Why go long on this campaign?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at Rideau Hall August 2, 2015 to ask the Governor General to call a general election.

But the Conservatives didn’t have to drop the election writs to exploit their financial advantage.  Before the writs there were no limits at all.  The wealthier Conservative Party could (and did) spend massively and without limit, before the writ period.  Why not just continue to spend, spend, spend all summer and fall without a writ?  Why call an election now and immediately trigger election finance caps?

If finance rules are part of the decision, then it must be the small print that matters to the Conservatives, not the fact they can spend the limit and others maybe can’t.  So, what’s in the small print?

For one, after an election is called, it isn’t just the spending of political parties that is capped; third party spending is capped as well.  An early election call effectively turns down the volume on third party critics of the government.  It makes it harder for Working Families Coalition (a Liberal Party aligned, union funded activist group) and others to bash Harper.

And second, although the election law says parties can raise and spend more money in a longer election period, it doesn’t say when they have to spend it.  This election, parties will be able to spend double what they could in a 36 day writ period.  But there’s no rule saying they have to start spending it today.

Expect the parties that can, which means the Conservatives, to hang onto their advertising cash as long as possible so they can carpet-bomb voters in the critical decision-making weeks just before the election.

They can also use paid media “on-call” to drown out bad news when and if it happens: from the Senator Mike Duffy trial, for instance.  Of course, they could do that before a writ is dropped too.  So, if this is a consideration, the only benefit to an early call is to allow them to spend more in the last 36 days of the race.

But the big reason for an early election call may be non-financial.

It’s possible the Prime Minister feels now that the campaign is underway and the press gallery divides up to follow the leaders, it will be possible to draw Canadians’ attention away from Ottawa, where only bad news happens. He can be doing announcements and appearances in Kamloops, B.C., or St. John’s, Newfoundland, for example, when the Duffy trial resumes.  There’s only so much time in the news hour and so much space in the newspaper, so the more he and other leaders can draw away from bad news stories, the better for him.

Harper is comfortable on the campaign trail.  It could also be that he simply wants to be on the ground, in the race, on the hustings right now –  fighting this election from the front and with a clear focus, rather than trying to campaign while governing at the same time.