Behind the frenetic activity of a national election campaign, a more subtle strategic battle is going on.

National political campaigns in the era of the 24- hour news cycle are all in the moment. They rage from one end of the country to another, fuelled by bickering war rooms, gotcha moments and self-inflicted wounds, unguarded comments that are instantly regretted, hilarious stupidities of soon-to-be-former candidates, outrageous insults all around and the relentless daily polls.

While all that is happening minute to minute, more serious business is going on. Appeals for support are being crafted for discrete voter segments, as ballot questions are framed and defended, alternative policy prescriptions debated and leadership attributes displayed in daily news conferences and the leaders’ debates. All of this frenetic activity ultimately yields a result, creating winners and losers, beginning and ending careers and placing the country on a path to the future.

Of course, there’s a much more complicated story going on behind the day-to-day events of the modern campaign. The outcome of a national election results from the interplay of several critical elements:

● the mobilization of party resources;

● the framing and counter-framing of leaders;

● pre-positioning plausible campaign narratives;

● policy messages that connect with voters and those that don’t; and

● the clash of competing strategies.

All of these elements ultimately play themselves out in the heat of the campaign, but most take shape over months if not years of careful planning before the writ period. Behind it all is the story of how leaders and their parties anticipate, adapt, learn and grow.

So based on how these elements played out this fall, what are the lessons for leaders and their parties to take from the campaign that ended on October 14?

In the 2004 federal election, Paul Martin’s Liberals taught Stephen Harper several painful but valuable lessons. Focusing on the risks of electing a new political party that had been created less than five months before the election call, the Liberals framed Harper as leading a band of inexperienced unknowns without a coherent set of policies and with a hidden right-wing agenda for Canada.

As it turned out, there was some basis for the Liberal fear-mongering. Indeed, the Conservatives did not have a policy book to show voters. They had also not had the time to complete preparation of the campaign script — that critical message track of policy announcements, backgrounders, speeches and sound bites so necessary in modern elections. It ran out about three weeks into the writ period. And when several Conservative MPs and candidates obligingly stepped forward during the campaign to raise off-message hot-button issues, they instantly validated the Liberals’ hidden agenda claims and seriously damaged their party.

As it turned out, there was some basis for the Liberal fear-mongering. Indeed, the Conservatives did not have a policy book to show voters.

Harper was determined to learn from that experience. He initiated and participated personally in a thorough internal assessment of what had worked and what hadn’t in the 2004 campaign. During the 2004-05 minority Parliament, he led an effective grassroots and caucus policy process leading to a successful party policy conference in Montreal in March of 2005. He took a series of thoughtful steps to reach out strategically to Quebec voters, and to begin the process of breaking down the barriers to Conservative support in that province. And he and his team put together a comprehensive script for the 2006 election that would define him and his party in clear policy terms.

Going into the 2006 general election, Harper correctly assumed that the Liberals would return to the same strategic well, so he set out to inoculate himself and his party against the hidden agenda framing. From the moment the campaign started, and day after day throughout the country, he relentlessly laid out policy after policy. The result was that when the Liberals predictably hyped up the hidden agenda allegation, it had little credibility and went nowhere. Their campaign ad implying that Harper was prepared to declare martial law by putting soldiers on the streets of the country’s cities became the subject of instant ridicule and the acme of excessive campaign rhetoric in Canadian politics.

No one has ever had to explain the importance of party to Stephen Harper. He had started his political life as a Progressive Conservative, left that party to help found Reform, where he served as the party’s policy director, and returned to political life to end a decade of Liberal rule by uniting the dying PCs and the stalled Canadian Alliance.

As a student of political organization, he has strong views about how parties should be organized and managed. He demands hard work, planning and preparation, and is prepared to invest in organization and technology. His long apprenticeship had also taught him the importance of the three Ps of political parties — policy, people and pesos. On all three fronts, the Liberals were woefully outgunned by the Conservatives in this fall’s campaign.

