27 March 2014

Talking about Change… #nlpoli

As you recover from what is hopefully the last big storm of the 2014 winter season, cast yourself in the role of Conservative party strategist for a second and think of what you might do.

Just to help you get your head in the right place, let’s go over the situation.

Virginia Waters is the seat recently vacated by Kathy Dunderdale.  She’s held it solidly for the Conservatives since 2003.  The seat is in what used to be very safe Conservative territory. 

The Conservative candidate in the current by-election is a well-known, well-respected, and able fellow.  Danny Breen is the candidate the Conservatives worked on very hard to abandon his plans for municipal politics and make the leap into provincial politics.

In 2011, the Conservatives tanked in St. John’s, losing all but two of the seats they had formerly swept with comfortable majorities.  The seats went to the New Democrats, who had climbed in the polls afterward but who are now tanking themselves.  The Conservative voters who defected to the NDP have now largely defected to the Liberals.

The Conservatives need to win back votes in metro St. John’s.  They need to hang onto Virginia Waters as part of their efforts to recover from a couple of years of political disaster.

Then there are the polls.  The most recent polls are all fairly consistent.  The Liberals are riding high, with the Conservatives at about 20% of respondents. The most recent MQO poll – released on Wednesday by NTV – puts the Liberals at 37% with the Conservatives at 19%.  The NDP are back in their usual territory at around seven percent. The most recent Corporate Research Associates poll was about the same.  A telephone poll taken the night Dunderdale quit politics put the Liberals and the Conservative sin a dead heat with the NDP a distant third.

So what do you do with this by-election?

Well, the local candidate is undoubtedly polling ahead of the party and the current leader. The party has not been able to get any traction with the public for anything over the past year or more.  Backtracking on everything under the sun just hasn’t lifted the Conservatives at all in any poll.

It would be a smart idea to run the candidate as the prominent feature of the campaign.  If he’s polling better than the party, it would make sense to run with your strength and, in this case, the candidate is clearly a strength.     

Interestingly enough, that is exactly the opposite of what the Conservatives are doing. The campaign launch on Tuesday is a case in point.  Danny Breen’s speech was a photocopy of all the existing Conservative messaging that has been so spectacularly unsuccessful over the past couple of  years.  On everything from public finance to Muskrat Falls, the speech Breen read recited the Conservative gospel and praised the glorious leadership of the guy who will be quitting politics as soon as Frank Coleman is ready to run in the by-election. The Conservatives have done great things and we need to keep things the same as they are.

And rather than promoting Breen as a candidate who brings change,  Breen’s website talks up his time as a municipal politician.  In another context that might make sense, but in this case, it seems to reinforce the idea that Breen is all about the past.  Breen is not the sign of renewal and the future,  coupled with a new leader who showed up at his campaign launch. 

Far from it.

Both Breen and Coleman are not about change – renewal – as much as they are continuing things for the Conservatives just as they are.  That’s why Danny Williams and his associates picked Frank Coleman as their candidate to replace Kathy Dunderdale.  And that’s the same reason why Williams picked Kathy Dunderdale as his candidate to replace him as Premier.

The Conservatives may talk a lot about change, but they just don’t do anything differently.

Given that this strategy has been so spectacularly unsuccessful since 2010, it’s hard to understand why Conservatives think it will work in Virginia Waters.  That’s too bad, really because Danny Breen is a very good candidate and he had a shot at winning this seat.  Emphasis on the “had”.   With every passing day, they seem less and less likely to win in Virginia Waters.  You won’t be the candidate of the future if all you talk about is the past.