Another week has gone by in Election 42 and, though it is too early for any definitive declarations, a key ballot question has taken centre stage. With world stock markets in crisis, the economy has dominated the campaign, allowing the Conservatives to return to what they see as their bread and butter issue. National polls have shifted in favour of the NDP, with a Forum poll going so far as to suggest a majority is in reach for Thomas Mulcair. However, a deeper dive into the numbers show concerns for the NDP in Ontario where Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau enjoy stronger support. With 51 days left in the election campaign, it seems wise to heed H+K’s national director of research, Elliott Gauthier’s advice; don’t put too much weight in the daily horserace.
A turbulent week in the markets may have been a blessing for the Conservatives, as talk of budget deficits, recessions, the Canadian dollar and commodity prices dominated this week’s headlines. With Nigel Wright’s testimony over and the Duffy trial in adjournment, the prime minister was happy to field questions on what he sees as his strong suit—steady management in uncertain times. The NDP and Liberals, for their part, stepped back from their attacks on ‘Duffygate,’ shifting their own focus to economic issues. Expect to see the opposition revisit the ethics issue post-Labour Day as Canadians truly turn their attention to the election.
As promised, the first three-way race in recent history is changing the way we see our three major political parties and the way they want to be seen through an economic lens. A balanced-budget pledge from Mulcair and a string of Liberal spending promises have led us to ask the question; which party truly owns the left?
While Harper has been consistent in criticizing both Mulcair and Trudeau as tax-and-spend politicians, and positioning the Conservatives as the steady hand, the Liberals are moving into lefty-land and the NDP look more like progressive conservatives in orange clothes. Portraying Mulcair as a softer, gentler Stephen Harper is a strategy that may work with voters who have grown tired of the Conservative government, but do not want to see a major policy shakeup. Trudeau’s Liberals, on the other hand, have been more progressive in their policy announcements and are promoting themselves as the party that will look out for the middle class and are willing to go into a deficit to do so. Bucking the trend on balanced budgets is a risk for Trudeau, but perhaps a well calculated one—polls show, and it is expected internal Liberal research shows, that Canadians are increasingly comfortable with limited government deficits. As this plays out, the Liberals have repeatedly attacked Mulcair from the left on issues such as taxation, childcare and economic management.
How this would translate to a Liberal or NDP government is murky at best.
With an early debate, and two personalities leading their first election campaign, it was the party leaders that soaked up the limelight in the early weeks. Take a drive through Quebec and you may see more Mulcair signs than you will for the local candidates. Campaign 101: leaders can change voter intentions. However, the past 10 days have seen a slight shift in this strategy, with the Liberals and NDP taking the time to show off some of their bench strength. Most notably, Trudeau appeared alongside former prime minister Paul Martin, reminding voters that a Trudeau government would have a deep roster of resources to turn to for economic and leadership advice. The Liberals had a full team of candidates at that announcement, just as it did when Trudeau announced the Liberal plan to increase assistance to military veterans.
Mulcair had star candidate, and former Saskatchewan finance Minister, Andrew Thomson front and centre this week, attacking Harper on his record of fiscal management and Trudeau on his plans for the economy. Thomson adds bench strength to the finance file for the NDP, but he faces a tough race in Eglinton-Lawrence as he battles current Finance Minister Joe Oliver.
It comes as no surprise that the prime minister is taking centre stage in the Conservative campaign, preferring the predictability of a centrally controlled message, to the risk/reward of showcasing untested candidates. While there is less need for a governing party to showcase candidates, the Conservatives will certainly feel the departure of several key cabinet ministers as the campaign wears on. This is likely to be most notable in Ontario where Harper is fighting his first campaign without former cabinet ministers Jim Flaherty and John Baird.
Almost four months ago, the provincial NDP surprised the country, winning a majority of seats in Alberta. Speculation was that the Conservative juggernaut had fallen, and seats in the once-secure West would be in play for the NDP and Liberals. This, we were promised, changed everything we thought we knew about Canadian politics. Yet, this past week saw federal leaders restrict their campaigns mostly to Ontario and Quebec. Since the start of the campaign, Harper and Trudeau have spent one day each in Alberta, and Mulcair has yet to set foot in the province. While campaign budgets may be playing a role, it seems that Ontario and Quebec, with their high seat numbers and swing ridings, remain the centre of the Canadian political world.
Despite a strong showing in the debate from Elizabeth May and the return of former leader Gilles Duceppe, the Green Party and the Bloc Quebecois have retreated from the national headlines. A tight three-way race at the top, and the strain on resources due to the long campaign period, will make it difficult for the leaders of the these two parties to generate much momentum going forward.
As phase one of the campaign draws to a close, expect the focus to remain in Ontario and Quebec, with campaigns also reaching out to key ridings in B.C. Spending on advertising should increase in the coming weeks as well as endorsements from noteworthy Canadians and third-party organizations.