On policy, the Prime Minister had a substantive government record to run on, but for the Liberals, the policy cupboard was largely bare. The reason was that Stéphane Dion had made a huge mistake the morning after he was elected leader. When asked about his first priority, he said it was to defeat the government as soon as possible and return the Liberal Party to power.

On policy, the Prime Minister had a substantive government record to run on, but for the Liberals, the policy cupboard was largely bare.

Whether or not he fully appreciated it at the time, those words placed the Liberal Party on a war footing and essentially foreclosed the kind of thoughtful reconsideration of party policy that indeed many Liberals believed was necessary. There would be no new Kingston Conference, no party grassroots policy consultation and no updating of either the premises or the details of policy. As a result, the Liberal policy approach during Canada’s 39th Parliament was largely reactive, and until the ill-fated Green Shift, Liberals had very little new to say.

On the human resources front, Dion faced some challenges that were not entirely of his own making. After the defeat of the Martin government in 2006, a significant number of reelected Liberal MPs decided it was time to move on. To be sure, some were disaffected with Dion’s leadership, but for many others who had served their three, four or five terms, it was just time. The problem was that with Dion’s leadership under attack throughout the run-up to the 2008 election, it proved difficult for him to recruit exciting new candidates. The Conservatives, on the other hand, did an excellent job of candidate recruitment and achieved a major rejuvenation of their caucus on October 14, including the election of ten additional women.

As argued before in these pages (“From Tory to Liberal Syndrome: The most Difficult Job in the Country,” May 2008), more than anything else, it’s the absence of a modern fundraising approach that has hobbled the Liberals. Both the former PC and Alliance parties had developed broad individual donor bases, and when the two came together, a significant natural advantage was born. As a result, in 2007, the Conservatives’ 159,000 individual donors contributed $17 million to the party, while the Liberals raised only $4.5 million from 35,000 donors. The realities of this gap have been staring Liberals in the face for years, but they have yet to put in place an effective, modern direct-mail fundraising system.

On October 20, when Dion announced he would be vacating the leadership, he complained bitterly that he had been the victim of character assassination courtesy of the Conservatives’ fundraising advantage. As he put it in a fundraising letter entitled “Never Again” that he sent to party supporters the same day:

Harper’s Conservatives have enjoyed an enormous financial lead since the fundraising rules were changed, and from the moment I was elected leader, they poured millions of dollars into unprecedented attack ad campaigns. The Liberal Party lacked the resources to respond, and by the time the election was called, a false image of me was cemented in the minds of too many voters.

Well, duh. Coming from an individual who had been party leader for almost two years and a senior minister for many years before, the ironies of this statement are stunning.

Framing is the political art of defining a political opponent in an unfavourable light by seizing upon a weakness and making that the critical attribute people think about when they see the opponent, think about that individual or hear his or her name.

There are three critical features to successful framing:

● It needs to be plausible; it must seek to exploit an observable weakness.

● It needs either the target or third parties to provide validation — the proofs that the frame makes sense and is credible.

● It needs to be timely; it’s essential to get out early and define the target unfavourably, before they define themselves positively.

Of course, the impacts of a negative frame are not inevitable if the claim is over-the-top, validation fails to arrive or corrective action is taken.

The framing of Stéphane Dion began on Super Bowl Sunday in 2007. Less than two months before, Dion had become the surprise Liberal leader at a hung convention when the mutual paralysis of Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae let him win. The Conservatives saw a window of opportunity to build a frame of weakness and vacillation around Dion. They had the damning leadership campaign exchange between Ignatieff and Dion as the auditory and visual proof. Speaking of the environment, Ignatieff says, “Stéphane, you didn’t get it done.” And Dion plaintively asks, “Do you think it’s easy to make priorities?” The tag line repeated again and again in the Conservative TV and radio ads was brutal in its simplicity: “Stéphane Dion is not a leader.”

