Monday, June 08, 2015

On damaging positions

I haven't commented yet on the latest wave of federal polls primarily because I don't see them radically changing my existing take on Canada's impending election. But I'll briefly address what looks like an overreaction to the latest numbers by Michael Harris.

By way of context, here's my previous analysis as to how the Cons have done in attacking Trudeau:
Justin Trudeau’s honeymoon as Liberal leader has come to an end, due to both the usual Conservative barrage of attack ads and his own missteps (most notably his ill-advised support for the Conservatives’ draconian terror bill).

But unlike his predecessors, he’s still seen as a neutral force rather than a glaring liability by the public — which is a far better net assessment than Harper can claim. So if the Conservatives’ top priority has been to turn Trudeau into Dion or Ignatieff, that job isn’t yet done.
(T)he Conservatives’ strategy has generally been based on attacking a single opponent to neutralize the possibility that any other party will be seen as a reasonable alternative.

But given the Conservatives’ own dwindling poll numbers, the public’s appetite for change is great enough for them to face serious challenges from two parties and leaders with more appeal than their own.

And given the contrasts developed by the NDP and Liberals, it doesn’t look like the Conservatives can do anything to undermine one without benefiting the other. From this point on, any more pointed attack against Mulcair and the NDP will only help Trudeau and the Libs, and vice versa.
In contrast, Harris looks at effectively the same numbers showing public ambivalence toward Trudeau and sees it as reflecting irreparable damage:
While the stars were aligning for Mulcair, Trudeau was struggling with the fact that more people disapproved than approved of him by a narrow margin — 47 to 46 per cent, within the margin of error. It would seem a big part of that was the strategic decision to support Bill C-51.
It was, like a lot of things in politics, a judgment call. As things turned out, at least so far, it looks like another example of bad judgment.

Support for C-51 has plummeted as Canadians learn more about it, particularly in Quebec. The Liberals have stuck by their support of the legislation, not wanting to make the leader look like a flip-flopper. Advantage Thomas Mulcair, who has publicly and vociferously attacked the legislation, along with Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

Ironically, it is the PM and his party who may end up paying the price for the unexpected developments on the progressive side of Canadian politics. The Conservatives always knew they needed to keep the left side parties in a near dead heat to exploit the same weird splits that gave them a majority last time. They have pounded Trudeau to the point they might have damaged him irreparably and in so doing, handed the would-be splits to the NDP.
So which is the more plausible view of the Cons' actions so far - that they've gone too far in damaging Trudeau, or haven't gone far enough?

Let's start by asking this: is there actually such a thing as doing too much damage to the Libs for the Cons' political purposes?

If Trudeau were truly damaged beyond repair, then the Cons would have an obvious path forward: turning their guns entirely toward Mulcair in advance of the election, a plan which they could pursue secure in the knowledge that Trudeau wouldn't be in a position to offer an alternative.

I highly doubt that the Cons (or indeed many other observers) would see that to be the case. And I have my doubts as to whether we ever will - not because there's any question the NDP is a serious threat to form government, but because we're far from the point where the Libs can be ruled out entirely.

Meanwhile, one might also take Harris as pointing out a difference in Trudeau's perceptions between Quebecs progressive base and elsewhere. But even if one assumes that to be true, it hardly reflects an indication that the Cons can afford to stop attacking him.

After all, if Trudeau is seen as roughly neutral nationally while being less popular in Quebec, then by implication his numbers must be slightly positive elsewhere even in the face of the Cons' attack ads. And any failure to suppress that support would make the Cons vulnerable to losing seats to the Libs in the rest of Canada as the centre-right splits against them.

None of the above is to suggest the Cons aren't in some significant trouble. But their real problem is that they have too many viable opponents, not too few - and there may not be enough time and ad blitzes left to counter both of them.


  1. I think the HarperCon strategy is banking on the idea that hurting Trudeau and the Liberals might drive some support to the NDP but that the side effect of this will be to frighten just enough voters (particularly in the essential 905 ridings) into voting Conservative against a perceived dread of an NDP government. After all, I think they see their last election victory as essentially a result of just such a set of conditions. If that is, indeed, their strategy then the real question becomes - given the NDP victory in Alberta, has the NDP reached a kind of legitimacy among enough voters that this fear is mitigated, particularly by the now overwhelming dislike of Harper?

  2. Considering the polling showing well over 50% of voters willing to include the NDP in their consideration set (to under 40 for the Cons), the answer looks like a solid "yes".

    (And if that's how the Cons are reading the 2011 results, I'd think that's an inaccurate view - the Cons didn't get any more of a late-campaign bump than usual, and they only held on because the NDP's support didn't quite have time to grow to government levels.)