Four more years versus four more seats

At the launch of the election campaign, provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane takes a look at what's at stake for each party.

There is no question that this is Kathy Dunderdale’s election to lose. Her party has a commanding lead. Her personal popularity is high. The polls show high levels of satisfaction in her government’s performance.

Dunderdale may not have Danny Williams’ numbers. But she may exceed Brian Tobin at the peak of his popularity. There isn’t a premier in the country who wouldn’t take her numbers.

Dunderdale’s advantage goes beyond the polls. Her party is flush with cash, debt-free with more than $1-million dollars sitting in the bank to help pay for this campaign.

Idealists like to view elections as a clash of policies. But realists know they are largely a clash of machines – and money talks. Campaigns are expensive logistical efforts, where even a basic, low-frills campaign can cost $500,000. The Tories have the money for district-level polling, charter airplanes and heavy-rotation advertising.

My sense is the Tories will make Dunderdale’s personal history a big part of their messaging. They believe it has broad appeal to voters. She comes from a large rural family in Burin where her father was a fisherman who never finished school. They struggled to make ends meet, but pulled together.

Dunderdale later went on to become a community activist and municipal politician, later becoming an MHA, cabinet minister, deputy premier and premier. The Tories hope this story arc shows voters (especially women and rural voters) that Dunderdale understands their concerns, has lived their struggles and can work with people to solve problems.

The Liberals face a completely different situation. They say they have their sights set on government and are focused on beating the Conservatives. But they can’t ignore the threat they face from the NDP. The latest CRA poll put the Liberals in third place for the first time in their history.

New leader Kevin Aylward is a familiar face in provincial politics, but he was never a star cabinet minister during his 18-year career. Their strategy will be to focus heavily on winning seats in rural Newfoundland and in Labrador. The NDP have eclipsed the Liberals in the St. John’s area as the alternative to the Conservatives.

One big challenge for the Liberals coming into the election was money. They have the worst balance sheet of all the parties, with more than $700,000 in debt. But some familiar faces are helping them with cash flow. Former Premier Brian Tobin organized a fundraiser at his Toronto office last week that netted the Liberals more than $100,000. Party sources say that Tobin is organizing another fundraiser in Calgary.

The NDP say this will be the most organized and best-financed campaign in their history, and with their relative surge in the polls, they have a chance to make gains. But New Democrats face the very real possibility that even if they finish second in popular vote they could still be third in seats. Their support is heavily concentrated in the St. John’s area with a few other pockets of opportunity in places like Labrador West.

Their recent surge in polls may lead to big vote gains in those St. John’s seats. But it might only be enough to push NDP candidates from distant second to a respectable second, and not high enough to swing the seat.

It all means this election will be divided into a series of micro-battles: The Conservatives versus the Liberals in rural seats, the Conservatives versus the NDP in the urban battlefield of St. John’s, the Liberals versus the NDP for Official Opposition status.

For the Conservatives this is about four more years. For the Liberals and the NDP, it’s about four more seats.