This bold strategy could have become an amusing sidelight had Dion then gone out to confound his detractors and become a decisive and charismatic leader. But he didn’t. A disorganized office, two high-profile by election defeats, the absence of a party renewal plan, a fired Liberal Party national director, the meltdown of his Quebec wing, the Liberals’ abstention in 43 House votes and the Green Shift train wreck all served to confirm the negative frame of an indecisive and floundering leader. Game, set, match to the Conservatives on the framing front.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, the Conservatives engaged in some counter-framing of their own. Their assessment was that Canadians had concluded the Prime Minister was more than capable enough and certainly tough enough to manage the economy in troubled times, but that his image required some softening and rounding. They devised the “sweater strategy,” a series of ads in which a dressed-down and low-key Prime Minister talked about himself, his family and some of the issues facing the country.

This counter-framing worked, and for at least two reasons. First, it had limited objectives. There was no imperative for a wholesale change to the existing frame; it just needed to be expanded and embellished. Second, the softer frame easily complemented the many consumer-friendly initiatives the government had taken during its mandate that already appealed to middle-income families, particularly women.

Like framing, pre-positioning for a successful campaign narrative requires some serious planning, and here the Liberals made a fateful mistake.

Although the Liberals had been out of office for two and a half years, they had huge institutional strengths to bring to a national campaign, especially one held in troubled economic times.

Although the Liberals had been out of office for two and a half years, they had huge institutional strengths to bring to a national campaign, especially one held in troubled economic times. A critical element of their brand strength was economic management. While Paul Martin’s reputation had been somewhat tarnished by his time as prime minister, Canadians still gave him top marks for his long run as finance minister. In that role, he had slain the deficit dragon in the 1990s. He had stared down the Chicago traders who had derided the “northern peso” and used tough love to restore sanity to the nation’s fiscal management.

This was a heritage today’s Liberals could have used to advantage, but Dion built no bridges from these accomplishments to the party he was now leading. When, late in the campaign, he appealed to these Liberal economic management roots, there were few takers, because the ground had not been laid. Pre-positioning requires analysis, forethought, planning and action, and Dion had been too preoccupied with refurbishing his tarnished record on the environment to link today’s Liberals with the Martin economic achievements. Dion simply did not recognize the value in the Liberal brand, and this was a major opportunity missed.

The flip side of the Liberals’ missed opportunity on economic positioning was the Green Shift debacle. Whether designed as a key campaign differentiater or as the way for Stéphane Dion to reclaim his green credentials, the Green Shift was a disaster from the start — hopelessly complex, impossible to explain and easy to caricature. It was also based on a complete misreading of initial reaction to the February 2008 British Columbia budget. At the time, the media and environmental interest groups collectively nominated BC’s treasurer, Carole Taylor, for virtual sainthood for bringing in Canada’s first carbon tax. But by the time the first tranche of gasoline and diesel tax increases actually took effect on July 1, BC residents considered it insult to injury on top of rapidly rising energy prices, and they were not amused.

After the Green Shift was released in June, Dion and his caucus took it on the road for the summer barbecue circuit, but the reviews were bad.

After the Green Shift was released in June, Dion and his caucus took it on the road for the summer barbecue circuit, but the reviews were bad. Liberal MPs could not explain it quickly and efficiently, and began to complain publicly that the plan wouldn’t fly. In addition, the more people looked at the plan, the more its claim of revenue neutrality wilted under the scrutiny. It came to be seen as a massive income redistribution scheme not only from energy-producing provinces to other parts of the country, but also from energy consumers to the Liberals’ favourite social programs. At the end of the summer, Dion was forced by his caucus to amend the plan, which unfortunately only made it more complicated and harder to explain.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, had long since taken the key steps necessary to pre-position the campaign from their perspective. Earlier, and with an eye to the coming campaign, they had refreshed their advertising “not a leader” tag line by adding “not worth the risk.” And now, over the summer, they took on the Green Shift as a “tax on everything,” casting further doubts on the Liberal leader’s judgment and capacity. Again, the publicly expressed doubts of Liberal MPs about its saleability and the concerns of Liberal premiers and provincial cabinet ministers added welcome validation both before and during the campaign.

