Parties gearing up for battle post-Labour Day

As we reach the end of the campaign’s first stage, we see the three main parties locked in a classic standoff—each carefully considering its moves and countermoves to account for its opponents’ attacks.

Every move the leaders make is assessed and analyzed both for its impact on the election and in the wider Canadian context. Strategists try to look two moves ahead, but external factors and false moves shift the nature of the game. No party has been able to break away from the others in polls and advance its standing without an attack from all fronts—nor has any party been able to afford to back off its opponents.

EARLY DAYS AND EMERGING POSITIONING

Though some may have expected the two opposition parties to co-operate and concentrate their fire on the incumbent Harper Conservatives—who spent this first stage on the defensive over Duffy—this campaign has not played out that way.

What we have seen in the past four weeks is Harper and Trudeau taking shots at Mulcair; Mulcair and Trudeau taking shots at Harper; and, Harper and Mulcair taking shots at Trudeau.

But, last week something changed. Conservatives and NDP landed on the same fiscal policy page, while Liberals carved out a different position on the deficit. The result? NDP poll numbers dropped slightly, while Liberal numbers climbed slightly. No party moved very far—all three continue to hover around 30-per-cent approval. The standoff we saw in the opening of the campaign’s first stage has evolved into somewhat of a draw, or even a stalemate. Canadians are split on which party is best to lead the next Parliament, with no standout leader in the polls just yet.

A NO-DUFF MIDDLEGAME

The stalemate may be short-lived, however. As Canadians pack up the cottage and head back to school and work, only 43 per cent of decided voters are certain of their vote choice—according to Ipsos. Among voters’ second choices, most are split between NDP (24 per cent) and Liberals (25 per cent). These second-choice preferences suggest that the NDP and Liberals have the most room to grow, while the Conservatives are the second choice for only nine per cent of voters. Harper’s team, therefore, must be concerned about its limited room for growth.

With the Duffy trial paused, Conservatives can go back to playing to their strengths on fiscal policy. Harper’s team has weathered the Duffy trial and positioned itself exactly where it wants: able to push forward with its narrative on Harper’s strong economic record while leveraging senior members like Jason Kenney to highlight the $8-billion hole in the NDP’s spending plan. The Conservative’s challenge is to avoid distraction—be it from a refugee crisis or other external events.

Meanwhile, the NDP surprised its base with a right-leaning fiscal platform and positioned itself where it wants to be. The team can continue to profile Andrew Thomson’s fiscal credentials and move forward on social policy announceables leading up to a fully costed platform release later this month. Mulcair’s biggest challenge until the full NDP platform is released will be to justify the affordability of every announcement he makes. Instead of detailing social policy platforms, Mulcair will be forced to answer questions on what promises could cost and what is being traded off—as we saw earlier this week when the NDP announced a children’s physical fitness tax credit. Mulcair will have to be disciplined and stay focused on his message.

The Liberals have kept their options flexible by offering Canadians the choice of running a deficit, and may be in an ideal outpost position. Trudeau is exceeding expectations in this campaign. He opened with the opportunity to attack both the Conservative and NDP fiscal policies, while announcing major spends with relative impunity. This week’s policy announcement on the largest infrastructure spend in Canadian history could be just a teaser of the Liberals’ grand-spending priorities. Trudeau’s challenge is to persuade voters that national debt and deficits are not “dirty words” —as National Post’s John Ivison aptly wrote—and that his spending plans are part of a long-term strategy with short-term pay-off for Canadians. The Liberals may be taking a risk, but their fiscal policy position is likely well-researched—possibly demonstrating that Canadians who are comfortable with personal debt may not be afraid of federal deficits

EXTERNAL EVENTS AND THIRD PARTIES IMPACTING OUTCOME?

No matter how the leaders position themselves, they cannot control how events and third parties shift the focus on key issues.

As we have seen this week, an event that captures the nation’s attention outside of the campaign can prove to be difficult for parties and leaders to manage. The Syrian refugee crisis would not have been an issue that the parties anticipated having to react to on the campaign trail, but the leaders will now be judged by the public on both their reaction and their substantive plan for refugee settlement. However, it’s too soon to know what the lasting impact of this week’s developments will be on parties’ electoral fortunes.

Additionally, the impact of third-party groups could change the dynamic of the campaign if these groups are able to influence voters’ interests. Leaders may need to be cautious here, too.

Advocacy groups, labour unions and membership-based associations are promoting their interests on social and traditional media—but without significant traction, the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals may turn a blind eye. The issue leading the conversation is “change.”

If any third parties are able to push their issues and generate the attention required to force party leaders to move on policy, it could be Leadnow’s Vote Together or the Canadian Veterans’ Anyone but Conservatives campaigns—both tracking well in social and mainstream media. The past week, the Assembly of First Nations launched Close the Gap to campaign for its 2015 election priorities, which might generate traction on social media and further influence NDP and Liberal party commitments. Notably, of the 48 third-party groups registered with Elections Canada, none are business-oriented groups.

It is interesting to note the lack of traction health has had in social and traditional media, despite the issue polling at the top of Canadians’ priority list. Earlier this week, H+K’s Michelle McLean tackled the issue head-on with her insight, Can we make health a federal priority again? While there are seven registered third-party groups focused on health care, only the Canadian Medical Association’s Demand a Plan campaign has been able to generate any traction in social and mainstream media.

WHAT TO EXPECT AFTER LABOUR DAY

Regardless of where external pressures stem from, Canadians can expect to see more partisan attacks coupled with more announcements on key policy issues as the campaign heats up post-Labour Day.

The parties will work harder to differentiate themselves by highlighting their policies and platforms, while leaders will further try to distinguish their personalities. All three parties will continue to run their national campaigns, but their regional campaigns will increasingly take shape and become priority—specifically in Quebec and Alberta. In Quebec, the Liberals and the NDP will leverage stimulus spending to entice voters; meanwhile in Alberta, the NDP is faced with the challenge of a provincial NDP government running a deficit and a voting base that is deficit-wary. Regardless, regional preferences are likely to come into sharper focus over the coming weeks. Curiously, the Liberal party introduced a new campaign tactic this past week by announcing riding-specific funding in its nation-wide infrastructure plan. Could this become a new strategy for all parties going forward?

With six weeks left, the election outcome is still impossible to predict. The parties are well-balanced and strongly positioned—it’s still anyone’s game.