Midpoint in Campaign 2015: A Game of Inches

The campaign has just past the mid-point, but despite ads, photo ops, policy announcements and candidates knocking on doors, national polls still have the race in a three-way statistical tie. Most polls show the parties within 2 points of each other – or all within the margin of error of each other. In a campaign still too close to call, what can explain this political dead heat?
Polls continue to show a close race, but also a sizeable undecided voting block—which in part explains why no major party has pulled away from the others. However, it is also true that there are fewer major policy differences between parties, and so the main challenge for the parties has been to distinguish their leader from challengers. This past week, we saw parties and leaders focus their efforts on doing so, and the Globe and Mail debate on September 17th provided one of the best opportunities to date for leaders to set themselves apart in this competitive campaign.
The debate was important for all three parties and their leaders. Trudeau—who exceeded expectations in the Maclean’s debate—is still seen by some as the least competent leader on the economic file, and therefore was under more pressure to perform. Mulcair headed into the debate needing to redefine the public’s view of the NDP’s ability to manage the economy—a misstep could have seriously affected his party’s electoral fortunes. For Harper, many felt he needed to have a strong performance to help “reset” the Conservative campaign and capitalize on momentum picked up over the past week.
In a wide-ranging debate that touched on the refugee crisis, the housing bubble, child care, the long-form census and security threats, much of the sparring on the economy focused on the question of whether the country should return to deficit spending. Interestingly, health continued its low profile, with only one mention of the Conservative government’s decision to limit health care services for refugees by Mulcair.
The fast-paced debate was at times difficult to follow but this debate was about leadership as much as it was about economic policy—leaders’ tone and presentation was as important as the substantive discussion. General consensus is that Mulcair had a strong performance (and a significant improvement over the August debate), Harper projected a calm, steady presence, while Trudeau was feisty, but at times frenetic.
In the end, it is unlikely that any of the debate performances will particularly hurt or help any of the leaders— leaving us in the same place that we started: major leaders running neck-and-neck in the race for public support, and particularly, the NDP and Liberals fighting over those voters who want “change.”
For the health community, there has been reason to be encouraged in the past week. While not rising to the top of the political narrative for any of the parties, the past week saw the NDP make a number of health commitments – including promises to invest in home care for an additional 41,000 seniors and helping provinces build 5,000 more nursing home beds; a $100 million investment children and youth mental health; and a plan to make prescription drugs more affordable and accessible for Canadians. The Conservatives have focused their health care commitments on cancer, pledging to renew the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer; invest $12.5 million in capital funding to help establish the Canadian Cancer Society’s proposed research and cancer-prevention centre in Vancouver; and match public donations for the Terry Fox Run to a maximum of $35 million. Apart from an early commitment to improve employment insurance benefits for caregivers, the Liberals have yet to make any significant health commitments.
While many groups welcomed the focus on health, the question remains – will health commitments help create political support for one party over another? And perhaps more importantly, will any of the three parties move beyond targeted promises designed to appeal to a particular voting group (like seniors) and engage in the debate on what leadership role the federal government should play in health? With four weeks left in the campaign, there is certainly time for that discussion and it is the one that is perhaps most needed and anticipated by the health community.
Michelle McLean
Vice-President, Hill & Knowlton Canada