The campaign has been under way 47 days, but despite ads, photo ops, policy announcements and candidates knocking on doors, national polls still have the race in a three-way statistical tie. For example, the most recent Nanos nightly poll has NDP and Liberals each with 31 per cent support and, Conservatives with 29 per cent—all within the margin of error of each other. In a campaign still too close to call, what can explain this political dead heat?

Polls continue to show a close race, but also a sizeable undecided voting block—which in part explains why no major party has pulled away from the others. However, it is also true that there is relatively little policy divergence between parties, and so their main challenge has been to distinguish themselves and their leader from challengers. This week, we saw parties and leaders focus their efforts on doing so, and Thursday’s debate on the economy provided one of the best opportunities to date for leaders to set themselves apart in this competitive campaign.

Conservatives shift frame

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was clearly buoyed by Monday morning’s announcement that the federal government had returned to surplus. The news perfectly suited the subtle shift the Conservatives chose to make in their appeal to voters. As evidenced in the visuals surrounding the prime minister at campaign events, the Conservatives’ branding and signage changed from promoting “Proven Leadership” to asking voters to “Protect Our Economy.” While both messages are designed to counter voters’ desire for change, the switch in emphasis from Harper’s competence to risks posed by other parties’ policies is an important one. This revised message also helps keep the focus on the economy and off issues like Syria, as Conservatives’ policy decisions on the refugee crisis have been widely condemned by critics and pundits— though if the polls are to be believed, not by the public.

NDP lays out economic credentials

The NDP used a budget-style lock-up to roll out the full costing of its campaign promises on Wednesday, trying to demonstrate to voters how it will keep the budget in surplus. While some may argue whether the NDP’s document was fulsome enough, or question individual numbers, the bigger message to voters was that the NDP intends to be modest in its approach to change. These new promises will cost a total of $37 billion over four years—approximately half the amount of spending increases the NDP campaigned on in 2011. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair knows his strength is that voters see him as competent, and his challenge is that many still reject the party’s traditional economic brand—its economic platform was designed to address that perceived weakness.

This was also evidenced this week when the Leap Manifesto was published. Written by activist-author Naomi Klein and her film-maker husband Avi Lewis, the leftist economic document received support from a number of prominent social democrats. The NDP, however, moved quickly to distance itself from the manifesto and dampen its supporters’ expectations on the level of change they can expect to see on energy and environmental policy.

Liberals keep it simple ahead of the debate

Having already made the most distinguishing campaign policy announcement—a plan to stimulate the economy through infrastructure spending that will result in federal deficits for three years—Liberals did not make any further shifts in approach this week. They continue to highlight their record and experience and on Sunday, the party showcased former prime minister Jean Chrétien at a campaign event in Hamilton. The location was unlikely a coincidence. Hamilton was solidly red during Chrétien’s time in office, but shifted to orange and blue afterwards. These are the kinds of ridings Liberals will need to win back if they are to form government.

Justin Trudeau sharing the stage with seasoned-politician Jean Chrétien is a useful visual tool for the Liberals to address one of their main challenges. Confident that enough voters like their policy approach, Liberals know some Canadians remain apprehensive about Trudeau as a leader. Putting Trudeau in the same frame as an established leader like Chrétien, or Paul Martin like they did earlier in the campaign, helps ease these concerns.

Globe and Mail’s debate on the economy

Harper, Mulcair and Trudeau were given a chance to directly appeal to voters and question their opponents during Thursday’s Globe and Mail debate on the economy in Calgary. The debate was broadcast on CPAC (with an estimated 60,000 viewers) and streamed on YouTube (with over 300,000 views)—organizers anticipating that with modern-day social communications, the larger shared audience would hear about the debate from friends or media.

The debate was important for all three parties and their leaders. Trudeau—who exceeded expectations in the Maclean’s debate—is still seen by some as the least competent leader on the economic file, and therefore was under more pressure to perform. Mulcair headed into the debate needing to redefine the public’s view of the NDP’s ability to manage the economy—a misstep could have seriously affected his party’s electoral fortunes. For Harper, many felt he needed to have a strong performance to help “reset” the Conservative campaign and capitalize on momentum picked up over the past week.

In a wide-ranging debate that touched on the refugee crisis, the housing bubble, child care, the long-form census and security threats, much of the sparring on the economy focused on the question of whether the country should return to deficit spending. Harper, with six successive years of deficits, continued his criticism of the Liberals for wanting to run deficits, while Trudeau defended his plans. To round out the debate, Mulcair continued to criticize the Conservative economic plan, defended his surprisingly similar economic platform promising no deficits.

The fast-paced debate was at times difficult to follow. Because the parties have similar policy positions, this debate was about leadership as much as it was about economic policy—leaders’ tone and presentation was as important as the substantive discussion. General consensus is that Mulcair had a strong performance (and a significant improvement over the August debate), Harper projected a calm, steady presence, while Trudeau was feisty, but at times frenetic—not meeting expectations he exceeded in the August debate.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May was not invited to the debate, but tweeted videos of her own responses to some of the questions and exchanges to get her message out to supporters and journalists. While she generated some media coverage, it was mostly about her tactics rather than her actual message.

In the end, it is unlikely that any of the debate performances will particularly hurt or help any of the leaders—perhaps leaving us in the same place that we started: major leaders running neck-and-neck in the race for public support, and particularly, the NDP and Liberals fighting over those voters who want “change.”

A game of inches

While each party leader’s broad positioning and debate performance remain very important, in a race as tight as this one appears to be, so are the little steps each party takes that are often under-reported in the media. This is perhaps the most micro-targeted campaign in Canadian history and we have some great examples this week of how each party will focus on trying to gain small blocks of voters. For instance, each party targeted senior voters this week, but in very different ways.

Conservatives made a specific appeal to single and widowed seniors by offering them their very own tax credit. Liberals went after low-income seniors by promising to return the age of eligibility to 65 for Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), while boosting GIS for single, low-income seniors by 10 per cent. The NDP chose to focus on seniors with health concerns by promising to invest in home care for an additional 41,000 seniors and helping provinces build 5,000 more nursing home beds.

It is unclear what the impact of these announcements will be, but in a tight election, a few small, targeted policies combined with good voter-identification and get-out-the-vote effort can mean the difference between winning and losing tight ridings. We should always keep in mind that these types of campaign moves often register on Election Day, but not in the polls leading up to it.

What’s coming up?

While some may have seen Thursday’s debate as the most important one, the significance of next Thursday’s French language debate cannot be underestimated. This is particularly true for the Liberals and NDP. Next Thursday’s debate will be on multiple major French language stations, so it promises a larger audience of actual viewers than this week’s debate. Historically, the province of Quebec also has interesting voting patterns compared to the rest of Canada.

Voters in Quebec are much more likely to vote against one party than for another. As a result, we have seen the Quebec population willing to make significant swings in voting patterns, such as voting for the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) in 2007 or the NDP in 2011. If Liberals can manage to persuade the large contingent of Quebeckers who want change that they are the party to end the Conservatives’ time in power, we could see a very significant shift in the race. The NDP knows this and will be fiercely protective of its hard-won support in the province.

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