Sunday, June 06, 2004

The Campaign – Week Two

Various points:

1. To take literally the word of the Globe and Mail and other media, the zeitgeist says we will have a Conservative government. They generally don’t say it, but they imply that it will be a majority government.

However, the slow upward progress of the Conservatives seems more a product of the downward glide of the Liberals at this point than any campaign accomplishments of their own. What is being missed is NDP strength, a product not so much of a brilliant campaign, which clearly it is not, but as the logical place for defecting left-of-centre Liberals to place their votes. Recall that the Ekos poll of a few weeks ago said that Liberal second choices were roughly evenly divided between Conservatives and NDP.

2. The Liberals’ authored the dopiest stunt of the campaign this week when they sent out cabinet ministers Judy Sgro and John McCallum to harass Stephen Harper.

3. All say health care is the number one issue but I have a question: Do the public actually have confidence in any party to solve the problem? I am not sure that they do. If that is the case, then health may not determine any actual votes, despite its “importance”. We saw something similar ten years ago with the then number one issue, unemployment. I suspect running on a second order issue such as the environment, where it is more likely that the public believes that government can do something, might yield a greater electoral dividend. The Conservatives seem to be running in reality on trust and credibility.

4. The Liberals are being hurt badly by the Ontario budget in Ontario, and by sponsorship in Quebec although the latter goes back to February - the overall damage is reflected as distrust. Elsewhere the campaign has not yet taken a definite shape.

4. Overall the three parties all stumbled in various ways in week two. I will assess the TV ads below but, in general, they are all weak.

The Leaders

Jack Layton

Jack Layton recovered ground this week. The NDP campaign isn’t great, but he is a strong media performer, and that counts for a great deal in the free media part of the campaign.

I watched all of the CBC town hall and most of an interview on Le Point, plus the Martin/ Layton appearance on the Newsworld youth show. He did well overall in the town hall and gave an excellent response on the homelessness issue in a brief accountability session with Mansbridge at the end. Occasionally, he did not answer the concerns raised by the audience directly (or was too partisan) and should have more often said as he did once in the program, “I respectfully disagree…” instead of trying win over someone who clearly he couldn’t seduce. Bernard Derome conducted a tough accountability interview with Layton on Le Point, that I thought he handled relatively comfortably. I thought he was effective on the youth program as well.

The NDP does best when both the Liberals and Conservatives are weak. The 1990 Ontario election is a good example. The Peterson Liberals were in trouble on a number of fronts including the integrity issue. Just as significant the Conservative brand name had been damaged by its association with Mulroney – Meech, GST, etc. The NDP had a comparative advantage on the key issues which were health, environment and integrity. This time the Conservatives have seized the integrity issue as theirs, although it should be more an issue for the NDP as they have never held power federally. True, the B.C. NDP has some scandals in its closet but so do the Ontario Conservatives. Former provincial PC MPP’s including former Health Minister Tony Clement are running. Yet there has been no discussion of the integrity issue in relation to the Ontario Conservatives despite recent disclosures of $135,000 emails, etc.

The NDP has a morbid fear of strategic voting (which they can’t really do anything about) so they try to campaign against it, and Layton seems more comfortable attacking Martin, but at this stage his interests would be better served by switching his sights to Harper.

Stephen Harper

Pity Stephen Harper. If this were the last week of the campaign, no one might be looking closely at his proposals. However it is not the last week, and he is beginning to be picked at by the media. For example, this Toronto Star piece on the Harper war on crime.

Now that the platform has been released one can expect more. It is vulnerable on a number of fronts, especially on its numbers. See for example, the Liberal response.

His platform is highly dependent on tax cuts. That is partly why we may see a low ceiling in the Conservative performance in Ontario. Walkerton, lax meat inspection, deteriorating civic infrastructure etc. are still fresh in many voters’ minds. The attacks so far by his opponents have been weak on narrative – linking tax cuts to loss of environmental protection etc, but that could change.

However, the appetite to get rid of the Liberals that is drawing votes to the Conservatives (and the NDP) is very powerful. And determined electorates tend to believe what they want to believe.

Harper is being most hurt, however, by eruptions such as the one on abortion. It may be too much to expect that he and all his candidates will maintain what they call “message discipline" from now ‘til voting day. And that may be what he has to fear most.

Paul Martin

The only point I would make about Martin’s campaign is that I think the daycare promise was a net negative for the Liberals. It simply allowed opponents and media to focus on the 1993 Redbook and its daycare commitment, subsequently not fulfilled. Martin’s explanation that the situation was different was too technical for the average voter to comprehend. Because a key issue is trust and credibility, this promise made his situation worse.

TV Ads

The parties’ television ads are among the very most important instruments of communication in the campaign as they reach voters who tune out the news. Yet, the ones we have seen so far seem quite weak. I think the Conservatives’ have the best of a bad lot. Oddly, the newspapers tend to seek only the critique of professional ad men who haven’t a clue about the importance of the political content. Want to see the ads I am talking about – look here: - Small box on left hand side.

The Liberals

Their ads seem quite amateurish, especially visually, and the scripts simply aren’t compelling. One obvious problem is that Martin is overweight, something you can hide either with clothing or camera angles. A neglected image always distracts from the message, and that is the case here. A larger point is that the Liberals need a biographical ad that reminds the voters of Martin’s great claim to fame – his vanquishing of the budget beast. His story is that just as Canada was to hit the “debt wall”, he came on the scene with his 1995 budget to save the day. The most pertinent word in the previous sentence is “1995” – it was so long ago no one remembers, especially voters under 35, and even older voters need to be reminded of how they felt a decade ago.

The Liberals need an ad like that but there is no sign of it. It could (ideally should) be a combination of two the better ads from American politics: The John Kerry ad called “A Good American” (To be found here on the right hand side further down: ), and the Reagan ad from 1984 known as “morning in America” (enter here: , set your video format here: and find the ad by year. It is the 1984 Republican ad called “Prouder, stronger, better”, the first one in the row.

The Conservatives

Their ads are the best of a bad lot. The first one called Accountability with Harper speaking directly to camera works relatively well. He is a little beefy himself but the framing and zoom in keep that from being obvious. The script is clear and understandable if trite.

The second one called carousel works well, but is your classic dirty ad (so I confess I enjoyed watching it very much). However, it is essentially unfair. The ad uses the visual and aural qualities of the medium to convey messages subconsciously to the viewers. We see scenes of money being crumpled then thrown away, and hauled away by garbage trucks accompanied by carousel music. They would never literally accuse the Liberals of this but that is what the music and pictures do. The ad also contains factual errors, so the media really should be going after Harper on this.

The final ad called Demand Better is like the first ad but has a script that is nearly incomprehensible.

The worst of the bunch. I actually agree with the comment of the Globe’s critic who said: “The spot addresses too many issues. Ideally, you’d have one spot for each issue. Instead, Layton’s promises come across like a laundry list for saving the world.”

The ad jumps so fast from issue to issue it is hard to follow. The ad echoes the lack of a coherent theme in the broader NDP campaign.

Yet, the NDP has an opportunity like the Liberals to do a positive issue ad connected to Layton’s biography. For example, they could construct a narrative around his role in building the electricity-generating windmill on the Toronto waterfront and use it as a takeoff point for why he is best qualified on the environment issue.

There comes a point where the campaign jells and we can see the shape of what is to come on voting day, if not the exact result. That happens some time in mid-campaign. I don’t think we are there yet. But it is coming soon.

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