, behind the Liberals who led the pack for the longest time on that measure, but now the NDP as well – who as of Sunday night have just 3 spots left on their slate to fill, and will likely be the first to confirm a full complement of 338 candidates with Elections Canada.
  • Indeed, the Conservatives lost two of their nominated candidates on the long weekend, in addition to several others who were dropped in Quebec in the latter half of August.
  • While the governing party recruited a few stars to replace the growing number of incumbent MPs and cabinet ministers calling it quits, overall the party's slate is notable for the lack of sizzle in the new blood stepping forward.
  • The one place bucking that trend for awhile was Quebec, where the Conservatives attracted a number of local mayors, TV personalities, and sports figures in the spring, but now the party has been stubbornly stuck with 10-11 holes to fill in its Quebec slate for the past few weeks.
  • Meanwhile, Newfoundland & Labrador candidate recruitment risked becoming a full-on fiasco after the party disqualified lawyer Ches Crosbie, son of the Rock's Conservative icon John Crosbie. Until very recently, they had only finalized one of the province's seven nominations, an outgoing provincial MHA, with few other prospects on the horizon ('we're down to pulse-optional," the CBC's David Cochrane was told). Then this past week they announced a political aide in Avalon, and disgraced former cabinet minister Peter Penashue in Labrador. A contested nomination was completed on Friday night finally in St. John's East, leaving 3 of the 7 seats still to fill.
  • The Conservative leader's tour is, with few exceptions, focusing on weak incumbent seats ("playing defence") and far less on pickup targets ("playing offence").
  • And crowds at the PM's tour events are tiny by previous standards, and in contrast to the crowds greeting Trudeau and especiallly Mulcair.

The fact that the Conservatives were not able to field a complete and properly vetted slate of candidates within a week of calling the election — and in fact are still unable to do so a full five weeks after the writ dropped — suggests to me that the idea of an early call was not a long time in the making for them, after all. Or that, if it was, the party's ability to execute is substantially diminished, or else its new National Candidate Selection Committee process has proven too cumbersome to reach timely or canny decisions.

Given the party's culture of secrecy and message discipline, we can only infer from reading the tea leaves and watching the smoke signals. But a sovietology-like study of the signs from outside will no doubt be pondering:

  • why Jenni Byrne as campaign director is said to be on the plane rather than in the war-room,
  • why are any party insiders complaining to Bob Fife in the middle of the campaign that Jenni Byrne is on the plane rather than in the war-room
  • what impact National Field Director Fred Delorey's spring departure to run for the nomination in Central Nova would have had on the party's ground preparation and candidate search, and
  • how serious an impact the wasted $7M spent on a failed IT project to upgrade the party's frontline data-gathering capacity is having on their ground game.

I also think it points to another motivation for their seemingly inexplicable obsession with attacking then-third place Liberal leader Justin Trudeau: namely that the Conservatives needed to forestall any weakening that would see them drop seriously into third place themselves. It both satisfies the bloodlust of their own base, and reminds swing voters of their one big hesitation with the young opposition leader.

For the longest time, the convention in Canadian federal politics has been that the Conservatives have a solid base of support, and can win a majority by splitting their opposition to the centre-left. Arithmetically this formula works so long as the party in the cat-bird seat controls over a third of the vote, and has enough control over other levers to calibrate support and opposition for its two rivals to keep them in equilibrium, both just below the one-third threshold.

Liberals (big- and small-L) accepted this paradigm for the longest time too, and instead focused on trying to reinforce their credentials as the natural alternative governing party by targeting other pretenders to that throne, or by tinkering with "cooperation" or "strategic voting" schemes to suppress those progressive rivals.

Two new strategic approaches eventually emerged to challenge that conventional wisdom. First was the idea promoted by the NDP since the days of Jack Layton that any opposition party worth its salt should be directly challenging the Conservatives, and not taking it as gospel that their vote couldn't be shaken loose. Both by turning in solid and vigourous performances in the House and Committee in their critic duties, led now by prosecutor-in-chief Tom Mulcair, and by trying to develop issues that had the potential to politically separate the Conservative government from its base, the NDP was trying to establish its claim to be the anti-Harper party of choice based on merit rather than on tactics.

Second was the idea, floated for some time by Liberal strategists who understood the futility of strategic voting arguments made by a party on the down cycle, that not being the current alternative governing party offered the Liberals the opening to take bold positions to both the right and the left, and thereby defy labelling. Thus one of the first moves of the Trudeau leadership was an op-ed piece favouring the foreign sale of Nexen, while another was to announce support for legalizing marijuana.

The strategy was further elaborated in a series of successful provincial Liberal campaigns, either to win power, or hang onto it, culminating in the successful "reach-around strategy" whereby the Ontario Liberals ceded the southwest to blue-orange switchers, but constructed an apparently left-wing policy offer to urban red-orange switchers, which had the side-benefit of dividing the ONDP family internally at the same time.

Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne thus successfully occupied the pole position as the centre-left foil to job-chopping PC leader Tim Hudak, winning over nervous urban knee-dippers with the "most progressive budget ever", and distracting attention from her party's decay outside metropolitan Toronto by focusing on the NDP's vulnerability in the downtown. The fawning parts of the Toronto media willingly chimed in. Of course as thanks for all the lefty love she received during the campaign, Wynne turned around and proposed the highly unpopular privatization of Hydro One. This bait-and-switch is important to mention because of its potential impact on the ability of the federal Liberals to repeat the same feat nationally against the NDP.

Thinking about three-way campaign dynamics is foreign to most of the folks who've covered Canadian federal politics. They totally understood the "red-door-blue-door" dynamic, and preferred the US-style narrative of a two-party clash of ideas, where the challenger attacks the winner in order to move ahead. But politicos have always needed to understand the three-way dynamics of our varied national battlegrounds, and the varying approaches available to draw on or avoid:

  • A centrist party in a weak first place conjures the evil of a conservative opponent in a threatening second place to try and corral the votes of an earnest social democratic party in third place
  • An opposition party facing a conservative opponent in government tries to reinforce its standing by ignoring the third party, and promoting favourable media coverage and highlighting opinion polls to try and build a bandwagon effort in its favour to surpass the government
  • An unpopular governing party tries to halt the sudden gains of an unexpectedly strong fourth-place opponent by turning its guns on them, only to find it's accidentally confirmed that opponent was indeed strong enough to be worthy of all the attention
  • One opposition party from third place attacks the governing party so hard and so effectively, it inadvertantly makes the case for defeating the government by voting for someone else stronger
  • A governing party tries to assist a third party in order to help it pincer the second-place challenger
  • A governing party attacks its major opponent so hard, it doesn't notice the extent to which that opponent's support is bleeding to a stronger alternative
  • A candidate compliments her weaker opponent so as not to make their supporters feel uncomfortable about switching their support to her
  • Another candidate attacks his weaker opponent, unconsciously doing the dirty work of the frontrunner who is thus able to stay above the fray
  • Candidates or leaders starting in third or fourth place do not receive sufficiently robust media scrutiny, and are thus able to enjoy a halo effect far longer than their front-running competitors during the campaign, enabling last-minute surges

Stephen Harper is said to have had a long-term strategy of crippling the Liberal Party, thereby enabling a reunited Conservative Party to win three elections out of four against the now-national NDP.

But what if the Conservatives settle into third place in the public domain polls, with a weakened ground organization and demoralized volunteer troops? Well, they can still parlay their fundraising advantage into doing voter contact using vendors, and plastering the airwaves with increasingly hard-hitting advertising against their most fruitful target, drawing on the red meat issues that would most motivate their core supporters.

The Liberals were apparently following a strategy of tilting right on some issues such as opposing universality and a national childcare program, but "reaching-around" to the supposed left of the NDP with a few others (notably advocating deficit financing to support infrastructure spending), as a way to avoid being the meat in the sandwich between the Conservatives and the social democratic NDP.

But what if the Liberals are now in second place, and challenging for government? Would that "reach-around" strategy help or hurt them in a new position as the strongest capitalist party opposing the social democratic NDP? Did they inadvertantly allow the NDP to better stake its claim to the praire style of fiscal management that allowed premiers like Gary Doer and Roy Romanow to win tory-crossover votes?

If the Conservatives are shedding support, where is it going? Traditional left-right spectrum analysis would guess the Liberals. And yet Sunday night's first offering from the Nanos rolling 3-day tracking for CTV suggests that the latest week's tranche of fleeing Conservative support benefited the NDP, while their losses earlier in the month were to the Liberals.

Also, to this point, we've believed the election would be about whether Stephen Harper's Conservative government should be replaced, and if so, who was offering the better alternative as between the Mulcair NDP and the Trudeau Liberals, and which was better positioned to pull it off.

But now, if the Conservatives were to fall to third place, the ballot question would be up in the air, and the NDP and Liberals would be fighting as much to establish their preferred ballot question, as to prove that either the orange team or the red leader is "Ready". Are the Liberals really gearing up to run a campaign against the NDP for wanting to balance the budget? If so, which party's "base" would revolt first? And, how would the strategic voting advocates react then?

This is not to suggest that the Conservatives would take the possibility of third place lying down. They might take a bold risk of announcing a GST rate cut, designed to throw a grenade into their opponents' platforms and make any debate over deficits that much more fraught. They would certainly try to drive wedges between the Liberals' newfound enthusiasm for deficit-financing and the red team's well-entrenched position as the party that had balanced budgets "in their DNA". And they will try to activate fears of the NDP in government (and it's not like some of that party's provincial sections didn't give them at least some material to work with on that score).

Question: would they suddenly put out hints of being open to reviving an English-language Consortium Debate? I only suggest this now, because that was my punditry-slash-speculation back last May during the "debate on the debates". Probably not, given Stephen Harper's distaste for climb-downs, but desperate times and all that.

