My strongest impression of the campaign to date is that it has been characterized by spitting-mad hostility to the Liberals. One interesting aspect of this is that I have been hearing a great deal of anecdotal evidence that the Green Party will receive a significant protest vote, largely from those who one assumes previously voted Liberal. Now they are attracted by the increasingly familiar Green brand name. This is not necessarily a serious, environmentally conscious vote – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of those contemplating a Green vote drive SUV’s and grouse about high gas prices (the Green Party is the only federal party explicitly promising higher gas taxes). It is a pure protest vote.
I have heard from canvassers that on the doorstep voters are mad at the Liberals, but haven’t decided how to vote. This does give the debates considerable importance (of which more below). In addition the perception is only now beginning to sink in that Harper could form a government. The Ekos poll released this week shows 52% expect the Liberals to form the government compared to just 31% who think the Conservatives will. This could well have an impact on the mad-at-the-Liberal voter who doesn’t support many aspects of the Harper platform. A perception that he could win combined with growing knowledge of his platform could well hurt Harper.
What are the polls now saying? My current estimate of the election result based on polls released this week is: Conservatives – 118, Liberals – 98, NDP – 38, Bloc – 54, a weak Conservative minority (fyi, my estimates of NDP seats are higher than other forecasters). As inputs for my election model, I averaged the regional results of the Ekos, Reid and Léger polls released this week with two exceptions – B.C. and Quebec. There was a poll conducted by Reid in B.C. this week with a large sample (1,066) so I used its numbers for British Columbia, and I used a CROP poll with a sample of 600 in Quebec. In B.C. the national pollsters’ regional numbers for B.C. have been extremely erratic giving me little confidence in any one individual result. Quebec has had more examples of polling errors compared to actual election results than anywhere else. I think the Quebec-based polling companies are now figuring out how to poll Quebec – their final polls prior to last year’s provincial election were accurate. I am therefore generally sceptical of the results of non-Quebec firms for Quebec (except for Environics which uses CROP to conduct the Quebec part of its polls).
That the Conservatives are now ahead does not mean they are enthusiastically supported. Frank Greaves, the President of Ekos, was quoted in the Star this week as saying: "In essence, what we are seeing is disaffection with the Liberals overwhelming wariness of the Conservatives."
The Conservatives are still running well behind their 2000 performance in the west so they do have some potential to pick up support there in terms of the polls. I estimate, however, that they can add no more than ten seats at the most to what their current level of support would enable them to win.
Because they permit the electorate an unfiltered view of the candidates and their abilities to defend their positions, I think the idea of televised debates is a good one. However, in the past the format of the debates in Canada (dictated I am told largely by the broadcasters) could hardly be worse. By encouraging a five-way free-for-all, the resulting discordant chaos of interruption and overlapping voices was both incomprehensible and offensive to viewers (a large percentage of voters tune in but don’t stay tuned). The net effect in my view has been to discredit politics and Parliament, and I have no doubt it is a factor in lowering turnout. There are to be changes this year. Let us hope they will deliver a calmer, more rational exchange of views that might make sense to someone tuning in hoping to find clarification on where the parties’ stand on various issues.
Despite the weaknesses of debates I have identified, the 1988 debate focused on free trade that turned around John Turner’s flagging campaign (he eventually lost as a consequence of highly effective Tory attack ads) illustrates their potential importance.
The Leaders and their approach
Of the three leaders, Stephen Harper appears to have the style best suited to television – he is calm, relaxed and articulate. He is intellectually very bright and was effective defending himself in a televised interview in French with Bernard Derome that I saw this week. What Harper needs to do is keep the focus of the campaign and the debate on the Liberals and their various sins that have made voters mad at them, and away from his beliefs and platform. If the election becomes a referendum on Harper and his party’s views, the Liberals would likely be returned with a minority.
I think Jack Layton also has the potential to be effective. He is media savvy and knows how to communicate well. His handlers, however, would be well-advised to give him a shot of tranquilizer so that he is not tempted to hyperbole. What Layton needs to accomplish in the debate sounds contradictory: he should focus on creating doubts about Harper’s credibility and at the same time try to appear to be relentlessly positive. The point of the former is that the campaign appears to be about trust and credibility, so damaging Harper’s (Liberal credibility is already damaged) helps the NDP, which has escaped much media attention simply because it is in third place. The point of the latter is that it helps make the NDP attractive to those who are repelled by Liberals and the Conservatives. This is probably Layton’s best opportunity for something of a breakout, although the NDP’s poll numbers are already fairly strong.
Unlike the other two, Paul Martin brings a weak skill set to the debate – an intense, florid style given to superlatives, and a tendency to stammer, making him the classic hot personality in the cool medium. In theory, he should be the weakest debater. However, as a policy wonk he does have a command of his subject matter. He needs to cast doubt on Harper’s ability to keep his promises, again, given that trust is a key campaign theme. Most voters are baffled by numbers and statistics so this is exceedingly difficult to do, but it does appear that Harper could be vulnerable here.
For example, in a column this week Globe business columnist Bruce Little made the following point about the Conservative program: “In the end, the Conservative numbers add up only if you think they can dramatically change the underlying dynamic of most federal spending. If the spending trend … is too entrenched to buck, and the Tories go ahead with their tax cuts and new spending, they'll begin running deficits within a year.” In less polite language, they can’t deliver on their promises – a factor that could be important in a subsequent election.
Martin’s weaknesses as a television performer have always been there but most of the public have been only been discovering them since he became Prime Minister. However, the media are well aware of his abilities. This probably means most don’t expect him to do well. Countering expectations is probably his best chance to be seen to do well in the debates. However, he could also do well simply by using the debates as a vehicle to advance voter awareness of aspects of the Conservative platform that voters may not find appealing. It matters less whether you score points in a boxing sense than that you raise the profile of what helps you and diminish the profile of what creates problems.
The election is too close to be over. We would have a Conservative minority today, but the numbers say a very slight shift back to the Liberals would take us back to a Liberal minority. The general lack of enthusiasm for the various alternatives illustrated by my point about the Green Party as a vehicle for protest, points to a highly divided Parliament, which would probably have a short life span.