OTTAWA — For more than two months now, the NDP has been topping public opinion surveys. So why are the Conservatives spending their money attacking third-place Liberal leader Justin Trudeau?
The answer lies in the numbers.
Despite the NDP’s current glow in public opinion surveys, the Tories still firmly believe Trudeau’s Liberals are their main opponents, and they want to drive them down to numbers comparable to former leader Michael Ignatieff’s disastrous election-night showing.
Ignatieff plunged the Grits to their lowest support levels ever, 18.9 per cent and 34 seats, on May 2, 2011.
Several Conservatives sources, speaking to The Huffington Post Canada on condition of anonymity, suggested that the Tories want to drive Trudeau’s numbers down in the teens before they stop the on-air bombardment.
“We are not attacking the NDP yet in [our] ads because our numbers still have the Liberals higher than in 2011, and we need to knock them down further,” a Conservative involved in the campaign said. The NDP is up in British Columbia and in Quebec, he said, but, beyond that, the Tories aren’t convinced the NDP support has increased.
“Essentially, the ridings that we’re close in and matter for us are against Liberals,” another Conservative source said.
There are about 84 ridings that are Conservative–Liberal fights, 33 three-way fights among the Liberals, Tories and NDP, and about 30 ridings that are Conservative–NDP fights, data provided by the Liberals suggest.
A senior Liberal, requesting anonymity, said it is no surprise the Tories are still attacking Trudeau.
“The regions of the country where the election will be decided, the Conservatives are overwhelmingly in one-on-one fights with us, in particular in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] but also in other parts of Ontario and in the lower mainland in British Columbia,” he said.
“Notwithstanding two months, at least, of cheerleading by the press, the Alberta breakthrough and two months of eulogies in the press about us, the NDP still can’t crack 15 points in 905 [The GTA area code]. And if you cannot crack 15 points in the 905, you cannot form government.” he added.
Liberal party national director Jeremy Broadhurst said national horse-race poll numbers don’t tell the whole story. “It doesn’t reflect the fact that there are 16, 17, 18 regional contests going on,” he said.
“The Conservatives know who they are fighting on the ground, they know who is representing a challenge to them in a lot of these races, and they are demonstrating by their choice of target that they are under threat.”
A third Tory source suggested that there is “no low that is too low” for the Liberals.“We think in a contest between the NDP and the Conservatives, we win.”
So the Conservatives will continue to cast doubt on Trudeau’s ability to govern with more television ads and if they prop up the NDP, for a while, with the attacks, so be it.
Geoffrey Chambers, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s close advisor, told The Huffington Post Canada that he thinks the Tories are miscalculating.
“I think they will find themselves to be wrong,” he said. “When you look at a lot of those ridings, we weren’t out of it so as to be arithmetically irrelevant. So if we were 5,000 votes behind in a three-way split, don’t count on us not winning those ridings this time.”
He acknowledged that the ads have helped Mulcair, but Chambers suggested that the NDP would have engaged different strategies to suppress Liberal support if the Tories’ hatred of the Liberals hadn’t helped them.
“I can imagine scenarios where we would have done different things if we would have had a harder road or a different road,” he said, declining to elaborate. “I’m not sure we would have come out much differently.”
The latest public opinion survey by Ipsos suggests that Trudeau’s Liberals have 25 per cent of support nationally, the Conservatives have 33 per cent and the NDP tops the poll with 34 per cent. The margin of error is 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Pollster Quito Maggi, from the Mainstreet national public research firm, told HuffPost the television ads against Trudeau are working, and he suggests that is the No.1 reason the NDP is topping the polls.
“The Liberal drop is 100 per cent tied to the attack ads and the effects … on people’s opinions of Justin Trudeau,” Maggi said. He believes his polling suggests that people who have seen the ad so many times that they can’t even remember how often they viewed it are strongly supportive of the Conservative party.
“A lot of people don’t want to vote Conservative in this election, and now that the ads have told them Justin is not ready, what is the default third option? It’s the NDP,” he said. “Not to diminish Tom Mulcair or the NDP, but it’s almost a parked vote.”
A Forum poll on Thursday, however, suggested that some people surveyed are more likely to vote Liberal after watching the ads and that half of respondents were split on whether they believe Trudeau is “not ready” to govern.
The Liberal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the ads are hurting.
But he disagreed that Trudeau had himself contributed to the problem with flippant comments about “whip[ping] out our CF-18s” or joking about Ukraine and Russia.
“I don’t think there is a single politician in the country’s history where you could pick two or three things and spend $15 million on an ad emphasizing those things where they wouldn’t have an impact,” he said.
“If someone had spent $15 million to advertise that Tom Mulcair wanted Obama to produce Osama bin Laden’s corpse , or that he attacked the Supreme Court for shredding the evidence of the patriation of the Constitution, they would have the same effect on him.”
Earlier this week, the Tories, perhaps under pressure from their MPs or the continued rise of the NDP, decided to devote some resources to the New Democrats. The party launched a website that reminded voters that the NDP has been ordered to repay $2.7 million in misappropriated funds but has so far refused. It also called Mulcair a “career politician.”
The website, however, cost a fraction of the funds devoted to attacking Trudeau during prime time programs on major Canadian television networks. Not to mention the radio ads and government funds devoted to attacking planks of the Liberal platform such as legalizing marijuana.
Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke declined to comment for this story. He said the party doesn’t talk “strategy.”
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