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