The federal election campaign heads into the final stretch

October has finally arrived, which means that we are less than three weeks from voting day. After eight weeks of campaigning, what have we learned?

For much of this campaign, the three main parties have been essentially tied in the national polls, but in the past few days we have begun to see some separation, with the Conservatives and Liberals pulling ahead of the NDP. This change can largely be attributed to the gathering momentum of the Liberal Party campaign and a corresponding flagging NDP campaign. The Conservatives have held steady but have seen their polling numbers creep up slightly over the past week.

What does this shift in polling numbers tell us?

For many voters, particularly the large block of undecided voters, the ballot box question has become “who can deliver change?” The NDP and Liberal Party have been fighting to establish themselves as the party that can offer real change, which in part explains why the two parties have been in a dead heat in the polls for the first eight weeks. However, over the past week to ten days, we have started to see that the Liberals are having more success defining themselves as the real change agent in this campaign. An Abacus poll published September 29th showed the Liberals are perceived more widely than the NDP as the agents of more rapid and more significant change from the Harper style of government. All of which begs the question, how have the Liberals been able to pull away from the NDP on this most important question of who is best to deliver change ?

Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals have strategically positioned themselves as the party on the left, while the NDP has positioned itself as the centrist, middle of the road party, a reversal of their usual positions on the political spectrum. While the NDP made the calculation that it needed to be seen as a stable and moderate party of change, they have left the door open to the Liberals to take positions that more starkly distinguish themselves from the NDP and Conservative Party. The Liberal decisions to run deficits in the early years of a Trudeau government, rule out the purchase of the F-35 fighter jet, and invest heavily in infrastructure have all helped to attract the progressive vote across the country, and particularly in Ontario which is a key battleground in this election.

Perhaps more importantly, Mr. Trudeau’s tone and leadership style is noticeably different than both Mr. Harper’s and Mr. Mulcair’s and has allowed the Liberal party to define this election as the “politics of hope” vs “the politics of fear”, which has a strong appeal to those voters fatigued by the Conservative Party’s negative and adversarial approach to many issues.

For the NDP, their campaign has recently faltered, in no small part because of the highly emotional issue of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, which is a wedge issue in Quebec. But apart from a softening of NDP support in Quebec, the NDP’s strategic gamble to position themselves closely to the Conservatives, most notably pledging balanced budgets, has allowed the Liberals to characterize the NDP and Conservatives as “more of the same” options for voters, and has hurt the NDP’s ability to characterize itself as offering real change to Canadians. While their policy platform has promised significant change, the NDP’s efforts to promote their promises as such have fell short and left many supporters worried that people do not associate the federal NDP with the promise of change and hope that carried the party to victory in Alberta in the spring.

One NDP announcement made in the past week has generated hope in the science and research community – the promise to create a new parliamentary office to provide solid scientific advice and analysis to politicians. Mr. Mulcair pointed out that the office of the parliamentary science officer would help restore respect for the country’s scientists and ensure there was “evidence-based decision making in Ottawa”.   (It should be noted that before the election campaign began, the Liberal party promised to also create a Chief Science Officer whose mandate would include ensuring that government science is freely available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are appropriately considered when the government makes decisions and the Green Party has made similar commitments.)

As we head into the final phase of this campaign, the race to watch is between the NDP and Liberal Party as they continue to fight for the undecided and progressive vote. And for voters anxious for change, expect them to be talking increasingly about strategic voting as a way to achieve it. With three weeks to go in the campaign, it’s still anyone’s game to win.

Michelle McLean
Vice-President, Hill & Knowlton Canada