Perception is politics, goes one well-worn saying. But winning in campaigns is more about position -- where you are relative to "the other guy." And position drives perception. Before and during that campaign.
Evidence of this adage occurred this summer. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau overtook the formal Leader of the Opposition, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, to position himself as the true political alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
It was easy to miss. No knives were used, no blatant attacks. But as summer gives way to autumn and a new Parliamentary session, the effective leader of the opposition in the only session that counts -- the next election -- is Trudeau, not Mulcair.
Poll after poll shows an enduring quality to the Liberal lead over the Conservative government and the official NDP opposition. Mr. Trudeau's leadership numbers remain high, lifting his party way above its moribund third-party status in seats in the House of Commons. The NDP consistently polls third while the Conservatives have at least arrested their spring decline to a solid second. So it sits.
No one should presume yet this will still be the case when the 2015 election actually occurs. But Mr. Trudeau's Liberals have executed a crucial positioning switch that can make all the difference for a third party in that election. His headline-grabbing musings on legalizing marijuana, his own pot-smoking habits, and the Quebec values charter controversy crowded out Mr. Mulcair's NDP in media coverage and public attention. Purposeful or not (and I think it is), he is getting Canadians to first look, then think, and finally accept him and, by extension, his party as the natural voting alternative to Mr. Harper.
Campaigns count. And in this time of seemingly permanent campaigns (a device introduced by the Conservatives), it is often difficult to see when governing ends and campaigning begins. There is a rationale to this. Voters do not all wait till election day to make up their minds. Many decide before the Writ is even dropped while others remain undecided until they actually have the ballot paper in hand.
That's why position matters. Getting voters to look at you when you want them to and not the other way around is essential strategy.
Bernard Lord did this in New Brunswick in June, 1999, winning 44 of 55 legislature seats on a swing of 22 per cent in the popular vote from the previous election. But at the campaign start, Lord's Tories were in a double digit deficit well behind the governing Liberals. As Leader of the Opposition, Lord was guaranteed 'alternative' status but with only nine seats, he needed voters to think of him as the "governing alternative" sooner not later or he wouldn't win.
So he extended the campaign period with highly-visible actions in advance of the actual election call. The main pledges of the platform were announced to show ideas; a campaign bus replete with decals (hastily applied so they literally air-dried on the drive from the garage in Moncton to Fredericton) was rolled out in advance to show organization; and the team of nominated candidates were brought together to show governing readiness. All this was done a week or more before the election call to position himself and his party as "ready to govern" and confident of winning. And so it proved.
The inside mantra driving Mr. Lord's team was counter-intuitive but revealing: low-risk was high-risk. A low-risk, business-as-usual approach to campaigning would be high-risk in getting results. His positioning changed perception of him and his chances.
Mr. Trudeau may be operating under a similar premise. There are singular characteristics of his positioning strategy emerging more interesting and fundamental than first contemplated. It is not (at least yet) a classic centrist positioning. He is not offering a conventionally moderate, middling stance between the government and the official opposition of Liberals-past. His is a more direct, open, provocative and hence, risky positioning that seeks to contrast the personal differences in style and attitude between himself and the prime minister. Paying little formal attention so far to Mr. Mulcair, his erstwhile opponent, Mr. Trudeau has successfully wedged himself as the obvious personal political alternative to Mr. Harper. Since the next election will hinge exclusively on whether or not to renew the Harper Government's term, this is sensible and strategic.
So, the outlines of the Justin Trudeau Liberal election strategy are now appearing. Erase the image of a down-and-out third party. Entrench himself as the personal and hence, real political alternative to Stephen Harper. Ignore the Official Opposition. Defer policy positions till later.
It is this last aspect of this strategy that will increasingly garner attention. For Canadians to accept Justin Trudeau as an actual governing alternative and not just a personal political alternative to Mr. Harper will require much more substance than he has exhibited to date. And a bumper crop of life-experienced and professionally accomplished candidates to reinforce that message and reassure voters.
But Mr. Trudeau's rather excellent summer coup gives him a running start.
Justin Trudeau trains at Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg on Friday Feb. 1, 2013.
Justin Trudeau & co. making faces.
Justin Trudeau splits his pants while pushing the "scrum machine" in support of Prostate Cancer Canada in Toronto Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Justin Trudeau gets his geek on at Montreal Comiccon in September 2012.
Justin Trudeau has his moustache shaved off to raise money for the Judy LaMarsh Fund, that supports female candidates, at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa on Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay (left) is chased by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau in a motorized wheelchair during a wheelchair race relay on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Twenty-five MPs and senators used a wheelchair for the day in support of the Canadian Paraplegic Association's Spinal Cord Injury and CPA awareness month.
