A lengthy 11-week federal election campaign could give the Conservatives, armed with a significant war chest, a marked edge over their political rivals.
"Politics is a lot like war. You want to starve your opponent and be able to bomb the heck out of them," said Toronto-based political strategist Marcel Wieder. "And the Tories currently have a decided advantage in terms of financial resources that work in their favour."
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Prime Minister Stephen Harper could call an election as early as this Sunday. How much money each party has in its coffers is difficult to assess.
But according to an analysis by The Canadian Press of the parties' financial returns to Elections Canada, the Conservatives, at a national level, had raised $20.1 million by the end of last year. The Liberals followed with $15 million and the NDP with $9.5 million.
But more crucially, the Tories electoral district associations ended the year with net assets of more than $19 million –more than the riding associations of the Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Bloc combined, The Canadian Press found. Liberal riding associations reported a total of about $8 million in net assets, NDP associations more than $4.4 million, the Greens almost $1.2 million and the Bloc about $410,000.
Pre-campaign, there are no limits to what a party can spend — spending rules only kick in once the writ is dropped and the campaign has officially begun. In a typical 37-day election period, each party can spend a maximum of $25 million. For each additional day, the limit is increased by 1/37th, or an extra $675,000, meaning an 11-week campaign would allow parties to spend more than $50 million.
Throwing a curve to 35-day campaign strategy
A longer campaign could benefit the Tories in a number of ways.
Most of the parties have operated under a 35-day campaign strategy, calculating how much money was needed to purchase advertising and media spots while ensuring enough money was in reserve to blanket the airwaves during the last dash at the end of the campaign.
"Then boom, all of a sudden, now you find out you've got to make that same money last twice as long," Wieder said. "The Tories had this plan already and had already anticipated it which gives them a huge advantage."
The Tories not only have the advantage of money on hand, but are better at raising money during the campaign.
"The Conservatives are better at grassroots fundraising than the other parties," said political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign manager. "And the best time to raise money is an election campaign because that's when people are most interested in it. So this gives you a longer period to do your fundraising with your grassroots."
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During a campaign, parties can also take advantage of the campaign rebate, meaning taxpayers subsidize 50 per cent of what the parties spend on a national campaign.
"By [spending] during the writ period, you get the rebate. That's true for all parties, but it's an advantage to you if you have more money to spend than the other parties," Flanagan said.
Parties don't usually have enough money in the bank to pay for a national campaign and typically need to get a bank loan, using the campaign rebate as security, he added.
If one party starts with a financial advantage over the others, it allows that party to multiply the advantage, he said. For example, the Conservatives, going in with more money, and an ability to raise more during the campaign, would likely be able to secure a larger loan than the Liberals or NDP.
"All this is hypothetical because we don't really know how much money any of parties has in the bank," Flanagan said. "But under realistic assumptions, the Conservatives will be able to magnify any pre-existing advantage by also increasing their borrowing ability in a longer campaign."
3rd-party ads restricted
Another possible advantage for the Conservatives is that third-party advertising, unlimited before an official campaign begins, becomes severely restricted after the launch (about $400,000 for an extended campaign). This means that millions of dollars that could be spent against the Conservatives by groups like public service unions would be eliminated.
"The third parties are having more of an impact on the Conservatives than the pro-Conservatives third parties are having against the NDP or the Liberals," Wieder said.
And while the scrapping of the per-vote taxpayer subsidy will affect the Conservatives, their fundraising abilities mean other parties will be hurt more by its elimination.
"Just ask the Green Party how it affected them. It's really cut into their financial base," said former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who opposed the removal of the subsidy. "The Liberals lost millions. The NDP lost millions.
"I'm sure they had to take into account how much they .. were already receiving in their coffers before deciding that they could do without that money They're just as good at math as anybody else."