Federal Election Update for Week 4: Lights, Camera, Action!

With just two weeks to go in the 43rd federal election, we are getting down to the final days of what still appears to be a tight two-way race between the Liberals and the Conservatives.  The Consortium English debate happened on Monday night and the French debate is happening on Thursday.

Although the consensus is that no one emerged victorious from Monday night’s debate, and the format of the debate was unnecessarily confusing, each leader seemed to do exactly what they intended. Jagmeet Singh emerged as very personable and relaxed, Justin Trudeau stood his ground despite attacks from multiple fronts, Andrew Scheer came out swinging while presenting his broader message on affordability, Yves-Francois Blanchet highlighted issues of importance to Quebec, Elizabeth May linked the debate back to climate change, and Maxime Bernier got his moment on stage with the other leaders.

It is still an open question as to whether anyone’s vote moved as a result of the debate.  Perhaps conversations over Thanksgiving dinner this weekend will be more indicative of where voter intent is moving.  The key question which could influence several tight races between the Liberals and the Conservatives outside of the province of Quebec is whether progressive voters decide to vote for their party of choice or if they coalesce under the Liberal banner.  Within the province of Quebec, support for the Bloc is increasing to the detriment of the Conservatives.

Looking ahead, the Conservatives are now the only party which has not released its election platform; it is expected to be released following the French leaders’ debate.

As Canadians head towards the Thanksgiving weekend, we expect more of the same style of campaign for the two front runners.  The Liberals will focus on a ballot question of “Who do you want to lead Canada for the next four years?” Implicit in this question is a values judgement between the Liberals and the Conservatives.  The Conservatives will be asking Canadians to ask, “Have I been better off over the last four years of Liberal government?”  Implicit in this question is “Will I be better off under the Conservatives and their plan?”

Liberals

Team Trudeau remains confident heading into the closing two weeks of the campaign. While tied in vote intention, they lead on seat projections and are ahead in Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, while essentially tied with the Conservatives in BC.  The tie in topline numbers serves to help polarize the election into a choice between Trudeau and Scheer, a decision they hope will shift progressive voters from the NDP, Greens, and Bloc in the closing days of the campaign. The Liberals are also carefully targeting critical demographics for advance polls as part of a Get-Out-The-Vote effort, including students, vulnerable seniors, and families.

While the tactical winner of the debate was likely Jagmeet Singh, Justin Trudeau could have been the strategic winner. Major vulnerabilities like SNC, blackface, and the India trip only came up briefly and, owing partly to the debate format, were never in a pile-on. More significantly, no other leader seized the moment and disrupted the two-horse nature of the campaign, maintaining the polarization dynamic at the centre of the Liberal strategy. The flare up of the Bill 21 issue in the French media following the debate is also useful to Liberal fortunes in Quebec.

The Liberals sought to capitalize on a series of challenges for Andrew Scheer from abortion to his dual American citizenship to a potential education strike in Doug Ford’s Ontario. These issues are intended to stoke concern about Scheer among progressives and fuel the polarization that Liberals need to secure a majority. The Liberals are hoping Scheer will repeat his language-challenged performance in the Commission debate in French.

Conservatives

The past week proved to be challenging for Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives.  While they tried to roll out policy announcements including boutique tax credits and a 25% cut to foreign aid, news stories that Scheer holds dual Canadian/US citizenship distracted the Tory campaign.

This revelation was especially difficult when Scheer was found to have made strong comments, as a backbench MP in 2005, about then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s dual citizenship.

Therefore, the Conservatives needed Scheer to have a strong performance in Monday night’s English debate.  For Tories, Scheer delivered the goods by coming right out of the gate in his opening statement and accusing Trudeau of being a “phony and a fraud” over his blackface photos and his record on SNC-Lavalin.  Scheer also went on the offensive on other issues that have dogged Trudeau, such as ethics and his treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott.

By “throwing a punch” in the opening moments of the debate, Scheer’s goal was to knock Justin Trudeau out of his comfort zone early on, and to get the “clippable” quotes from the debate that the Conservative team can roll out in advertising, both traditional and digital.  We will see later this week if Scheer’s performance in the English debate changes the polling numbers.

