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The Insiders: Early tactics reveal strategy

The truth is that nobody outside of the inner circles of the major campaigns knows how this election is going.  Nobody else has the insight from daily opinion research - not just on the top line of voting intention but on the underlying fundamentals that determine voting intention - augmented by detailed reports from the field across the country.  The rest of us can only guess how things are playing out.

However, what is clear is what the parties have been trying to achieve.  Their tactics have revealed their strategies.

The Conservatives
The Tories have made one major offensive move and one major defensive move in the first few days.  The defensive one was the income splitting tax cut promise.  Most Canadian households are unhappy with the amount of tightening they have had to do, and they have been taking that out on incumbents at all levels.  Mr.  Harper is too smart to have not armed himself in the fight for those pinched middle and working class voters.  His fundamental pitch to them is his claim of steady economic management which kept Canada relatively unscathed by the recession and financial crisis.  But there is a vulnerability, and that is the tenuous link between impressive macro economic results and improving standards of living for most people.  The tax cut is part of their answer to that.  It is so conditional that it may not be sufficient to be interesting or motivating to voters.  I'm surprised that Mr. Harper was not more bold.  The debate is between those who are arguing that government can do things to help people cope, and those who are arguing that we should just make government cost less.  Mr. Harper's fiscal caution here may have left him open to a bold set of initiatives from the Liberals. It was also necessary for the Conservatives to offer a personal tax cut in order to provide themselves with cover from the Liberal offensive on corporate tax cuts.  If that debate is about the merits of corporate tax cuts, the government will lose it decisively.  But if they can muddy the waters and make it sound more like people who favour tax cuts versus people who oppose them, they are in much better shape. Again, it will be interesting to see if this long range promise has the ability to play that role.

The offensive move reveals their strategy - which is to turn this from an election in which he is one possible choice among four or five parties into a referendum with only two choices, of which he is one.  That is what the coalition threat provides him.  Better yet, it is a referendum he does not even have to win.  He just has to do well.  40-45% of voters siding with him will do.  A binary choice against the three headed coalition is the only polling question yet concocted that gives Mr. Harper enough votes to get a majority government, so that is where their campaign is going.  They will not move on from this, no matter how tired journalists say they are of it.  They will vary things up, as they did with the tax cut promise, but they will return to the coalition frame again and again.  The only way for the Liberals to really take it off the table is to get competitive.  It has to look plausible that they might win the most number of seats.  If the Liberals are at 24/25% range in the last week of the campaign, I would be surprised if this issue did not dominate discussion.

The Liberals
The Liberals had a more difficult job than the Conservatives out of the gate.  Mr. Ignatieff and his team had to prove some things that were assumed of the Conservatives.  They had to establish that they were competent.  The party was widely reputed to be broke, there had been turnover in key positions, there were questions about strength on the ground.  They have done well on that front. Campaign logistics have been smooth, events have gone off on schedule, and they have pulled off a few impressive crowds, one in Quebec.   Mr. Ignatieff, in his first election as leader, had to prove he could be a good campaigner.  They took the show off Broadway last summer to generally good reviews, but this is the big time, under the spotlight.  Mr. ignatieff polls badly, so there are questions about how well he will connect with voters on the stump.  The early days should give the Liberal campaign encouragement in this regard.  Media reports have talked of his comfort and energy, and he has a way of talking to a large group of people without yelling at them which translates well to television in the clips from rallies.  And, unlike the chippy start Mr. Harper is off to with his media entourage, Mr. Ignatieff's tour has so far had a positive tone to it.

Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals had been positioning themselves to attack the Conservatives for their failure to address the financial pressures that Canadian families are feeling from responsibilities for care - child, home, and elder, from the lack of adequate support for retirement incomes, and for their lack of commitment to key social programs, especially education.  The fighter jet purchase, new prison construction and the corporate tax cuts were set up as the symbolic counterpoints to illustrate the values cleavage.  As the election approached a series of ethical issues conflated around the Conservatives and the Liberals found them attractive.  As a result, their attack on Mr. Harper is bifurcated - he is both a bad person and he has the wrong priorities.  There would be tremendous power in bridging those two critical components of leadership character and crystallizing a negative judgement on Mr. Harper on those criteria.   However, initial evidence is that the ethical issues resonated a lot more strongly on Parliament Hill than they have yet with the electorate.  Those who are enraged by the approach of the Conservatives to Parliament and other institutions have not yet found a way to convince most Canadians that they should care strongly about it.   With respect to the battle for the "family" vote, the Conservatives have staked their ground on economic management and tax cuts.  The Liberals will need a platform that offers an alternative that the voter feels will be of real assistance to them.  The vagueness of Mr. Harper's offering provides an opening, but the program versus tax cut narrative is not an easy one for advocates of the role of government.  It is a lesson we learned the hard way in the 2006 election on the child care issue.  The Martin government had a national child care program in place that would provide thousands of regulated affordable child cares spaces with an early learning component - a long promised holy grail for Canadian Liberalism - and promised to extend and enrich that program.  The Conservatives countered with a promise of 100 per month per kid.  There is no way that one can get child care for 100 dollars a month.  However, no voter knew whether they would get one of our promised child care spaces, but they knew they would get 100 dollars. That is the challenge.

New Democracts have one primary objective in this election, and it is the same one they have had in the last two elections.  If you guessed advancing the core interests of people who are struggling and need help from the government, wrong.  The NDP objective is to displace the Liberal Party as the alternative to the Conservatives.  To that end, they could live with an election that resulted in a Conservative government, even a majority, as long as it further weakened the Liberal Party.  One consequence of that in practical terms is that, despite the fact that NDP voters dislike Mr. Harper and his government more than any other Canadians do, the NDP campaign will campaign against both the Conservatives and the Liberals.  This means their attack on Mr. Harper is never as sharp as it might be if it were focussed.

One of the main elements of the NDP strategy is to enlarge their vote by moving into Liberal territory.  Mr. Layton was able to take advantage of the fact that the Liberals were engaged in the coalition skirmish to move decisively into the territory around pensions and support for care that the Liberals want to occupy.  It is not impossible for the Liberals to take that issue back, because of their primary alternative status, but the NDP got there first and that ups the ante.  The NDP appear to think that the collapse of the Liberal vote in the prairies provides them with a good chance to win seats there, but it is more likely the case that anything other than the Conservative vote has collapsed in the rural prairies.

It will be interesting to see if withdrawal from Afghanistan plays any prominent role in NDP messaging.  Withdrawal has strong support,  and most potential Liberal voters disagree with the Liberal position.  Additionally, it is an issue with potency in Quebec, where pollsters say the NDP have a tiny bit of mojo, and the Liberals are looking vulnerable.

The Bloc Quebecois
The BQ stand as the only unchallenged, uncompromised voice for Quebec in federal politics, and they are led by the most popular leader in Quebec.  That is effectively what they run on.  HST compensation to Ontario and BC has given them a renewed fairness argument.  Utterly dismissed by everybody in ROC, I bet it plays better in Quebec.

The BQ has one challenge I will be interested to see it confront, and that is the NDP encroachment.  The BQ grew up learning how to fight Liberals, in the places where Liberals were.  When the Harper Conservatives emerged with a sharp ideological cleavage from the BQ they were able to cut out some territory for themselves that the Liberals had been unable to reach.  Now the polls say the NDP has growing strength in pockets of Quebec.  If my experience in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario is any guide, the NDP will bring a ground game to the battle that the BQ will be unused to having to confront.

So there you have it -- my view of the the big picture as of day 3. I'll be blogging every few days. Hope you'll enjoy the read.