Politics·Analysis

Canada election 2015: How the parties are running their campaigns

Since the election launch over a week ago, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has unveiled four campaign policies while the other leaders have been platform silent. It's an illustration of how the parties have each embraced a different strategy.

The Tories have been trying to set the agenda, as the Liberals and NDP focus on their leaders

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, have so far, not unveiled any new platforms during the campaign while Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has released four new campaign policies. (Canadian Press/Reuters)

Since the election campaign was launched just over a week ago, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has unveiled four campaign policies (five, if you include his iffy no-tax Netflix announcement), while the other leaders have been largely platform silent.

The contrast is an illustration of how the parties have each embraced a different strategy in launching their respective campaigns — the Conservatives with an early, aggressive press to try to set the agenda, and the Liberals and NDP, so far, focussed more on their respective leaders.

"I think the Liberals and the NDP are still feeling their way through in terms of a long campaign writ," says Toronto-based political strategist Marcel Wieder, the head of Aurora Strategy Group. "The Conservatives had the advantage of knowing how long the campaign is to plan out the execution of their campaign. And that's what you're seeing as a result."

Harper is certainly setting the pace, both in terms of campaigning and spending so far. Exactly one week into the election, the Conservatives took to the skies on a campaign plane, showing off their financial advantage over the NDP and Liberals who are still travelling by bus or commercial air.

The Conservatives have also been following a regular daily formula and strategy that has stood them well in past elections. A typical Harper campaign day starts with an early morning announcement and questions from the media, a photo op in the afternoon and then a rally with candidates and party faithful in the evening. 

Although the Conservatives' announcements so far may not be grand in scope —  home renovation and apprentice tax credits, banned travel to extremist-controlled zones (still to be defined), money for persecuted religious minorities —  the message they are trying to convey is quite clear.
Exactly one week into the election, the Conservatives took to the skies on a campaign plane, showing off their financial advantage over the NDP and Liberals who are still travelling by bus or commercial air. (Hannah Thibedeau/CBC)

"They're going hard, playing to their base," Wieder says. "They want to reinforce the two strategic messages of managing the economy and Canadian safety. And so they're trying to define what this election is about."

"Now the question is: Is anyone paying attention to it?"

However, political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Conservative campaign manager, said he believed Harper's policy announcements were actually directed to swing voters who have to be added to the base — homeowners and certain immigrant groups.

"That's how you build the minimum winning coalition," Flanagan said.

Looking for reaction

That the other leaders react and generally condemn these Harper announcements is likely seen as a bonus by the Tories, who are hoping that these criticisms don't play well with the voters they are courting.

But John Crean, national managing partner at National Public Relations, also notes that this strategy may be in part due to the Conservatives feeling vulnerable on the pure politics of personality and image. 

They want to "get away from the comparisons of Harper vs Trudeau vs Mulcair, and focus the narrative more on specific policy issues," he says.

It's certainly a different approach from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair who have yet to announce much in the way of platform content from the campaign trail. Though both parties have laid out their main planks in advance of the writ, with Mulcair testing his $15 daycare and $15 minimum wage in the weeks leading up to the election call.

Trudeau has launched his campaign by hitting places the party hopes to see electoral growth: B.C., Calgary, in and around Toronto, and now Montreal. So far, he's been putting the focus on rallies and introducing candidates.

"They want to roll out on more of a marathon approach, slow steady pace, introducing the leader [first] and the policies at the appropriate time," Wieder says.

In fact, the Liberal campaign seems determined not to let Harper exhaust its resources early on, and hasn't rolled out a campaign plane or even a bus for media to accompany Trudeau on his tour.

That said, at each and every single news conference Trudeau has made a point of saying that he's happy to do "what his opponents won't do" and take plenty of questions from the media.

As for Mulcair, his campaign began with a bit of a shaky start. He seemed nervous at the launch and was criticized for not taking any media questions.

NDP strategist Shay Purdy agreed that last may have been a misstep. However, he said that Mulcair had planned to take questions, but Harper's election announcement ran late and Mulcair had to rush off to attend the funeral of former PC cabinet minister Flora MacDonald.

"I think he was a little nervous, people said he looked kind of tense, and I think there was a lot of nervous energy there," Purdy said. 

Still, Purdy argues that Mulcair has been able to get out and deliver his message. And now the campaign seems focussed on getting Canadians to know Mulcair. (One of the top trending Google questions on debate night was: Who is Thomas Mulcair?)

To help answer that question, Mulcair, will spend part of his time promoting the release of his autobiography Strength of Conviction, a launch set months before the election but coming, fortuitously, at the outset of this extended campaign. 

"The strategy for the summer was going to be to spend some of this time in the month of August doing his book tour," Purdy said.
"It will have the effect of when people start hearing these stories they'll connect more with Tom, I think."

The vast majority of Canadians also don't really know who Trudeau is either, except by way of his father, Wieder says. 

"So for both of those leaders, they need to be out there, meeting with Canadians and showing who they are. The policy side of things will come."

with files from Hannah Thibedeau and Catherine Cullen

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