New Democrats

Leader Jagmeet Singh’s performance at the English-language debate capped off the strongest week yet for the NDP campaign.  Singh’s response to questions on the water crisis in Grassy Narrows, his handling of a bigoted pedestrian in Montreal, and on the leaders’ stage in Gatineau were all defining moments for the NDP Leader.  Mr. Singh hopes to leave voters with one lasting impression – the Conservatives and the Liberals only offer more of the same and only the NDP represents a truly progressive vote for everyday people.

While these moments were powerful and frequently shared, it’s still unclear what impact they will have at the polls. The NDP currently remains in the mid-teens in national support.  Expectations have been low for Singh, and the party has repeatedly struggled amid lackluster fundraising. Still, in the crucial week before Thanksgiving weekend, the Liberals needed Singh to be invisible, and he wasn’t. On the debate stage, he implored voters to have the courage to reject strategic voting and to vote for something instead. He defused most lines of attack, although the NDP stance on Quebec’s Bill 21 remains unclear.

NDP proposals from dental care to affordable housing to eliminating the interest on student loans are viewed by some as bold, progressive, and popular, but they have also faced scrutiny on cost. Even if unlikely, an NDP surge in the final weeks of the campaign could transform results in several Ontario ridings by bleeding Liberal votes. If Singh and the NDP can continue this momentum, they may have more of an impact on Election 2019 than most predicted.

Greens

The Greens are probably pleased with how their leader performed at debate night, although it may not be enough to reverse the party’s gradual downward drift in the polls. Fortunately for them, with support concentrated on Vancouver Island, this decline in the national outlook has not yet reduced their projected seat count in most distribution models.

During the Consortium English language debate, May appeared to be in her element, demonstrating her policy skills and quick wit.  Unfortunately for May, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also had a good night, likely not losing any support to the Greens.

In her debate performance, May hit all her targets. She positioned the Greens as the only credible party on climate change. She burnished her conservative credentials through plans to eliminate the deficit in five years (economy permitting), and her progressive credentials through a national pharmacare program. Perhaps most importantly, she signaled to her softer progressive supporters that they had nothing to worry about by voting Green, wryly predicting, “With all due respect Mr. Scheer, you’re not going to be Prime Minister.”

However, a best case scenario for the Greens appears to be growing their caucus through gains on Vancouver Island and a stronger than expected show of support, if not seat count, in the rest of the country.

Bloc Québécois

Fresh off his success at last week’s TVA debate, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet spent all of Sunday and Monday preparing for this week’s debate in English, his second language.  This preparation appears to have paid off with Blanchet delivering a strong performance.

The presence of a Bloc leader at English-language debates has always been controversial. Running candidates exclusively in Québec’s 78 ridings, the party has never sought to form government in Ottawa and speaks to a narrower portion of the Canadian electorate.  However, Blanchet’s key supporters were likely not watching Monday’s debate.  By contrast, the October 2nd Face-à-Face on TVA was Québec’s second most-watched program of the evening.

Despite the lack of Québec viewership, Blanchet’s performance on Monday was important, given his aspirations to become kingmaker in the event of a minority parliament. However, this goal is only feasible if the winner is willing to work with the Bloc. Such an alignment risks alienating non-Québec voters, as happened in 2008 when the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc attempted to form a coalition and provoked the ire of voters in Western Canada. Therefore, while the Bloc will continue to focus on wooing rural and suburban Québec voters away from the Conservatives and NDP respectively, Monday’s debate was a small victory for an insurgent Blanchet.

People’s Party

For Maxime Bernier and the PPC, the highlight for the 2019 campaign will likely be appearing on stage with the other party leaders for the Consortium English and French debates. Bernier supporters may have been disappointed with his debate performance.  He did not speak about “mass immigration” and “globalization” and was clearly trying to appear more moderate in person than his online Twitter persona.

Bernier will have one more chance to make a case to francophone voters on Thursday evening but this may ultimately be a case of using a national platform to win a single seat in the Beauce, which remains a close race with his Conservative challenger.