A version of this post can be found at iPolitics
The 2015 campaign and its likely outcome can be boiled down to two factors: the Federal Court of Appeal decision on September 15 that allowed Zunera Ishaq to be formally sworn in as a Canadian citizen while wearing a niqab, and the fact that while a significant percentage of the Canadian population was content to see either the NDP or Liberals win, they wanted more than anything to see Stephen Harper leave. They were ABH - Anyone but Harper.
Widespread feelings of antipathy towards Harper have fundamentally framed the choice — but until mid-September it wasn’t clear which of the other two parties was going to be seen as the appropriate alternative. The polls then were telling us that it was a three-way national tie.
That’s where the niqab came in. A part of Quebec’s francophone population, which up to that point was willing to vote NDP, had a strong, visceral, negative reaction to the niqab. It was powerful enough to push large numbers to abandon the NDP for the Bloc and the Conservatives (Take a look at the Bloc's ad on this). Tom Mulcair defended the right of women to choose what they want to wear, and paid a price.
There was an early impact. Any new development takes a few days to register with the electorate (keep this in mind when thinking about the Gagnier affair, and don’t expect to see any significant impact before Sunday in the polls). Shortly after September 15, the NDP rise in Quebec stopped and then started to fall — fast. After a short delay the impact grew and was reinforced by the first French TV debate, but it was clearly visible before. The NDP decline began to be reflected in national polls — again, prior to the debate. The Liberals had the same position on the niqab but managed to escape the backlash largely because their Quebec support is disproportionately anglophone and allophone.
You can see it in the following two graphics — the first is the Quebec polls from September 1 to mid-October. (Note that I use a three-poll moving average to smooth the natural fluctuations you get from polling).
And with a short delay, a gap between the Liberals and the NDP opens up in the national polls.
The gap gave the clear signal to anti-Harper voters. The Liberals and Justin Trudeau have been the clear winners because Quebec turned against the NDP as a consequence over the niqab — a bitter irony for Stephen Harper, who tried to exploit anti-niqab sentiment and had been running anti-Trudeau TV commercials in constant rotation.
There has long been evidence of strong dislike of the Harper government among many Canadians. It’s why you hear so much talk of strategic voting. The expectation of many advocates is that such voting would efficiently topple just enough Tories to do Harper in. Whatever its micro impact in individual constituencies, it’s clear that we’re seeing the effect of strategic anti-Harper positioning on a broad national scale.
But what about the rest of the campaign — is this really all that mattered? There were some Liberal gains on the NDP between mid-August and mid-September in Ontario that could be attributable to their efforts to outflank the NDP on the left, but it might also have been simply a movement back to the pre-Alberta election polling norm. Such movements did occur in Western Canada a little earlier.
The debates (except in Quebec) were generally a fiasco — bad television with tiny audiences largely composed of the politically-committed. Trudeau did exceed expectations in the debates, which helped him in news coverage, while Mulcair fell short. Trudeau had an effective ad (the one on the escalator) while the NDP made the mistake of not advertising early enough — campaigning as a frontrunner when they really weren’t that far ahead.
But the real explanation for the pattern this election has taken is really quite simple: the niqab controversy wound up signalling to Canadians how they could best express their opposition to Harper.
And the 2015 election has been about Harper, his protests to the contrary notwithstanding. Its zeitgeist has been captured well in Michael Harris’s acerbic columns in iPolitics. Canadians can expect to wake up to a very different House of Commons come Tuesday morning.