Federal election lawn signs have begun to sprout now that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has fired the starting pistol on what will be a 78-day campaign, the longest in modern history.
The prime minister visited Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall Sunday morning to dissolve Parliament and begin the election set for Oct. 19.
The voting day had been fixed in legislation and party leaders had been in campaign mode for weeks, but dropping the writ this far ahead means spending limits will be in force for much longer than the typical 36 days.
That will give a financial advantage to Harper and the Conservatives, according to SFU political scientist Patrick Smith.
“They certainly have the largest war chest,” Smith said. “Money matters in politics.”
He predicts the Tories will far outspend their rivals and might be in a position to blitz advertising channels late in the campaign when NDP and Liberal coffers may be nearly exhausted.
A campaign more than twice the usual length means a spending limit twice as high – more than $50 million per party – that only the Tories have a realistic shot at fully exploiting.
“They have more money than the other parties so they can withstand a longer race.”
The early writ drop means third party advertising – such as union-funded anti-Tory attack ads by Engage Canada – will now be subject to a tight $200,000 spending limit, largely clamping down on their influence.
That was a key motivation for starting the campaign now rather than waiting, Smith said.
“It shuts up third party advertising and at the moment they see that as problematic.”
A long, financial war of attrition on the hustings could have ramifications beyond who actually wins the election.
Smith currently predicts a Conservative minority. In that scenario, he says, a cash-depleted or possibly indebted opposition will be less inclined to topple a minority Tory government and force a new election.
“They’re not likely to try to trigger an election in the first six months, so that helps stabilize a Conservative minority,” Smith said. “So people who think about the longer game will be thinking about those kinds of things.”
The longest campaign in more than a century will also mean higher costs to taxpayers.
Elections Canada’s costs will be higher to mobilize staff earlier.
And more spending than usual by the parties would translate into a higher government subsidy back to the them for use in future campaigns.
As for significant issues, Smith expects the federal push for new oil pipelines across B.C. will hurt the Conservatives in this province.
But he said the slowing economy will be the dominant issue on voters’ minds in deciding which party to support.
Another month of economic contraction could make a suspected recession official by September.
Smith isn’t sure that would necessarily be bad for the PM.
“If the economy is bad, do we have to stay with Harper because he’s the best man to manage it or does he get the blame?”
The bigger danger for Harper is that “once people start humming the change tune, it’s pretty hard to reverse it.”
For the Conservatives to win even a minority, the Tories may need the anti-Harper vote split as evenly as possible between the Liberals and NDP, Smith said, and many votes bled off by the Greens as well.
He thinks the Conservatives will struggle to hold onto their seats in B.C.and the Greens may take another seat or two from the NDP on Vancouver Island.
“These things could become more significant if we end up in a minority government with different permutations and combinations.”
VIDEO: Stephen Harper launches 11-week federal election campaign
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says most political parties have already started campaigning ahead of the October 19th federal election. Stephen Harper says officially launching the election forces the campaigns to be done within the rules (via The Canadian Press)