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Mr. Trudeau's Summer Coup

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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.

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