Bruce Anderson writes that as some of us have long suspected, a true three-party federal race is developing which will create some new complications for the Cons and Libs alike. But it's worth pointing out one area where the Cons are in much worse shape than they've ever been.
Before the 2008 and 2011 elections, the Cons managed to render Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff radioactive with voters - with those leaders' approval ratings running far below the Libs' party polling results. And over the course of the campaign, an expected convergence between those numbers led to a natural decline for the Libs, while Jack Layton's personal popularity couldn't make up the gap for the NDP.
But now, while the NDP and the Libs are on an equal starting point in terms of popular support, their leaders are also well ahead of Harper (with Mulcair rating as very much liked and Trudeau roughly neutral) - meaning that the inevitable campaign focus on leadership will work to the Cons' disadvantage this time.
Put another way, to the extent the Cons have normally relied on a desperately unpopular Lib leader to lower his party's support level throughout a campaign, Trudeau isn't quite the punching bag his predecessors were. If priority one for the Cons has been to turn Trudeau into Dion or Ignatieff, that job isn't yet done.
Yet to the extent the Cons have counted on the NDP to face an insurmountable deficit in voter support which can't be made up by the public's favourite leader, that's no longer a plausible assumption either. (On that front, note that not only is the NDP higher in the polls than at the start of any recent election campaign, but Mulcair is also far more popular now than Layton ever was at the same point in any election cycle.)
So the public's appetite for change is large enough for the Cons to face serious challenges from two parties and leaders with more appeal than their own. And it doesn't look like there's anything the Cons can do to undermine either of the plausible alternatives without substantially benefitting the other: a more pointed attack against Mulcair and the NDP will only help Trudeau and the Libs, and vice versa.
Based on that conundrum, I'd think the Cons might be best off taking their chances with something truly novel for the Harper cadre: a campaign primarily oriented toward a positive case for more of the same to expand their own voter universe (however slightly) and working toward favourable splits, rather than the usual plan based on relentless attacks against a single perceived opponent. But it doesn't look like the formula which has worked in the past is going to have the same results this time.
[Update: fixed wording.]