A familiar part of the ritual of modern state elections is the morning-after debate over what it all means for the federal government. According to circumstance, federal leaders will claim the result to have been “overwhelmingly something decided on state issues” (copyright John Howard from the morning after Labor came to power in WA at the 2001 election), or a “referendum” on the federal government (Tony Abbott, passim).

To at least some extent, state elections cannot fail to be influenced by federal factors. Modern federal-state relations being as they are, accurately assigning responsibility for outcomes is hard enough work even for the few who are aware how policy responsibilities are allocated in the constitution. For the rest, there is a natural inclination to fall back on affective responses to party labels which are heavily influenced by perceptions of the federal sphere.

However, it’s equally clear that federal factors loom a lot larger at some state elections than others. Whereas Neville Wran was famously able to lead Labor to power in New South Wales at federal Labor’s low ebb of 1976, Wayne Goss could credibly complain that voters had been waiting “on their verandahs with baseball bats” for the Keating government after he copped an unexpected whack at the Queensland election of 1995.

Two weeks out the March 9 Western Australian election, Labor leader Mark McGowan would have a good idea of how Goss was feeling.

Despite some missteps, such as last week’s muddled half-promise to rearrange the government’s Swan River foreshore development, McGowan has overseen a campaign whose basic strategy offers a model to beleaguered oppositions seeking to take up the challenge to ascendant governments.

In proposing a $3.8 billion expansion of Perth’s rail network, Labor smartly tied Liberal weaknesses (traffic congestion, a broken rail line promise from the last election, and a sense of the Premier being detached from everyday concerns) and Labor strengths (its delivery of successful major rail projects when previously in office) into a single message that it forcefully communicated through well-crafted television spots. The Labor campaign has also done as well as could be hoped in building McGowan’s undercooked public profile, helped in some degree by his clear win in last week’s leaders debate.

A measure of the campaign’s accomplishment was provided by a Galaxy poll in yesterday’s Sunday Times which had McGowan trailing Colin Barnett by just 6% as preferred premier, essentially confirming the recent Newspoll result which had it at 4%. These are strong numbers for an opposition leader in any circumstance, and substantially better than Barnett was doing against Alan Carpenter before he won the 2008 election.

However, this cheering result for Labor was marred by the small matter of voting intention, on which the poll had the Liberal and National parties on 50% of the primary vote for a resounding two-party preferred lead of 56-44. This points to a swing against Labor of 4%, which sits well with the fierce ground campaign observable in seats with Labor margins of up to 7%.

Neither side is in any doubt as to the main source of lead in Labor’s saddlebags. As Labor advertising explicitly implores voters to stay focused on state issues, not just the Prime Minister but the entire cabinet has been told to keep its distance during the campaign. Party sources quoted in The Sunday Times congratulated Stephen Smith for his “fantastic” work in enforcing a ban on ministerial visits, with the few that couldn’t be avoided (by Bill Shorten, Penny Wong and Anthony Albanese) kept purposefully short and low-profile.

Sadly for Labor, that didn’t stop the recent series of damaging headlines for the Gillard government intruding at exactly the time the state campaign had counted on getting its message across.

Most worrying of all for Labor is the likelihood that its campaign fortunes have already peaked. The strategy of going early with advertising and major policy announcements may have allowed Labor to seize the initiative, but it has left it without the means to match a looming blitz by a Liberal Party that has largely kept its powder dry.

The West Australian today reports the combined ad spend by Labor and the unions has so far come in at over $1 million (albeit that not all union advertising has been expressly election-related), compared with just $115,000 for the Liberal Party.

With donations to Labor having run at less than half those of the Liberal Party in the previous financial year, it is clear Labor will face a stiff challenge getting heard over airwaves awash with Liberal advertising in the crucial period between now and polling day.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated the Liberal Party’s ad spend as $115 million — the actual amount is $115,000.