A political party's base is made up of the loyal voters who support it election after election, in good times and bad. For the Conservatives, that's about 25-30 per cent of the national electorate. The 3,000 delegates who are attending the Conservative convention in Calgary represent the most active part of the base, the people who pound in lawn signs and pass out leaflets during election campaigns.
On Friday night, Stephen Harper spoke to the Conservative base, and quite successfully so. After 12 years as leader of the Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party, he knows what members want to hear. He rehearsed all his government's achievements, emphasizing themes that the base loves, such as abolition of the long gun registry, dismantling of the Wheat Board, punishing criminals and supporting the Canadian Forces.
Those in the media who speculated that he might try to explain the Senate mess that his appointments have created, and even apologize for it, have obviously not been paying attention for the last decade. Mr. Harper explained nothing and apologized for nothing. On the contrary, he dug in even further, calling for the speedy suspension of senators he had appointed and used so often as party fundraisers and campaigners. In a defiant moment, he even avowed that he cared nothing for the criticism he has received, even within his own party, for ignoring considerations of due process and natural justice.
The speech worked well with the people in the hall, who were on their feet repeatedly, cheering and applauding. The same approach will also work well with the base at large.
There's other evidence that the Conservative base is still with Mr. Harper. Despite misleading headlines in some newspapers, Conservative fundraising is as strong as ever. There was a drop, as there always is, between the second and third quarters in 2013; but the party actually raised a hundred thousand dollars more in Q3 2013 than Q3 2012. The Conservative Party is totally dependent upon grassroots donations; and if Mr. Harper ever loses the base, the results will show up very quickly in quarterly totals. But that hasn't happened, which is great news for Mr. Harper, because a leader who loses his base is finished.
But there's also some bad news. Ever since the Liberals chose Justin Trudeau as leader, they have led in almost every national poll, and the Conservatives have been drifting down to support levels around 30 per cent, the approximate size of their base. That's enough to keep the party alive and well, but not enough to win against the resurgent Liberals.
The Liberals, moreover, are finally showing they have learned how to conduct grassroots fundraising. Why it took them ten years remains a mystery, but they seem to be getting there now. In Q2 and Q3 of this year, they actually had more donors than the Conservatives, though the latter raised more money because their average gift was much larger.
The most plausible explanation of the Liberal pattern of results - large numbers of very small donations -is that they are successfully using the Internet to harvest small gifts from the new supporters attracted during their leadership race, especially by Mr. Trudeau. If this is indeed the trend - and no will ever tell you the whole truth in the secretive world of party fundraising - it's bad news for the Conservatives, because, with the right approach, small Liberal donors can be turned into bigger donors.
Conservative fundraising was crucial in the last two elections. The Conservatives used their financial advantage for campaigns of unanswered negative advertising to destroy the credibility of Liberals leaders Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff before the writ was dropped, turning the official campaign into a mopping-up operation. If the Liberals work their way up to financial parity with the Conservatives, a new strategy may be required.
Tom Flanagan is a distinguished fellow at the School Public Policy, University of Calgary, and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.