Can Lynton Crosby Save Stephen Harper?

Big news this week for the Harper campaign watchers—uber political strategist Lynton Crosby joined the Harper campaign team. Why this is news now and not when Crosby started working with the Harper team in March is a mystery, but never mind.

Mr Crosby has a stellar record. He brought John Howard, the former Australian prime minister, to power in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004. He made Boris Johnson the mayor of London in 2008 and 2012 and he swept David Cameron back into power after Cameron’s re-election campaign faltered in the spring of 2015.

And now he’s working with Stephen Harper. Should Trudeau and Mulcair be quaking in their boots?


Why? Because Harper has already broken all of Crosby’s rules for a successful political campaign.

Crosby’s rules

Crosby sets out his rules in a political strategist “master class” in a Youtube video.

Lynton Crosby (miracle worker)

The base: Identify your base and lock it in before you move to your swing voters. Harper’s base is shrinking. He started the campaign in first place with 31% support; a month later he’d dropped to third place with only 26% support. Halfway through the campaign Harper is still busy shoring up his base.

The swing: While there are an “unprecedented” number of swing voters in this election, they’re swinging back and forth between other progressive parties, not the Conservatives.

The message: It’s true Harper has a clear message—he’s the only leader who can manage the economy and keep Canadians safe—but is it relevant?

Both Mulcair and Trudeau have messages about fixing the economy while continuing to provide public services, but they’re not as pessimistic about national security and they’ve added a new element—addressing the erosion of Canada’s democratic processes. They convey optimism and hope for the future. Their messages are fresh and will captivate voters.

Influence: People don’t vote for policies; they vote for what policies say about a candidate and his values and beliefs.

The Syrian refugee crisis gave Canadians a firsthand look at Harper’s ineffective refugee policy. Harper defended it saying Canada had one of the best refugee resettlement records in the world. Statistics from the UNHCR showed otherwise. Harper told Canadians the photo of Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach made him think of his son…then switched gears and said the refugee crisis won’t be solved by an enhanced refugee policy but by more bombing missions in Syria.

Harper’s characterization of his refugee policy lacked of honesty. His response to the photo of Alan Kurdi lacked empathy and demonstrated his fundamental belief that the right answer to global strife is a show of force.

This is critically important because it goes to the matter of trust.

It won’t take much for voters to realize that if they can’t trust Harper to be honest about policies that can be double checked with international agencies, they’d be fools to trust him on economic policy (are we in a recession or aren’t we?) or national security, an activity that’s cloaked in secrecy.

Stephen Harper (miracle seeker)

Values: A candidate must stand by his values. This may be the only rule Harper consistently follows. While many disagree with what he stands for (smaller government, reduced public services, greater marketplace freedom) few have been surprised by the positions he’s taken. This demonstrates a high level of consistency that plays well with his base but works against him outside of it.

Choice: A candidate must define himself and his opponent in order to frame the choice for the voters.

This is where Crosby-in-theory and Crosby-on-the-ground will part ways.

Crosby-in-theory says the candidate should paint himself in a positive light (cue the kittens and blue sweaters) and run a campaign that’s more positive than negative.

Crosby says negative campaigns are okay if they’re conducted through “surrogates”, not the candidate, and are intended to hold one’s opponent to account. They should not be hysterical or personal.

Where was he when the “nice hair” ads were created?


Crosby employed a number of strategies to secure a win for David Cameron.  These included:

  • Exploiting wedge issues to split off Labour supporters
  • Playing up the threat of a SNP-Labour coalition to drag back voters from the Lib Dems and Ukip
  • Turning Cameron into a more passionate politician, one who spoke from the heart

If Crosby hopes to employ these strategies with Harper, he’ll have his hands full.

Yes, he could exploit Mulcair’s position on the Clarity Act and characterize Mulcair as too sympathetic to the separatists and as a “tax and spend” pinko to boot. He could highlight Trudeau’s willingness to run a modest deficit as an example of the “tax and spend” Liberal stereotype, noting along the way that Trudeau is younger and inexperienced and is bound to mess it up anyway.  But Harper tried all that and it’s not working.

Furthermore, a strategy aimed at stampeding voters into the Conservative camp by raising the spectre of a Liberal/New Democrat coalition government is doomed given the fact that half the committed Liberal and ND voters are prepared to switch sides anyway.

Lastly, while I’m sure many have tried, any attempt to turn Harper into a passionate politician who wears his heart on his sleeve is a non-starter.

So bring it on Lynton Crosby. Let’s see what you’re made of.

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15 Responses to Can Lynton Crosby Save Stephen Harper?

  1. Brian says:

    According to Stephen Harper, the Syrian refugee crisis will be solved by intensifying bombing on ISIS (enemies of Assad) while Assad is creating 90% of the refugees. So let it not be said that the Conservatives are depending on coherence as part of their message, or intelligence on the part of their support. On the contrary, the Conservatives thrive on their ignorance.

    All you have to do is go to the comments section of any article in any major newspaper about Syrian refugees to see the naked xenophobia of the Conservative “base” flooding the comments section there. It should make anyone sick. It makes me sick. As if admitting more than 1-2 thousand refugees is “throwing open the doors” and we’re not capable of adequately screening and admitting some refugees. Germany must be under ISIS occupation by now if that were the case.

    Maybe the “others” that Jason Kenney, the “Minister for Curry in a Hurry”, spends so much time wih, will start to get the picture that the Conservative Party’s interest in them was only ever skin deep. Appealing to the xenophobes in their party base is more important.