None of the three major parties has any experience fighting a three-way race from their current position: the NDP has never been the front-runner in five straight weeks of a federal election campaign (especially with nearly no advertising outlay to date), the Liberals have never been fighting to come back from third place in the House after tumbling from first place in the polls, and the newly-formed Conservatives – so used to being the dominant force in the ground game and defining the air war – are not used to feeling such a victim of events and their own record in government.

Yet more reasons the 2015 election is proving one of the most fascinating in recent memory.


11 Responses to “Campaigning in 3D: Six more weeks of the three-way race”

  1. Ron says:

    It seems that the solumnent electorate is finally awakening and placing the CONs in 3rd.
    Questions for a wise woman:
    1) Will the pending ad blitz
    (courtesy of the $ impact of the loooong election that you first warned us about)
    put it back to sleep?
    2) We’ve uncovered (just a few of) the CON dirty tricks over the years: in/out, DDM, PP, robocalls.
    What skullduggery are they up to this time?

  2. Harry R says:

    Great piece. A really thorough assessment on the current political landscape.

    Observations:

    1: Its appears that Stephen Harper (and his team) is becoming somewhat toxic to CPC and could possibly cause the eroding of its own support. That is support that they desperately need.

    2: Liberals have been rebounding remarkably while the NDP has started to plateau. The NDP isn’t necessarily bleeding votes but its failing to consolidate their new found support. Could this lead to a red door – orange door situation?

    I would surmise that if this is the case, you can expect to see red-tories/blue-liberals coalesce under Trudeau to keep the NDP out –resulting in a bolstering of the Liberal’s polling performance. If Trudeau’s Liberals continue to see the national rise in polling they are seeing, it could also encourage soft NDP/Liberal swing voters to return to the Liberals in an effort to topple Stephen Harper.

    Ultimately, what we see playing out here is Stephen Harpers worst possible nightmare.

  3. Shadow says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I’m a bit skeptical on the third place bit. One would have to dig through old polling but it seems to me that the last week of summer before the kids are back to school might create a high degree of sampling error in polls.

    If that is the case and the next round of polls shows a ‘surging Harper’ then i’ll be amused as media analysts try and determine which masterstroke was behind the improvement and backroom types grouse to Bob Fife that it was their idea all along.

  4. Shadow says:

    OK so Nanos was indeed a holiday weekend poll. If they’re now reporting nightly tracking they usually have a rolling accumulation of the past 3 days.

    So by Friday night we’ll have clean numbers !

  5. Hi Harry, and welcome. You speak of the NDP plateau’ing, but from where I sit it’s a minor miracle they’ve stayed on top of the polls this long with a virtually zero paid TV advertising budget. Obviously we’ve seen that change in the last 24 hours, so it will be interesting to watch whether those numbers move or not.

  6. Bluegreenblogger says:

    Good read, thanks.
    I just saw on your nominations tracker that the Greens still have about 100 nominations to go. I do not doubt that they are not so worried about a full slate now there is no per vote subsidy, so I am beginning to suspect they may have run out of steam. Despite the fact that the three main players are battling it out, there is a four way race in some regions, and likely the electoral math will change in more than a few ridings with no Green candidate. Have you heard if the GPC is still working on nominations? I am wondering if it is worth mapping ridings with no GPC candidate to consider the possible impact of those stranded voters.

  7. Ron says:

    An excellent thought-provoking article, Alice.
    Here in Saanich -Gulf Islands Elizabeth is spending a remarkable amount of time on the hustings.
    If the Greens do not quickly fill the 100 vacancies soon her pretense of being a national party leader will be challenged by even the lazy media and pundits who appear unable to apply the same standard of scrutiny to the contradictions and gaffes of this cult-like party.

  8. Harry R says:

    Re: NDP plateauing

    While I don’t disagree, it is quite surprising that the NDP has remained in the lead for the large part all the while keeping a tight grip on their finances. I don’t necessarily believe and an increase of spending while automatically correlate to a rise in their polling. Remember, when a party has momentum and is surging nobody really knows what they did to get there or how to even replicate it. The best they can do is try to harness those gains. So if we see a receding nationally for the NDP (which we are undoubtedly seeing), theres no guarantee that splurging on ads will re-ignite that momentum.

    That said, anything can happen and for all we know the NDP could start rising again and the ads could put the NDP within majority territory again. But because there are so many unpredictable factors that could profoundly affect the direction of polling there’s no telling how the dynamics will change for tomorrow –let alone the end of the week.

  9. Shadow says:

    Well its Friday so checking back in on Nanos …

    CPC at 31 ?! CPC surging ? That’s like a 5 point gain. Up 4 in forum.

    Wow that Lynton guy works fast. Maybe it was the softening tone on refugees ?

    Sigh, so much wasted ink. At least 7 or 8 columns focused on the impending Tory defeat all because of some probably wonky long weekend polling.

  10. Shadow says:

    Good lord now even pollsters are getting in on this nonsense. CPC up a few points in EKOS so Graves suggests that the tough refugee response is helping them.

    Yes, the same response the media fingered as the reason for the CPC decline!

    Or Canadians let out a collective yawn, the CPC decline and subsequent rebound weren’t real and just the long weekend.

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