HARD TO STOP THE CYCLE

Only 18 per cent of poll respondents say they now expect a Liberal victory

CHARLIE GILLIS January 23 2006

HARD TO STOP THE CYCLE

Only 18 per cent of poll respondents say they now expect a Liberal victory

CHARLIE GILLIS January 23 2006

HARD TO STOP THE CYCLE

Only 18 per cent of poll respondents say they now expect a Liberal victory

CHARLIE GILLIS

Paul Martin’s beleaguered handlers thought they’d scored a win last week when eight-year-old broadcasting phenom Daniel Cook paid a visit to their campaign bus. The apple-cheeked grade schooler, who hosts his own show on Treehouse TV, has been a hit in his capacity as CTV Newsnet’s “special election correspondent,” reporting periodically on Countdown with Mike Duffy. But when the youngster from Stoney Creek, Ont., declared after meeting the 67-year-old Martin that he’d developed a sudden interest in paleontology, the spinmeisters undoubtedly cringed. Within minutes, the Martin-as-dinosaur jokes were flying around the Internet.

Welcome to the no-win world of the Liberals, where the most innocent word or photoop seems to produce a fresh round of ridicule— an arguably worse lot than weeks of poor press. If the Maclean’s Canada 20/20 panel is anything to go by, the negative momentum will be hard to reverse. Only 18 per cent of respondents in our poll said they now expect a Liberal victory, an astonishing drop from 40 per cent the previous week and 56 at the beginning of the campaign. And the party’s lasthour gambits have brought almost no payoff. More than half of our panellists said Martin’s surprise promise to abolish federal use of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause would

make no difference to their vote, while fully 40 per cent said it would make them less likely to vote Liberal. “This is the combination of their mistakes and misfortunes all coming together,” said Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, the firm running the poll. “They’ve been framed by their weakest acts.”

Harper has enjoyed the opposite response, escaping harm from revelations that just a few weeks ago might have sent voters scurrying to his opponents. Last week, for the first time in the campaign, the Tory leader was side-swiped by news that one of his B.C. candidates had been charged with smuggling, and by Liberal attack ads noting that Harper had voiced admiration in the past for rightwing U.S. lobby groups. Yet the Conservatives maintained their overall lead, with 35 per cent support, compared to 30 for the Liberals and 19 for the NDP (the 2,786 responses were weighted to reflect a cross-section of Canadian society, and are considered accurate within 1.86 percentage points 19 times out of 20).

What causes voters to tune out attacks on one side while pricking up their ears to assaults on the other? Anger, says Laura Stephenson, a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario, is one impetus. “A lot of people are still afraid of Harper—but

they’re also really, really tired of Martin.” Factor in the basic familiarity of the Liberal attack— Harper is an extremist—and you have a message that simply bounces off the voters. “It comes down to how many times can you play a given card,” Stephenson says. “It’s not new to let us know that Harper has said pro-American things in the past. It’s not new to know he’s conservative, or even that you can compare him to Mike Harris. So to a large degree, that message has already played itself out.”

What will truly frustrate Liberal operatives

‘It’s not new to know he’s conservative. So to a large degree, that message has already played itself out.’

is the knowledge that, for all the Tory gains, that deep reservoir of suspicion about Harper remains untapped. Since the second week of the campaign, more than half of our panellists have agreed with the statement, “Stephen Harper scares me.” As of last week, that proportion had scarcely budged. Same goes for the statement, “the Conservative party is too extreme for me.” Yet when asked whether the

Tories are ready to run the government, fully 48 per cent now say yes, compared to about 39 per cent in late December. This seeming contradiction, says Lyle, reflects both the Liberals’ failure to focus the campaign on Harper, and the Conservatives’ success in producing an image of overall moderation and competency. “Good opposition parties stay out of the way of governments defeating themselves,” he says. “That’s what these guys have done.” For the Tories, image change meant avoiding the pratfalls of campaigns past—and switching the soundtrack. “It’s the way they’re talking, and what they’re talking about, that’s making the difference,” says Lyle. “They’re very centred on the people at the heart of problems they’re trying to fix.” By emphasizing such home-andhearth issues as daycare and the GST on household goods, the Tories have shaken up impressions of them as cold-blooded servants of capitalism, Lyle says—opening up constituencies where they’ve traditionally fared poorly. Nearly eight per cent of last week’s respondents switched their support to the Conservatives from other parties. Half were women, while fully four out of 10 were Quebecers. And, says Stephenson, the Tories’ relatively error-free campaign has them looking more like a government-in-waiting. “They’ve found a different way of presenting themselves.”

The Tories’ challenge in the final week will be avoiding a repeat of the 2004 campaign, when they cratered in the final days amid charges of extremism. The Liberals, meanwhile, must desperately hope voters will hear out attacks on Harper, setting aside Martin’s own campaign blunders. That’s no sure thing, says Lyle, considering the constant media stories on negative campaigning, or the Conservatives’ own pre-emptive spin. “When the attacks are framed as a deliberate strategy to manipulate you, that tends to influence how you perceive them,” he says. What’s more, the Liberals’ chances increasingly hang on a thin sliver of New Democrat voters, whom they hope to dislodge by saying a vote for the NDP will split the centre-left, increasing the likelihood of Conservative victory.

That support may still be available. Most NDP supporters in our survey didn’t yet believe the Tories were going to win. Many thought the election was still too close to call. And while there’s no guarantee the Grits can induce these electors to shift, expect a titanic effort. They didn’t earn their reputation as “Canada’s natural governing party” by acting like dinosaurs, waiting for some cataclysmic event to wipe them off the electoral map. M

MORE ELECTION COVERAGE

For online exclusives, including guest bloggers Maude Barlow, Warren Kinsella and Colby Cosh, and to view complete results of the Maclean’s/lnnovative Research Survey, visit www.macleans.ca/election2006