Federal leaders' tours offer a glimpse at campaign strategies

Thomas Mulcair is trying to consolidate his gains, the Conservatives are playing the long game, and the Liberals have more immediate concerns. At least, this is what their travel itineraries suggest, Éric Grenier writes.

Where the leaders spend their time reveals their hopes and their concerns

There is a method to the madness of the federal leaders' travel plans. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Where party leaders choose to spend their time during a federal election campaign can provide a revealing look at their strategies, where they think they are strong — and where they think they are weak. 

An analysis of CBC's leader tracker, which tallies the riding visits leaders have made since the beginning of the year, gives us a hint at what each of the parties are thinking at this stage of the campaign.

(This analysis has been limited to visits made since the official start of the campaign on August 2. Whether ridings are at play or not, and which party is the main opponent in a given riding, is based on ThreeHundredEight.com's riding projections at the time of the visit.)

Conservatives playing the long game?

On the face of it, Stephen Harper is playing neither defence nor offence. He has made about as many visits to ridings his party won in 2011 as he has to ridings where his party came up short. 

But if we look at these visits in another way, taking into account where the parties likely stand today rather than four years ago, a different picture emerges. Of the three main leaders, Harper has made the most visits to ridings his party — at this stage of the campaign, at least — is very unlikely to win. He has also visited many ridings in which his party is likely in a close contest. But he has spent very little time in ridings in which his party is heavily favoured. 

In other words, he is playing offence in ridings in which he is a long-shot, and defence in ridings that are up for grabs. This suggests the party may be playing the long game, hoping to plant seeds that could bear fruit later on in this lengthy campaign. A recent tour through ridings in Quebec, where his party is struggling in the polls, occurred in parts of the province that the Conservatives would do well in only if they make a breakthrough in the future.

Harper has made more visits to ridings in Ontario than the other leaders, spending much of his time in and around Toronto and in eastern Ontario. And he has not targeted one particular party in these visits, being as likely to head to a riding where his main opponent is the Liberals as he has been to visit a riding where the Tories are leading or chasing the NDP.

NDP consolidating gains

Two-thirds of the visits Tom Mulcair has made since the start of the campaign have been in ridings the NDP did not win in 2011, suggesting Mulcair is primarily playing offence. But he is doing this from a position of strength, targeting many of his visits to ridings that the NDP is very likely to pick up. In this sense, he is working to consolidate the gains the New Democrats have made in the polls in recent months. 

He has also visited a large number of ridings in which the NDP is at play, and has wasted little of his time in ridings that the NDP has little chance of winning.

But though Stephen Harper has been the focus of most of Mulcair's attacks, the NDP leader has been visiting more ridings in which the Liberals are his main opponent: about half of his visits have been in these parts of the country. Only a third are ridings in which the Conservatives are the party's main rival, suggesting the New Democrats are hoping to get their way to the governing benches through the Liberals, rather than the Tories.

British Columbia will be an important province if the NDP is to form government, and Mulcair has so far visited ridings in B.C. more often than either Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau. His visits have been targeted primarily to the Greater Vancouver region and Vancouver Island, while he has also spent much of his time in Montreal — where the party is safe — as well as in Toronto and southwestern Ontario, where the NDP hopes to make gains.

Liberals focusing on swing ridings

Considering that the Liberals won just 34 seats in 2011, it is no surprise that Justin Trudeau has been primarily heading to ridings his party did not win four years ago.

More than four-fifths of his visits have been to ridings in which the Liberals are either trailing or in a close fight. This suggests that Trudeau's strategy may be closer to Harper's than Mulcair's. The Liberal leader is not making many visits to the ridings he is very likely to gain over his party's 2011 performance. Instead, he is heading to the ridings that are at play as well as to others in which he can, like Harper, plant a seed meant for growth later on.

By a margin of three-to-two, Trudeau has been visiting more ridings in which his main opponent is the NDP than ridings in which it is the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, a large portion of Trudeau's visits have been in the Greater Toronto Area, where the Conservatives are his main competition.

Regional campaigns for the Greens and Bloc

Unlike the main parties, both the Greens and Bloc Québécois appear to be running tightly targeted regional campaigns.

A quarter of Green Party leader Elizabeth May's visits have been to her own riding of Saanich–Gulf Islands, somewhat oddly considering she is a heavy favourite to win. That has made her, unsurprisingly, the leader that has spent the most time in British Columbia by a very wide margin, and her focus has been on Vancouver Island and the Vancouver region itself. But her visits are not as politically focused. She has visited ridings in which the NDP, Conservatives, or Liberals are favoured.

For Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, his campaign was only ever going to take place in Quebec. And as the NDP won the majority of the province's seats in 2011, and is leading in the polls today, most of his visits have been in NDP-dominated ridings (he has yet to visit a riding where the Conservatives are his main opponent). But so far Duceppe has targeted a few regions of the province in particular, with two-thirds of his visits occurring in either Montreal (where his riding is located) or eastern Quebec, perhaps the only part of the province the Bloc has a decent chance at gains. 

So far, the campaigns of May and Duceppe have been more narrowly focused, demonstrating how their ambitions for this election are limited. But for the other three leaders, their tours reveal how they perceive this campaign in its early days: Trudeau needs to make gains soon, Mulcair needs to hold what gains he has made, and Harper needs to hope the long campaign he kicked off will play to his advantage. As their fortunes ebb and flow, so should their travel schedules. 


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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