The Prime Minister and his government also had a more than decent record on which to run. A new Conservative brand was emerging, featuring sound economic management, attention to consumer issues and safety, more peaceful times in the federation and tough measures on criminal justice. Taxes had been lowered for the typical family by more than $3,000 per year, the national debt had been paid down by nearly $40 billion and the economy had created more than 800,000 net new jobs. And with storm clouds gathering, the record on the economy played directly into the Prime Minister’s preferred ballot question, “Who do you trust to lead the country in uncertain economic times?”

The policy approaches taken by the two parties during the campaign were as different as chalk and cheese.

The Liberals’ approach was captured perfectly by the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson in his review of their platform the day after its release:

Take a breath. Here comes a long list. An Advanced Manufacturing Prosperity Fund. A Small Communities Fund. A Green Fisheries and Transport Fund. A Regional Flexibility Fund. A Water Fund. A Green Farms Fund. An Interdisciplinary Sustainability Fund. An Educational Endowment Fund.A Low-Income Homes Retrofit Partnership Fund.A Doctors and Nurses Fund. A Gun Violence and Gang Prevention Fund. A Canada-South Asia Trade Foundation. Those are just the “funds.” There are also lots of “strategies” and “summits” and “studies” in the Liberal Party’s election platform released yesterday.

The Liberal platform document was notable on several additional counts.

First, this was a platform for a party running from inside government, not from the outside. Its proposals were expressed almost entirely in bureaucratic, technocratic and programmatic terms. The document read like a memorandum to cabinet without the communications plan. It was pitched at broad sociological and sectoral management issues, as opposed to the everyday problems of average Canadians.

Second, it was based on the tried-and-true Liberal approach to government — overtax the people by billions and then dole out the money to support myriad social and economic engineering schemes. And there was our old friend national universal child care being promised once again — for the seventh straight time in a Liberal platform!

Third, the platform was overtaken by events. Whatever appetite there might have been in the country for the traditional Liberal approach when the platform was put together in the late summer, by the time it was launched in the campaign, the US financial sector was already in ruins and global capital markets were beginning to look shaky. By the time another 10 days had passed, the thought of $50 billion in new federal spending had passed “doubtful” and was heading for “I don’t think so.”

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were taking an entirely different approach to campaign policy. From the beginning of the campaign, the Prime Minister acted to lower policy expectations, serving notice that his platform would feature minimalist promises and that all specifics would be “modest, targeted, realistic and affordable.” And while the Liberals were still thinking in vast programmatic terms, the Conservatives were focusing on subgroups in the wider population — entrepreneurial new Canadians, urban dwellers concerned about crime, upwardly mobile exurbanites, the families of people with disabilities, soccer moms, truck drivers and the folks who stop for coffee at Tim’s on the way to work every day.

From the beginning of the campaign, the Prime Minister acted to lower policy expectations, serving notice that his platform would feature minimalist promises and that all specifics would be “modest, targeted, realistic and affordable.”

This was not an approach dreamed up for the campaign; indeed, it had informed many of the government’s initiatives of the previous two and a half years. The $1,000 tax credit for work-related expenses, the $500 tradesperson tax deduction for tools, pension income splitting and the increased meal allowance tax exemption for long-haul truckers were all designed to send a simple message from the government: “We know you’re out there. We know you’re struggling. Here’s something practical that will help.”

This approach may have complicated the Income Tax Act as the critics complained, but the Conservatives believed it was a much more effective way of connecting with voters. During its time in office, the government had also applied populist principles to a variety of consumer issues, by banning various toxic chemicals, promising tougher product safety legislation and creating new truth-in-labelling requirements for food products labelled “Product of Canada” and “Made in Canada.”

Now in the campaign, the Conservatives built on these approaches with additional tightly targeted initiatives — the two-cent-per-litre reduction in the excise tax on diesel, income splitting for caregivers of family members with disabilities, the tax credit for first-time homebuyers and access to EI parental benefits for self-employed Canadians. Once again, the differences with the Liberal platform were striking: programs versus people.

The most important point about campaign strategy is to have one, and the second most important point is deciding whether to stick to it or change direction when disaster strikes or unforeseen events threaten to push you off course. Both of these elements were on display during the recent campaign.

