Connecting with and solidifying the party base

Last week’s campaign launch and debate organized by Maclean’s magazine made for an active first week of the campaign. This week, the campaigns returned to more traditional early-election pace: leaders tours, connecting with their base of support and solidifying those votes. Even the testimony of the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright at Senator Mike Duffy’s trial did not divert campaigns from the key goal of solidifying the campaign base.

Conservatives setting the pace

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a string of campaign promises this week focused on what the Conservative party sees as its pillars of strength: the economy and security. While some may have expected a slow policy roll-out, given how many announcements were made prior to the election coupled with the length of the campaign, the Conservatives have been eager to get out ahead of the other parties. Announcements—including travel bans to terrorist-held areas, support for ethnic groups that are threatened by ISIS and increased funding for the war on drugs—are all intended to reassure families that a Conservative government will keep them safe. Increasing the limits on RRSP withdrawals to pay for one’s first home is another Conservative policy, like the increase to the Universal Child Care Benefit, which targets younger families.

The Conservatives also have a ministerial tour that is orchestrated to shore up the support the party has gained in government. This includes Minister of National Defence Jason Kenney attending events organized by groups in Ukrainian-, Taiwanese- and Indian-Canadian communities.

NDP protecting its Quebec stronghold

For the New Democrats, the path to electoral victory starts in Quebec with NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair focused on protecting those votes earned in 2011 during the early stages of the campaign. Mulcair took a strong position that he would only participate in an equal number of debates in each of the official languages. While initially it looked like this was a risky move that could cost him vital opportunities to connect with voters, the gambit appears to have paid off as debate organizers made accommodations—the Munk Centre’s debate on foreign policy will now have elements in both French and English.

Mulcair took another important step in helping him maintain seats in Quebec when the powerful 600,000-member Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ) union declared it would support local NDP candidates in ridings where they have the best chance to beat the Conservatives. FTQ has supported the Bloc Québécois in every election, going back to 1993.

Liberals looking to build momentum

While the consensus in the media was that last week’s debate had no clear winner, in the short term, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appears to be benefiting the most in polls following the debate. The Liberals are using its leader’s personal popularity to draw in large crowds for campaign events—competing with the NDP for the groups of voters that have clearly decided they want change in this election. Trudeau’s announcement yesterday in Saskatoon that the Liberals would provide an additional $2.7 billion in funding over four years for First Nations education is a good example of its targeting.

Polls confirm it should be competitive

National poll figures released this week placed the three major parties close together, at around 30 per cent support for each. An average of the polls shows the NDP in the lead with roughly 33 per cent, the Conservatives nearer 30, and the Liberals making up some ground with approximately 28 per cent support. Of course, the national figures don’t reveal the whole picture. A Nanos Research poll found the Conservatives have moved into a substantial lead in Ontario with 37 per cent support in the province—which means the Liberals at 29 per cent and the NDP at 26 per cent have a lot of work to do in the voter-rich province.

Premiers continue to weigh in

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne continued her ongoing feud with Prime Minister Harper in the media regarding the federal government’s lack of support in implementing the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. But Wynne was far from the only current or former premier that wants to have a say in the election’s outcome. If this trend continues, approaching provincial governments may be a useful tactic for third parties that feel their issues are being left out of the conversation.

Out west, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was clear that continued natural resource development is important for his province’s economy. Wall has also commented that ‘have-not’ provinces were getting too much money in equalization payments. Yesterday, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant blamed federal government policies for his province’s high unemployment rates.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest re-affirmed the common belief that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks are a major election issue. Charest stated Canada cannot afford to be left out of any deal and pointed to how the issue divides the agricultural sector as a source of potential political repercussions. We expect a ministerial meeting to take place mid-election—so this debate will surely heat up again.

Third parties picking their opportunities

Due to strict limits in the amount of money that third parties can spend on advertising during the campaign, many groups are looking for when will be the best time to spend their limited ad dollars. The public service union sponsored ads that filled the airwaves in late July with messages about funding cuts that have dried up; and most other third-party groups are keeping their powder dry for now.

Wright/Duffy and other exercises in spin-control

While it’s too early to tell what the effect of Nigel Wright’s testimony this week will be on support for the Conservative party, it is clear that all parties are extremely concerned that outside or unplanned events do not overtake scheduled narratives. The Conservatives knew for months that Wright’s testimony was coming so the party factored that into its election calculus to be well-prepared; but parties are also acting very swiftly to address unplanned problems with their own candidates. Both the NDP and Conservatives dropped candidates this week when troubling past comments or actions became public. The message is clear: parties will do whatever it takes to protect their brands.

What’s coming up?

Global events may start to play more of a role in the campaign as the continued drop in oil prices will affect the Canadian economy. It has been reported that U.S. President Barack Obama may delay a decision on Keystone XL until after the election, which presents the potential to focus the discussion even more on getting Canadian oil to market. Obama is also more actively discussing climate change, which may move the conversation in Canada. Lastly, we expect that the NDP and Liberals will be making adjustments to their schedules to make more specific and costed policy announcements in August, given the string of activity by the Conservatives in that regard.