    • Well said Brian. Sometimes I wonder whether these xenophobes have always been a part of Canadian society but we didn’t see them clearly until social media gave them a platform. In a recent Globe article Robert Greenhill and Megan McQuillan say that Canada’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis is a symptom of Canada’s shrinking role on the world stage. They say Canada’s global engagement declined dramatically from 2.4% of GDP in 1990 to 1.2% of GDP in 2014. That’s quite a drop in one generation.

  2. anonymous says:

    So the man who brought us Mike Duffy, Bruce Carson and many others, now imports Rod McCain to run his electoral campaign? It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

    • Indeed! The clip for Fierce Creatures starts with a “Parents Strongly Cautioned” warning, no doubt because of the coarseness of the movie. Apparently Crosby is known for his “colourful” language. For example in the master class video he says “You can’t fatten a pig on market day”. He says what he means by that is politicians need to build a relationship with voters and prepare in advance of the campaign period so that they’ll have the flexibility to deal with problems that come out of left field during the campaign. But the words “pig” and “market day” conjure up images of voters being led to the slaughter.
      PS Let’s get Harper to hire Kevin Kline instead. At least we’ll all have fun.

  3. Gary Beaton says:

    Where was Lynton Crosby when Tony Blair needed him?

    • Interesting question Gary. I have a feeling Crosby is more comfortable on the conservative side of the political spectrum. Having said that Blair was moving New Labour more and more to the right so perhaps they would have gotten along just fine.

      • Gary Beaton says:

        My goodness I completely forgot Tony Blair was supposed to be a Labour Prime Minister. I just remembered him being in lock step with all George Bush’s foreign adventures in the Middle East.
        For all his yapping at the tens of thousands flooding into the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbin’s campaign of hope he did more damage to the Blairite cause/legacy than Corbin’s. Hence T Blair’s desperate need for the likes of Aussie Lynton Crosby.
        Ironically Blair is the same age of Jeremy Corbin yet Blair is clearly yesterday’s man or last week’s trash or both.

  4. Carlos Beca says:

    In my opinion when you have people that make millions changing other people’s minds because they know how to get them, it just tells me the state of our democracy. Does Lynton Crosby also sell his services to characters like Bashar al-Assad? I wonder. I seriously would not be surprised. Oil companies have similar people cheating left and right to get oil fields for their owners.
    If Lynton Crosby is as good as ‘Cookie Monster’ that came to fix our Health Care, we are going to have fun. Now that apparently we had a 1.9 billion surplus last year we are going to be bombarded with this number until Aspirin is needed to take the headache away. The veterans may be committing suicide but heck we had a surplus. We may be spending millions on bombs to pretend we are getting rid of ISIS but heck we are there in the name of Jesus.
    Elizabeth May as always saved the week with suggesting that if Harper wins a majority she will phone the Governor General to ask for some time to put together a coalition government with the real majority. Why is it that she seems to be the only common sense person in that madhouse we like to call parliament?

    • Carlos, you’re right about the $1.9 billion surplus giving new life to Harper’s pitch that he’s the only one who can steward the economy. Apparently his new slogan is “Protect the Economy”. Clearly the word “protect” was chosen over words like “build” or “grow”, no doubt to get voters thinking of Harper as the man to defend the economy from attack by the NDP and Liberals.
      I too am intrigued by Elizabeth May’s comment that in the event of a minority Harper government she’ll be calling on the GG to give the opposition parties time to install a a coalition government. She’s smart enough to pull it off.

  5. The only thing I have a problem with here is the statement” they’re swinging back and forth between other progressive parties” … other progressive parties??? ….. Since when is the CPC progressive?

    • Cdncurmudgeon, I should have made the reference to “progressive” parties clearer. I meant that the voters were swinging between the NDs and the Liberals. You’re right, the CPC is not and never has been progressive.

  6. David Hay says:

    How do you feel about your post now it’s Oct 7th?

    • David, I’ll admit that I’m concerned, but I wonder whether Harper has overplayed his hand. An article in today’s Globe said the Conservative’s strategy was to roll out the niqab/Bill C-24/barbaric practices tip line in order to shore up the base and bring Quebec voters back into the fold, then to drop it and spend the last two weeks of the campaign on the economy and taxes. Harper told Rosemary Barton that the Conservatives version of Canadian values isn’t the biggest issue of the campaign, but given how incendiary this has become, he may have inadvertently made it so and that may hurt him on Oct 19. Crosby played the xeonophobic card in the UK in 2005 and it backfired, hopefully it will do so again.

      • David Hay says:

        I hope you are right. I have some concern that it won’t hurt him, i.e. that there are enough angry, disenfranchised people that feel Harper is the only one to stand up for their rights. And endless media reports of polling trends (no matter how poor the sampling is and hence the results) is pretty influential as well. Certainly the amount of energy out there to get people to vote is very encouraging. Hopefully it’s Harper’s supporters that miss that message!

      • David, you raise a concern that’s bothering me as well. Harper has given angry disenfranchised voters someone to blame for their misfortunes (a standard divisive strategy) and this may be enough to mobilize them to vote for the man who is saying what they want to hear. This could be a problem. I’m hoping that even more people react with shock and disgust and come out to the polls to vote him and his cronies out of power. The big question is just how big is the group that supports Harper’s xenophobic views and how big is the group that is repelled by them. I really can’t believe Canada has slipped so far away from its multicultural roots that Harper will remain in power but we’ll see on Oct 19, won’t we.

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