Turn on a television this spring, and you’re liable to see Andrew Scheer flexing.
That is not, thankfully, an actual image that his Conservatives have opted to go with in a spate of advertisements airing in heavy rotation. In most of the spots, which carry the message that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not what he presented himself as four years ago, Mr. Scheer does not appear at all.
But the ads are unmistakably a show of strength. Courtesy of their extremely robust fundraising, the Conservatives have much more money than their rivals. So before pre-election spending limits kick in at the end of June and level the playing field – at least between them and the Liberals, the other party likely positioned to spend the maximum allowed – the Tories are pressing their advantage.
They are also providing an interesting test of how much fundraising dominance – which has, to some extent, shaped their party’s identity – is worth in modern Canadian politics.
Under Stephen Harper’s leadership, the Conservatives were the first party to master soliciting small donations, as required under modern political financing rules that ban corporate, union and large personal contributions. And they have solidified their edge since returning to opposition. Their $8-million haul in 2019′s first quarter was more than double the $3.8-million that the Liberals brought in, consistent with general patterns. (Likewise the NDP managing just $1.2-million, and the Greens about $800,000.)
What may be getting harder is maximizing the benefit of that advantage.
Its biggest upside, in elections past, was prewrit advertising spending of the sort the Tories are doing now. Until the campaign officially began, usually little more than a month before election day, the Tories could go a long way toward setting its narrative by flooding the airwaves while opponents saved their pennies for crunch time. Sometimes it worked (defining Stéphane Dion as a weak Liberal leader) and sometimes it didn’t (striking a “not ready” line against Mr. Trudeau that he was able to turn on its head). But it always felt like a potential difference-maker.
For a couple of reasons, it might now be less so.
One is a pre-election spending rule in a broader elections bill by Mr. Trudeau’s government. Advertising is capped at about $2-million a party from June 30 until the campaign officially begins, which will likely be in September. So there is less room to take advantage of summer months when the October election is close enough that voters pay increased attention.
What might be changing the equation more is the declining value of traditional advertising. Television remains the most expensive medium, which means it’s where the gap between the Tories and the other parties is most pronounced at the moment. But it’s an increasingly unreliable way to reach voters because of less-monolithic viewing habits.
The more that digital media is where the action is, the more the gap between relatively rich and poor parties might shrink. A relatively small amount of well-placed money can reach target voters, and in some cases messaging can spread organically with no money behind it at all.
Plainly, more money to spend is still preferable to less – and not just when it comes to advertising, traditional or digital. The Tories can afford more staff and other resources between elections. They don’t have to worry much about taking on debt while spending the campaign maximum. And there are ways that they can effectively outspend their rivals even once spending limits kick in, including transfers from the party to the riding level.
But whether fundraising should be the litmus test that some Tories hold it up as, including when asked how party building has gone since losing power, is a more open question.
In government and especially in opposition, the Conservatives’ choices of positions they adopt or issues they emphasize – from gun rights to matters of foreign policy – have often seemed heavily influenced by fundraising. On occasion, party insiders have responded to questions about more hard-line messaging choices, such as on the government’s handling of asylum seekers, by citing how well they’ve played with donors.
Such considerations are not unique to them. (Consider the Liberals’ attempts this week to fundraise off of Alabama’s new anti-abortion law, and a claim that something similar could happen here.) But among Canadian parties, the Conservatives have had both the largest support base and the least inclination to play to voters outside it. And at times it’s felt as though their success appealing to people who already like them enough to consider giving them money has reinforced that instinct.
Pre-election ad spending is where they want to get to the harder part of reaching the broader electorate. Otherwise, they’re just flexing for the benefit of existing supporters pleased to see their money being put to use, and it all gets a bit circular.