Justin Trudeau all dressed up for the Montreal Movember Gala in 2010.
Pierre Trudeau's sons, Sacha, left, and Justin, tackle their mother's paperboy in Ottawa in this undated photo.
Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau strikes a pose with an adorable baby.
Justin Trudeau poses with his family on his 2010 Christmas card.
Former Liberal MP Ken Dryden, left, and Justin Trudeau play table hockey as they visit Sun Youth, a community organization, Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 in Montreal.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.
Justin Trudeau in Muskoka, Ont.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, centre, has his cowbay taken by his son Xavier, 4 years-old, while his wife Sophie Gregoire, second from left, holds daughet Ella-Grace, 3 years-old, while they attend the party's annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Saturday, July 7, 2012. This is the 100th anniversary of the Stampede.
Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.
Justin Trudeau dances with wife Sophie Grégoire before his speech at the Liberal showcase on April 6, 2013.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing what someone called his "Mandrake the Magician outfit," walks down the grandstand steps to present the Grey Cup trophy to the victorious Montreal Alouettes in this Nov. 28, 1970 photo.
Pierre Trudeau leans over to kiss an unidentified young lady to the seeming surprise of his recent bride Margaret. Trudeau and Margaret spent Saturday March 27, 1971 at maple tree farm here near Montreal at a sugaring out party.
Pierre Trudeau accompanies Margaret Sinclair, at the annual Governor General's skating party for members of Parliament in Ottawa Jan. 14, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau looks through the scope of his rifle while on a seal hunting trip in Baffin Island's Clear Water Fjord, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau shoes off his frisbee catching style while waiting to board his plane in Vancouver May 16, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau had no trouble keeping himself occupied during a break from a boat trip down the Northwest Territories, Nahanni River, Monday Aug. 4, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau takes a wary look at an ice crevice, decides to chance it and makes the leap successfully during a midnight seal- hunting expedition at Clearwater Fjord in Canada's Arctic, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau receives a kiss from his wife Margaret during a tour of St. Pierre, France, Aug. 1971.
Pierre Trudeau in Guayana 1974.
Pierre Trudeau sticks his tongue out to Canadian Press Photographer Peter Bregg during the 1972 election campaign. This photo was taken aboard the campaign plane where such antics were considered off the record. The photo was not made available until after the death of the prime minister
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dances in Montreal Oct. 21, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau sprints away from a crowd of female admirers in Ottawa April 22, 1968. They surrounded him outside the Parliament Buildings on his third day in office.
John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, meet with Pierre Trudeau Dec. 24, 1969 in Ottawa.
Pierre Trudeau looks on as Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures during a visit to a Havana housing project in this Jan. 27, 1976 photo.
Pierre Trudeau pretending to strangle himself with a tie given to him as he was presented with honorary membership in the National Press Club in Ottawa Sept. 17, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau amuses a group of people in Fortune while on tour through Newfoundland, Aug. 3, 1971.
Pierre Trudeau takes a ride on the Bluenose, Aug. 1972.
Pierre Trudeau works out at an Oshawa health club during a break in his 1968 election campaign.
Pierre Trudeau, with a garland around his neck and a Hindu greeting symbol in paste on his forhead, rides a camel Jan 12, 1971 in the village of Benares, India, where he dedicated a water well.
Pierre Trudeau kids around with a carnation while waiting for voting results at the Liberal convention in this April 7, 1968 photo.
Pierre Trudeau tries cracking a dog sled whip while visiting Baker Lake in the Arctic, March 10, 1970.
Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Sheik Yamani, left, and Pierre Trudeau, right, dance a traditional Arabian dance while camping out in the desert in Madein Saleh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 18, 1980.
Pierre Trudeau, seen here taking part in Maori ceremonial dance in Wellington, New Zealand May 13, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau does a dance after his campaign bus broke down in Montreal June 6, 1968.
Wearing a "feather in his cap," Pierre Trudeau attended the official opening May 20, 1983, of an archaeological excavation in Hull, Que.
Pierre Trudeau, shown performing his famous pirouette during a May 7, 1977, picture session at Buckingham Palace in London, England.
Pierre Trudeau, in a moment of joy over patriation of Canada's constitution, preformed his now famous pirouette at Uplands Airport on April 18, 1982 following the Queens's departure for London after the 4-day state visit which climaxed with the proclamation of the Constitution Act.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973.
Prime Minister Trudeau and his then-wife Margaret leave the city's Notre Dame Basilica Sunday afternoon after the christening of their 22-day old infant Justin Pierre James, Jan. 16, 1972. Tasseled shawls kept the baby hidden from photographers and the 10-degree-below-zero weather.
March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).
It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.
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