Strategically, the Liberal campaign faced some major challenges from the start. It began with a campaign plane that mysteriously arrived several days late, and limped through the first three weeks amid sparse crowds in largely Liberal-held seats. Only after internal threatening and public complaining was the leader convinced that he might need the help of his front-bench team, and Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff joined the national tour.

The Green Shift was a continuing problem for the Liberals throughout the campaign. It was already not selling on the doorsteps and at all-candidates meetings, but Dion remained convinced he could sell it successfully. At several points in the campaign, Liberal organizers asked the national tour group not to send the leader to their region if that was all he was going to talk about, because he was demonstrably driving their numbers down. At the urging of advisers, Dion deep-sixed the Green Shift at one point, but then it popped back up toward the end, to the dismay of many candidates and organizers.

The only bright spot in the campaign for the Liberals was the leaders’ debates. In a sense, perhaps the Conservatives’ framing of Dion had been a bit too effective. They had driven expectations so low that when he put in a decent performance, people were pleasantly surprised and he came out of the debates with a positive bump in support.

The only bright spot in the campaign for the Liberals was the leaders’ debates.

For the Conservatives, the challenge to the strategic game plan was responding to two unforeseen events — the mid-campaign meltdown of their support in Quebec and the deepening global financial crisis.

The details of the arts and culture cuts and their impact on Conservative support in Quebec are well known and have been documented at length. Suffice it to say that a series of minuscule expenditure reductions made pre-writ by the government had totally unintended consequences in Quebec. The cuts touched a third rail that exists only in that province — the constellation of arts and culture, language and identity, values and community — that was skilfully exploited by Gilles Duceppe to huge advantage. The government was unable to either explain the cuts or change course. Lost along with the potential Conservative majority was all the painstaking groundwork the PM had done to reach out to Quebec, not to mention the opportunity to deliver a kill shot to the Bloc. In tennis, they call this an “unforced error.”

It’s a truism of election campaigns in Western democracies that the leader who does the best job of framing the ballot question gains a distinct advantage on voting day. The Prime Minister kicked off the election with a ballot question focused on strong and proven leadership in uncertain economic times. His approach was to contrast his economic management credentials against Stéphane Dion’s shaky leadership record and risky Green Shift.

For the first three weeks of the campaign, this proposition worked well for the Conservatives, even being reinforced by the sub-prime shakeout of Wall Street mergers and bailouts in the United States. But during debate week, the liquidity crisis went global, and almost overnight the ballot question flipped against the Prime Minister. In response to widespread public fear and apprehension about jobs, homes and retirement savings, Harper’s message that “the economic fundamentals are strong because we anticipated and took steps” was neatly turned by Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton into “Don’t worry, be happy,” and the PM was tagged with an “empathy deficit.”

Harper’s strategic dilemma was heightened by what happened during the debates. Because the Conservatives had asked that the debate format be changed to allow for more time on the growing crisis, the Liberals were convinced that Harper would come with a plan. So they quickly cobbled together their own plan that Dion could use in defence. It was pretty rudimentary, and pretty pedestrian, but when the PM did not reveal a plan of his own during the debates, Dion gained a momentary advantage.

As a result, Harper was challenged during the last week of the campaign to detail a plan to address a crisis whose actual future dimensions were known to no one. At the same time, he had to walk the fine line between acknowledging there could be significant economic fallout for Canada, thereby talking down his own economy, and sounding unmoved by people’s fears and concerns. This likely turned out to be the defining moment in the final week of the campaign. The Prime Minister stood his ground, refused to be panicked from his game plan, and quickly found the words to reconnect with voters concerned about their personal economic future. He finished with strong economic messages and the polls showed him picking up a point a night at the expense of the Liberals over the final three or four days of the campaign.

Whether the 2008 election was a watershed event will not be known for some time. It may turn out to have been the next logical step in the Conservatives’ inexorable march toward replacing the Liberals as the natural governing party of Canada. It may also become known as the election in which an accidental and out-of-his-depth leader simply delayed his party’s inevitable return to office.

We will all learn the answers to these questions over the next decade.