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The Globe and Mail

Tory strategy ensures there is no national election

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

You might find the current federal election campaign underwhelming.

You are right.

This is particularly true if you live in the majority of this country in the West outside Vancouver and Winnipeg, or in Toronto, rural Quebec or English Montreal, or those seats held by a long-time and popular incumbent.

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The truth is, if you live in those places, there really isn't an election going on.

Oh sure. Signs are up. You might get a leaflet on your door. On election day, people will pester you to vote.

But the full force of the election isn't aimed at you. Your vote is already taken for granted and your MP notionally placed in the "elected" column. You know who I'm talking about. The one that won last time and is going to win again.

Basically, most of us live in the electoral equivalent of Utah.

Allow me to explain.

In U.S presidential elections, campaigns worry about winning states rather than total votes. So states that are strongly Democrat or Republican are ignored, and "battlefield" states, particularly large ones with a lot of Electoral College votes, are bombarded with ads and events.

This map shows where the Bush and Kerry campaigns spent their time and money in the final five weeks of the 2004 election.

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As you can see, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida were flooded with cash and visits, while Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire also got significant attention. The entire South, from Virginia to Texas, was ignored, as was most of New England, the Plains and Mountain states, and California.

In 2004, the vast majority of Americans had virtually no say in the outcome of the election, as their state was safely in one camp or another.

The 2011 Canadian election is being fought by the Conservatives in almost exactly the same manner.

They are focused like a laser on the 20 or so seats held by the opposition that can put them over the top for a majority. The rest of the country is basically meaningless for them.

The Conservatives have a pseudo-campaign that is there as a placeholder for the rest of the country. Stephen Harper takes a couple of questions from the national gallery and puts out a message about "the coalition." That is all designed to hold the base in place for the Conservative incumbents and get the supporters out to vote on election day.

Then he goes back to an event aimed at the South Asian community in Mississauga.

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Basically, there is only the semblance of a national election campaign from the Conservatives. There is a tightly controlled, no-mistakes, low-risk tour, and ads designed to goose turnout and rile up existing Conservative voters.

But if you live in Vancouver South or Brampton West or Welland, it probably feels like someone is driving up and down your street with a bullhorn.

You are getting direct-mail pieces on issues of core interest to you. If you are a senior, on increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement. If you are a parent, on the arts-and-crafts tax credit and RESP sharing. If you are a one-income family, on income-splitting.

You are getting robo-dialers leaving messages in your voice mail.You are receiving letters from community leaders in your cradle tongue.

And that's every day.

At the same time, there is a constant attempt by the Conservatives to weaken turnout among Liberals.

The "boring campaign" strategy is a part of this. Conservative voters skew older and wealthier, and are more likely to vote. Liberal voters are younger and poorer in these ridings, and more likely to forget about the election if they aren't engaged.

However, the big thrust is the move to overcome the natural incumbency advantage by linking the vote to the national leader, Michael Ignatieff, and not to the local candidate. Incumbent MPs are tricky to defeat, as they have name recognition and an expectation that they can do the job.

By running ads (and more importantly, in riding messages) that emphasize the perceived weaknesses of the Liberal Leader, the Tories are working to de-motivate Liberal voters and get them to stay home. "Just Visiting" isn't about making swing voters cast a ballot for their local Conservative. They are about making Liberal supporters stay home, and lower the number of votes a Conservative needs to win the riding.

If you live in a battlefield riding, you probably know it. And if you don't, you will before May 2.

There has been an attempt this week by the national media to make this election more, well, national.

After all, a dull election doesn't sell many newspapers.

The Liberals are being portrayed as a serious challenge to the Conservatives, and Mr. Ignatieff's performance exceeding expectations has aided this storyline.

The Grits may yet make an election of this thing, but the regional numbers - the numbers that turn into MPs - show the Conservative focus on seats is working.

The Conservative campaign in Ontario appears to be paying off, with a 15-point lead. I have no evidence, but will gamely speculate, that the majority of this gain is found in the handful of suburban GTA seats and among the demographic groups the Conservatives are carefully courting.

Election campaigns are about allocating fixed resources to maximum efficiency to produce the largest number of seats possible.

The Conservatives are pouring as much as they can into the marginal seats that will get them to a majority.

The Liberals appear to be taking a less focused approach in the campaign.

This makes sense. Clamping down to a 20-seat marginal strategy at this stage would be a mistake. Not only would it limit their potential growth, which is greater than any other party if they can get the right (albeit unlikely) conditions, but they are underfinanced to fight a war of attrition against the well-heeled Conservatives along the "Western front" of these 20 ridings.

Their strategy has been to polarize the left around the Liberals, using policy like their opposition to corporate tax cuts and support for education as a way to demonstrate affinity with anti-Harper voters, and bleed the NDP and Greens of support. They want as many anti-Harper votes as possible to consolidate behind Mr. Ignatieff as the only candidate who can challenge him for the job of prime minister.

This strategy is a good one for the position they are in. When Dalton McGuinty ran this strategy in 1999, it moved his party to 40 per cent of the vote from 31 per cent. However, he only picked up a total of four seats.

The challenge is polarizing efficiently. Gaining NDP and Green votes in safe Conservative or Liberal ridings wins the Liberals no more seats.

Their problem is holding very tightly defined demographic clusters against a full onslaught of sophisticated courtship by a Conservative Leader doing everything in his power to win new friends.

To do this, the Liberals need to shift the national landscape enough to move where the marginal seats are found, and force the Conservatives to abandon their hopes of a majority and winning that particular tranche of seats in which they have focused their attention.

That will require big moves in public opinion.

And that will require both a continued strong performance by the Liberal leader,= and an issue that captures national attention.

If a national election doesn't break out soon, the Liberals are in trouble.

But on to Week Two, when big issues that capture public attention are prone to emerge.

We will see if the Liberals get their big breakout issue that turns this into a war of movement, or if it gets bogged down into a war of attrition, one that strongly favours the Conservatives.

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