Like many of my colleagues at Hill & Knowlton, I am a political junkie. I thrive on elections and am tracking the current one very closely.  Unfortunately, the majority of Canadians have not yet engaged in the election.
Here’s hoping this changes as we approach the televised political debates. Next to the launch of the campaigns, the debates are one of the most important milestones in a campaign.  Academics and pollsters have quantifiable evidence on how debates influence voter behaviour.  Simply put, voters start paying attention.
In the last week, there’s been much discussion about the debates themselves and whether Green Party leader Elizabeth May should be included. Now that the courts have affirmed that she won’t participate, the four parties’ campaign prep teams will move into high gear, analyzing policies, tweaking responses and focusing on tone.  Getting in the debate “zone” is critical for each of the leaders.
The debates are full of cues about how the parties view the state of their campaign strategy and will allow us to cross check three key strategic considerations:
1. What policy platform commitments are vote changers and bear repeating – again and again? The heightened repetition of policies, such as the Liberal education passport, will be a clear indication that internal party polls are tracking support from key demographic groups important to the Liberal’s growth strategy.
2. How will the leaders interact – will we see a change in tone? Stephen Harper has been criticized for campaigning in a bubble.  We will be able to gauge by his tone, body language and interaction with the other leaders whether his team has addressed the ‘bubble’ criticism.  With Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton, the elephant in the room will be the ‘coalition’.  While they will both need to demonstrate policy differences and show that they do not intend to govern collaboratively, this will be particularly important for Ignatieff.
3. Whether the Conservatives and the Liberals gain any momentum during the French language debate.  The surprise to many in this campaign is that Gilles Duceppe has garnered more national media attention than in previous elections but contributed no new policy dynamic.  Both the Conservatives and the Liberals need to solidify support in Quebec.  Their performances in the French debate matter.
So, as voters tune in to the debates before and during the hockey playoffs, the leaders and their campaign strategists are focused on debate performance.  After the debates conclude, they will be back on the road with 18 days left to connect with voters before election day.
Elizabeth Roscoe is Senior Vice President, Public Affairs at Hill & Knowlton Ottawa.
Hill & Knowlton will provide regular updates and analyses of the election and the issues raised throughout the campaign. You can also follow us on Twitter at @HKCan_PA.