We’re rounding the corner on this long election. And with the end in sight, it’s hard to believe the parties have been campaigning for more than 50 days now. Every day or so, a new poll comes out showing the major parties frozen in a three-way race—only a few percentage points from where things started on the first day of this marathon election.
But the questions we keep asking ourselves is: what’s changed since August 1? After all this campaigning, have the leaders connected with voters and done a good job differentiating their platforms?
Accomplished and adept interviewer Peter Mansbridge of the CBC’s The National recently offered each leader a chance to do just that, sitting down with each leader for one-on-one interviews. A far cry from the bell-dinging scrappy debate that followed a week later, here Mansbridge spent time with each of the leaders pursuing a similar line of policy and issue questioning, allowing viewers to compare and contrast style, response and leadership approach.
From a campaign perspective, the interviews were a safe investment of the leaders’ time. For Prime Minister Harper, there was little upside (or voter gains) to be expected or achieved, given the predisposition of the CBC viewing audience. But for Mulcair and Trudeau, the objectives were different.
I’ve been involved in numerous federal campaigns since 1979. And I have a few thoughts about these interviews.
‘Why choose me’ stumped the leaders
I came away with the view that no leader gained or advanced their causes with any voter coalition. After watching all four interviews, I was—frankly—surprised that none of the leaders nailed the answer to ”why choose me?” Each were given the opportunity to pitch voters on their leadership experiences and personal attributes, and each reverted to a policy rather than a personal storyline. As communicators, they all know personal stories are effective in the every day, but particularly during campaigns. Harper missed an opportunity to trump the other candidates with his views about leadership and experience he has gained domestically and internationally in almost 10 years as prime minister.
Comparing the leaders’ performance
Given each of the interviews were “knee-facing,” it’s hard to say whether their messaging ultimately resonated with viewers. While Harper usually does well in a one-on-one format, he was either distracted or not engaged and, from my perspective, achieved a seven out of 10 on the interview scale; he always delivers on substance, but not on personalization. On performance, Mulcair earned an eight out of 10, continuing with his non-combative approach. He did, however, leave two hanging issues—and these will haunt his campaign: squaring his economic program with a balanced budget, and Senate management. Trudeau was less effective overall, scoring just a six out of 10 in my opinion. His answers on the economy did not instill confidence or demonstrate deep experience; and he was evasive with a number of his answers. May performed well, though didn’t build support for her policies—but on the upside, she did get herself some good coverage.
Winning over voters
Let’s start with the two opposition leaders. Both were after second-choice voters from each other’s base. Mulcair was trying to connect with soft Liberal voters unsure about Trudeau’s economic plan, while Trudeau was trying to attract soft NDP voters uncomfortable with the harder-line approach to balanced budgets. Both were attempting to contrast and compare policies and approaches. Harper—while realistic that the majority of CBC viewers are not in his camp—was clearly communicating to the “mob” (the media, and both opinion and business leaders).
Earning supporters through performance
Mulcair appeared to gain the most in the end, though it’s hard to say whether there will be any new votes thanks to the interview.
From my perspective, the undecided will be influenced by much more than one interview and much more than the media coverage resulting from one interview. It’ll have everything to do with whether they’re ready to give the government another chance or simply want change. This is a two-phase decision. Performance has mattered in this campaign—it’s not simply a question of momentum.
So, what comes next? The debate broadcast by the consortium of French-language broadcasters on September 24. With Mulcair so far ahead in the QC polls, he’ll clearly be the target from all of the other participants, with both Harper and Trudeau working to make inroads into the NDP base in Quebec.