10/14/2015 05:20 EDT | Updated 10/14/2016 05:12 EDT

Canada Election 2015: Liberals, Conservatives Made Most From Long Campaign

Has Harper's 11-week campaign tactic backfired?


OTTAWA — Conventional wisdom holds that the longest election campaign in modern Canadian history was designed to drain Liberal and NDP coffers and expose the inexperience of Stephen Harper's rivals — Justin Trudeau in particular.

But with Monday's vote looming, the Liberals haven't faded. Indeed, polls suggest Trudeau — accused of being "just not ready" by his Conservative adversaries — has built a strong head of steam.

So: has Harper's 11-week campaign tactic backfired?

"(The Liberals) took great advantage of the long campaign in a way that probably wouldn't have been available to them if it had been a traditional five-week campaign,"  said Scott Reid, who once worked for former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The decision to announce in late August a plan to run three years worth of deficits of up to $10 billion a year helped to establish a narrative that suited the Liberals, Reid said.

"By putting it out there in the window, so early and so distinctly, the Liberals were able to alter the course of the debate and particularly sideline the NDP."

Thanks to the fixed election date, the Liberals were poised to play the long game well before the campaign got underway Aug. 2, said Ontario Liberal hopeful Mark Holland.

Holland is taking on Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in Ajax — a riding he held before the Grits were taken down across Canada in 2011, the worst showing in the party's history.

"The reality is, because we all knew when the election was coming, the campaign began so long ago — really last spring or even last winter," Holland said.

"Maybe knowing that date and having that huge run up outside of the actual length of the campaign itself played a big role."

But Harper, too, has taken full advantage of the long campaign, say analysts.

"I think his gamble at the start of the campaign was that people know him well ... if he had a long campaign to be heard out, he could make his case," said Peter Loewen, an associate political science professor at the University of Toronto.

"He's done that OK, I think."

Eleven weeks on the campaign trail has given the Conservatives ample time to reach voters, said Alberta Conservative candidate Michelle Rempel.

"I think in terms of the issues, and what our leader has been communicating on, the length of the campaign ... has allowed us to reach more people," she said.

"It's actually allowed us to put our message out in terms of the tax-and-spend contrast. That's something that resonates."

Reid said the Conservatives had "little choice but to gamble" that Trudeau would struggle on the campaign trail, both during his stump speeches and under the pressure of multiple televised debates.

"If you're the Conservatives ... you couldn't begin the campaign by basing a strategy around, 'What if Trudeau performs outstandingly,' because that left you with so few options that there was really no practical path to victory," he said.

"You had to at least say, 'Well, let's do everything possible to make it hard for him to succeed and then let's hope to hell he doesn't.'"

If the Conservatives can garner 29 or 30 per cent of the popular vote, that will mean they have managed to hold on to their base of support, Reid added.

By contrast, the early-favourite New Democrats — now lagging both the Liberals and the Tories, polls suggest — appear to have been the least successful in managing the demands of an extended writ period.

Ontario candidate Peggy Nash, an experienced marathon runner, said it's important for candidates to stay focused and to avoid being distracted by polls.

"Elections are won, essentially, by connecting with voters — door by door, call by call, candidates' meeting by candidates' meeting," Nash said.

"Like a marathon runner, you just have to put one foot in front of the other ... identifying your support and encouraging those supporters to vote on election day."

Regardless of the outcome Monday, Canadians would do well to get used to the idea of near-constant campaigning, said Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L.

Marland contends that in a world of constant media coverage and high-tech devices that deliver a steady stream of information, politicians these days are in semi-permanent campaign mode.

"The fact that we've entered a long campaign period is just an extension of that," he said. 

"Really, politicians are spending far more time constantly campaigning."

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