The nation is wondering if someone (anyone!) is leading this election horserace yet, but no one seems to know. Frankly, with the number of undecided, the polls may not yet be indicative of the vote result. Earlier this week, Nanos National Nightly Tracking told us it’s still a three-way race, while an Ekos poll conducted for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper suggested the Conservatives are leading.

Leaders may be jockeying their party horses effectively, but steeples keep popping up that force them to divert their attention and, at times, their strategy and tactics. Is the polite Canadian crowd getting tired, or is the race heating up and compelling them to cheer for a favorite?

The political parties need Canadians to pay attention and choose a side—so, this week brought the start of a time-tested tactic to garner interest and mobilize voters: wedge issues.

Double-wedged sword

Among undecided voters, Liberals and NDP still have the highest vote potential, with most undecided voters weighing their options between the two parties. As Liberals and NDP continue to court those voters, we expect to see more local conversations at the riding level about strategic voting, while leaders may increasingly raise wedge issues to target key demographics.

We saw the wedge tactic earlier this week, as the issue of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies was raised. Wedge issues, like the niqab, are not designed to galvanize the country—rather, they are targeted towards key demographics and regions. On this issue, banning the niqab may help the Bloc or Conservatives in Quebec—especially since municipal governments support the ban—but will not impact the rest of the country’s votes.

Yet, raising wedge issues comes at a cost. When the Liberals raised Mulcair’s past remarks on bulk water exports and hoped that water exports and the Energy East pipeline would become wedge issues, the NDP shot back with an attack campaign against Trudeau that compares his election promises to his voting record.

It may be hard to predict what the next wedge issue will be, but it will have strong emotional appeal to a group of undecided voters. And, it will last well beyond this election.

In the past, parties knew what key issues were that roused support within certain communities. Now, with the increased sophistication of data collection at the door, parties know their voters better than ever and can microtarget with increased precision—making calculated risks about how, when, what and who to engage.

Mulcair, the middleweight champion

What’s clear right now is that when trying to appeal to large numbers of undecided votes, Mulcair is aggressively working to edge his party into the middle.

The Liberal defence policy platform provided Mulcair a surprising opportunity to take a middle-ground approach—neither committing to or against the F-35. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the NDP take a middle ground, which may be surprising or pleasing to those much-needed undecided voters.

Yet, there is still a fight for the middle. Trudeau and Mulcair have some common ground, including sharing perspectives on niqabs, Labour Sponsored Venture Capital Funds and the long-form census, but they will continue to make announcements with key differentiators in order to distinguish themselves from each other. However, the two parties may have to play nice. It’s possible they may have to find a way to co-operate after October 19.

Minority

With some polls still predicting a minority government outcome—which, at this point, could be led by any of the three main parties—leaders are working hard to stand out.

Earlier this month, H+K’s Don Boudria has provided insight on how a minority government can have both opportunities and challenges for Canadians and stakeholders. This week, both NDP and Liberals declared (in somewhat colourful language) that they would unequivocally refuse to support a Harper minority government.

While this may be election pandering, what’s clear is that if there is a Conservative minority elected next month, Canadians can expect that the party’s hands will be tied tight by the opposition. While a minority government has the same role as in a majority, it needs support from the opposition to move forward its legislative agenda. If a minority government fails to have support, it could send Canadians back to the polls.

We know how the parties feel about coalitions. Both opposition parties ruled out a formal coalition, but Mulcair and Trudeau have not made the same promise about an arrangement or working together in a minority scenario. Should a Liberal or NDP minority come into power, we can expect the parties to co-operate in order to move forward on a centrist platform for Canada.

Lost in translation?

This week, Quebec took centre stage as the leaders met in Montreal for the first of two French-language debates—these debates are very important for Quebec, French electors and, in particular, the undecided voters. As expected, the duel between Duceppe and Mulcair drew additional attention towards the region this week. For the NDP, Quebec may hold the key to power, but stances on Energy East and niqabs may sway swing voters.

Historically, the French debates have often been turning points in federal elections, given their impact on the polls in Quebec. And while it’s too soon to know whether last night’s debate will impact voter intentions, it seems unlikely that the debate will do much to break the logjam between the parties.

Heading into the first French-language debate, NDP had the most to lose—with polls that showed it losing momentum in Quebec and Mulcair was expected to be the frequent target of attack by other leaders. Instead, what we saw was that attacks and rejoinders were fairly evenly dispensed and no leader came out as the clear winner or loser.

In a debate that covered a wide range of issues, the most heated exchanges came discussing wedge issues that have traction in Quebec. It was no surprise that the niqab was discussed within the first 15 minutes of the two-hour debate, nor that a Quebec referendum, physician-assisted death or Senate reform were addressed. And, no surprise that these issues—especially the discussions around the niqab and referendum on Quebec separation—garnered the most heated debates. Supply management was raised given its importance in Quebec, with all leaders reiterating their support as they did in response to a letter from Premier Couillard.

Tactically, it was surprising that Mulcair didn’t attack or take any significant blows from other leaders. We can expect that the other parties will continue to attack Mulcair in the upcoming foreign policy and French-language debates because of perceived inconsistencies on his position regarding bulk water exports, pipelines and the Supreme Court. Harper’s performance and demeanour were consistent with that of the English debates—he was steady but strong and was happy to let the other leaders attack each other. Trudeau seemed to distance himself from the other leaders—instead he used his time to speak directly to viewers about his party’s policy and focus on the Liberal’s ambitious vision to double infrastructure spending at every opportunity, regardless of the topic. Duceppe and May received good reviews but their performances are not likely to have much impact on the final election outcome.

Finally, it was apparent that parties understood that the largest viewing audience would be Quebec and prepared their remarks and speaking points accordingly. The leaders, especially Mulcair and Duceppe, never missed an opportunity to speak directly to Quebecers about issues that are most likely to resonate in Quebec, and even referenced such institutions that are only known in Quebec (Jean Coutu). This focus, coupled with confusing and awkward translations, meant that viewers watching the debate with simultaneous translations were sometimes perplexed and clearly missed many of the more nuanced exchanges. As a result, the impact of the debate outside of Quebec is likely to be limited.

So, what’s next?

As the parties get closer to the finish line, there are more opportunities to differentiate themselves—both positively and negatively.

The bilingual Munk Debate on foreign policy and the second French-language debate will certainly draw attention, while also taking leaders away from the ground game. With so many debates in this long campaign, it’s hard to assess whether Canadians will tune in and determine their vote based on these events.

However, we can expect that voters may be swayed based on their newspapers’ endorsements—and, we can anticipate that leaders will start to engage editorial boards in pursuit of those coveted endorsements next week. Meanwhile, they will be raising more and more wedge issues, and new policy commitments to sway voters in their direction. Trudeau, for his part, will try to use Saturday’s costing announcement as another chance to try and show voters that his team is a credible and sound option for Canada.

Lastly, the world does carry on while we Canadians go to the polls. Next week, Trade Minister Ed Fast heads to Atlanta to join a pivotal round of talks on Trans Pacific Partnership. A successful conclusion of those talks would be great news for Conservatives back home, but making concessions on autos and supply-managed industries could hurt sectors and thus, Conservative votes in target regions.