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Election Ringside, April 5: Changing the storyline

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 10:28 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

Yikes! The Liberals must be celebrating, John. They've gained five points on the Conservatives in one day on the Nanos tracking poll. Let me go technical and explain to readers how this can happen.

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Nanos is publishing a three-day rolling poll, which means that he polls 400 people every day. Each morning when he publishes the results, he drops from his sample the 400 oldest respondents and adds the 400 new ones. Generally speaking, this evens out the inevitable daily fluctuations in responses.

However, there is one circumstance in which the three-day roll can magnify change, and that must be what's going on here. The Conservatives must have had very strong results among the 400 who have been dropped, and the Liberals must have had very good results in Monday's polling. We can't know what's really going on until we see a couple more days of results. This could be the beginning of a Liberal surge, or it could be just statistical variance.

In any case, it will probably change the reporting for a few days. We just had a spate of stories about how Mr. Harper was defying the boo birds and cruising to a big victory. Now we'll start to see stories about how the Liberals are surging and the Conservatives are in trouble.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 5, 11:19 ET To: Tom Flanagan

Something may indeed be happening out there. It's a little hard to tell from one poll, even when it's as crisply explained as you have done, Tom. But a shift in at least Ontario has been picked up by other polls, so Liberals are feeling just a little better than when it appeared more like a great first week was for naught. As I said yesterday, the Grits are showing some ability to produce intended results.

There are three things that I think help explain the Liberals' progress. First and foremost, leadership comparison. Simply put, Michael Ignatieff has been at his best and Stephen Harper has been in situations that pump up his negatives.

Second, the Liberal Family Pack is a pretty good offering. It doesn't offer the world, which people appreciate is a complex place. It also doesn't sound like the NEP, the enforced collectivization of heavy industry - or whatever other characterization with which the Conservatives and the right-wing commentariat will try to outdo each other in describing it. In fact, it sounds to me like garden-variety social support for families, which is pretty common stuff in elections everywhere. What's actually unusual is the Conservatives' strict adherence to spend-it-as-you-like-it tax cuts concentrated among upper income earners. Best of all, the Family Pack drives a contrast in values and priorities. It's jets and jails vs. Family Pack, a choice stacked seriously against the Conservatives. I'm surprised the Tories haven't fought back harder on asserting their friendship of the struggling middle class in this campaign.

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Third, invoking the coalition bogeyman may not be making the children hush up as reliably as intended. There is polling evidence that it isn't and it feels to me that everything that can be said about it has been said and that the conversation has moved on.

Yesterday, we talked about what the Grits have to do; what's on your list of campaign imperatives for the Tories at this stage?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 1:04 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

I wish the Conservative leader's tour would stop generating so many negative stories. Last week, it was the leader's unwillingness to take questions. This week, it's about barring or even ejecting people from events. These are stories a campaign doesn't need.

From: John Duffy Sent: Tuesday, April 5, 2:10 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I sympathize - in the sense that I can recall campaigns where a storyline develops about the lousy way you are campaigning and nothing you can do seems to shake it. The thing is, though, these storylines don't just come from nowhere. They emerge because reporters and their audiences find a resonance to what they see before them.

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In the 1990 Ontario provincial campaign, reporters, the opposition and the public hammered the Liberal campaign for triggering an election that had no reason to occur. Why? Because it was true. If my tribe had had a good reason for that election, we sure didn't spell it out. And so everything we did for weeks fed into that storyline.

So it is with the run of negative stories that you point out the Harper campaign is generating. The challenge to debate one-on-one followed by withdrawal, the restricted media access, the controlled public access - these things all resonate with Mr. Harper's government's approach to office.

The Conservative campaign is coming across as one built around the same "politics of control" that has characterized the Conservative government. This Tory-generated storyline has actually done more to drive the Liberal thesis of why this election has been called than has the Liberal campaign itself.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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