Four different national polls show a continued decline in NDP support, turning this campaign into a two-party race—at least for the moment. After a strong start, the NDP is starting to slip behind the pack. Polls are snapshots in time, and with 18 days left, the key to unlock this race remains with the block of undecided voters. Polls also reflect what voters intend to do, not what they actually will do—this is where seat counts come into play. After this election, there will be 338 seats in the House of Commons. A party needs to win 170 seats to form a majority. Presently, CBC’s poll tracker projects the Conservative party will win a minority government with 128 seats if the election were held today, requiring another 42 to form a majority. So, the race continues.

National polls will tell a different story than regional polls, and regional polls will be different than what party polling shows. Federal parties have come a long way in tracking their supporters at a local level and use more sophisticated tracking to mobilize supportive voters. Armed with iPads canvassing door-to-door, voter information is stored and data is compiled for the Get out the Vote (GOV) effort for October 19.

The most influential debate

Politicos and media alike agreed that Monday’s Munk Centre debate was both substantive and well-orchestrated. Leaders defended their platforms and records on topics ranging from foreign aid, to military intervention, domestic security, climate change and trade. With few Canadians watching that night (only 25,000 viewing online and 3,000 attending in Toronto) many relied on what pundits say the following day—leaving it well open to interpretation.

It was clear that Trudeau exceeded expectations—picked by some as the winner—punching hard on most topics; meanwhile, it was apparent that Mulcair was less aggressive at times, trying to balance his position on key security and trade issues, and continue his centrist approach. Harper, on the other hand, defended his record and differentiated his approach to foreign policy issues. Attacks flew the most from Trudeau, but—unsurprisingly—Harper articulated the closest to a hawkish platform when it came to promoting military intervention and security measures to protect Canada.

In short: Harper defended his record as Mulcair tried to edge his way in, and Trudeau impressed with his passion and ability to steer the discussion to a debate around Canadian values. His performance contributed to gathering Liberal campaign momentum, while Mulcair’s performance did little to reverse the perception that his party’s campaign may be faltering. In the end, it’s clear the audience actually won this debate—their cheers and jeers kept leaders in check and on point.

Here were several important exchanges in the debate:

Trade

Canada’s manufacturing sectors were waiting anxiously to hear in-depth positions and analysis on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Discussions centred on Canada-U.S. relations (Keystone XL), past trade agreements (Korea, CETA, Colombia, Honduras) and vague commitments of support surrounding supply management.

Harper and Trudeau argued over which party has been more successful in negotiating trade agreements. One particular exchange noted the following:

Trudeau: “We need trade with the U.S., with countries around the world to actually grow our economy to create good jobs for Canadians. And the fact that Mr. Harper hasn’t been able to get it done on the big files…”

Harper retorted: “In fact, Mr. Trudeau, 99 per cent of the free trade access of this country has been created by Conservative governments.”

Mulcair worked exceptionally hard to counter the misperception that his party is against tradition. He said, “First of all, with regard to trade deals, it was a trade deal with Korea that was backed by the NDP, so Mr. Trudeau is inventing facts once again. When I was the minister, we had lots of debates, but the important thing to look at is what we decided, and I decided to shut the door because bulk water exports would have been a terrible idea…we made sure that we shut the door and we locked it tight.”

Climate change

Trudeau linked the environment and the economy, reiterating his green infrastructure platform, while Harper argued that Canada has succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in comparison to former Liberal governments, and has even led other countries to reduce them. Harper said, “And I am very optimistic. We have established targets very, very similar to our major partners. We’re working with the United States and others, particularly the United States on regulatory systems on greenhouse gas emissions, and I am very optimistic we will reach a historical accord in Paris this year.”

Military procurement

Not featured much, the topic was only brought up when Harper was asked about re-asserting Canadian sovereignty in the North. He pointed towards initial Canadian Forces Defence Strategy commitments—including the army training centre, purchases in the Air Force, the deep water port and the Canadian Rangers—that have made little progress since 2008.

In contrast, Trudeau noted that the North needs to be an issue with more leadership and investment, which is why he plans not to purchase the F-35 and will instead funnel money towards the Royal Canadian Navy.

TPP: Signed, sealed…and delivered?

Twelve countries, including Canada, are busy in Atlanta working to finalize the TPP agreement. Several insiders are cautiously optimistic that the agreement could be signed as early as today. Conservatives have lined up supportive stakeholders and have plenty of endorsements at the ready. If a deal is struck, Harper has said the agreement will only be signed if it’s good for Canada. He stated, “Look, there is always a reason to walk away from the table. There is always a reason to be against agreements. We will only sign a deal if it is in the interests of the Canadian economy, but we are going to sit at the table, and we’re going to make sure we’re there and that we advance and defend Canadian interests.”

TPP has been hotly contested by various sectors, in particular the dairy farmers and the auto industry. Much of the agreement has remained a secret, but Minister Fast says he will return from Atlanta to divulge information about the internal elements, which are sure to be debated by the other parties and stakeholders.

Shifting from policy to politics

The overall tone of this election campaign is visibly shifting from a focus on policy to the appeal for ‘trust.’ As federal parties begin to mobilize their supporters to vote, they recognize that Canadians are now determining who they trust, who cares about their issues and who reflects an approach that aligns with their self-interest. Federal parties are mobilizing supporters to demonstrate momentum through large-scale rallies and targeting their messages through social media.

Leading up to the election, the NDP was positioned to take Quebec for a second time in a row—but that support appears to be dwindling. Mulcair is known in politics for being aggressive and pointed, but in this campaign, he’s tried to emulate Layton’s steady and likeable personality that helped to win Quebec in 2011. Mulcair had often been admired for his tough and aggressive performance in the House of Commons, particularly by voters in British Columbia, but he’s showing a softer, statelier side which doesn’t seem to be resonating with voters. More important, the NDP has adopted a centrist approach rather than a left-of-centre approach to its policy platform. The traditional NDP supporter base has not held onto the soft Liberal supporters interested in change. These voters appear to be returning to the Liberal fold contributing to the Liberal growth in Quebec and Ontario.

So what’s next?

Tonight, voters can tune into the two-hour French-language debate being hosted by TVA. This debate in past elections has attracted a striking number of viewers in Quebec, providing leaders a chance to impact vote intentions.

A popular Quebec TV talk show, Tout le monde en parle, has announced that Mulcair, Trudeau and Duceppe will appear on the program before the end of the campaign. In 2011, the NDP credited their Quebec surge in part to Layton’s appearance on this show. Mulcair is expected to be on the show October 4 and Trudeau and Duceppe will appear October 11.

Advanced polls will open Thanksgiving weekend: October 9 to 12. All parties hope to solidify as many votes as possible on those early voting days.