In the 2008 federal campaign, Stephen Harper closed the deal with Canadians sometime between the Thanksgiving turkey hitting the table and the pumpkin pie. Faced with uncertain economic times, Canadians opted for Harper, the prudent economist, over what they came to see as the risk of Stéphane Dion. It was in those final days of the campaign — and not until then — that the Prime Minister appealed directly to Canadians and secured a stronger second mandate.
Indeed, the CPAC-Nanos tracking over the closing weekend of the campaign showed a positive improvement in the individual performance of the Prime Minister and a spike in Conservative support on Sunday, October 12, just two days before the vote (table 1). Individual nightly tracking showed support for the Conservatives at 32.8 percent and 32.6 percent on Friday and Saturday respectively. On Sunday, however, the individual daily tracking showed a Conservative jump to 37.1 percent. The final election result for the Conservatives was 37.6 percent.
This compares to the Nanos nightly trend for Liberal support — 26.8 percent on Friday, 26.7 percent on Saturday and 26.7 percent on Sunday. On election night the Liberals registered 26.2 percent support nationally.
By the closing weekend of the campaign, a number of factors had helped the Conservatives regain the economic and political high ground.
By the closing weekend of the campaign, a number of factors had helped the Conservatives regain the economic and political high ground. First, Stephen Harper’s candid remark that neither he nor his party was perfect, but that they were the best choice for the economy, likely rang true for many Canadians. Second, his closing message that Canadians were likely to face another minority government minimized strategic voting. Lastly, a series of external positive news stories validated the Prime Minister’s message that Canadians could take some comfort in the fact that the economic fundamentals in Canada were indeed stronger than in other countries. In the last four days, Canadians heard that our banking system was more resilient and that job creation was up, and on Monday they saw the markets in New York post large gains. Harper’s strong personal campaign close and the external good news both helped buoy the Conservative campaign in its closing days.
Looking at the results today, however, it is easy to forget that at many stages in this campaign, the election dynamics were pointing to a somewhat different outcome. Prior to the official launch of the campaign, the Conservatives and Liberals were in a much closer race. A successful pre-writ volley of new advertisements in the week prior to the election, however, set the stage for what would be a very effective campaign launch for the Conservatives.
Falling back on their tried-and-true method of setting the news agenda for the day with a policy announcement in the morning and moving to a more partisan event later in the day, the Harper Conservatives had a strong start (figure 1). Prior to the leaders’ debate, their campaign discipline vaulted them into the lead, where they enjoyed a 10- to-15-point margin over the Liberals, placing the Tories into their much sought-after majority territory. Even the inevitable bumps in the road — be it the puffin ad, Ryan Sparrow’s ill-advised comments about the grieving father of a fallen soldier, the Gerry Ritz listeriosis comments, the Lee Richardson immigrant crime comments or even the plagiarized Iraq speech — did not seem at first to halt the momentum created by the Prime Minister’s strong personal performance (figure 2). Drops in perceptions of Stephen Harper were very soon regained.
Nanos tracking for CPAC showed that the bumps in the road were having a negative cumulative effect on the perceptions of the Prime Minister.
Over time, however, and despite the initial Tory advantage in voting support, the Nanos tracking for CPAC showed that the bumps in the road were having a negative cumulative effect on the perceptions of the Prime Minister. Day after day, there was a slow incremental decline in the number of Canadians who believed Stephen Harper would make the best prime minister. He held on to the comparative advantage, but the strongman lustre had worn off.
In this initial stage, the campaign seemed to be about not much at all. Conservative strategy favoured small, tangible announcements targeted at specific blocks of voters, such as tax credits for parents to offset the costs of their children’s music and arts lessons, extending EI benefits to those self-employed individuals who want to opt in or a diesel tax rebate. These proposals were understandable and appealing to the voters at whom they were targeted, and contrasted well with the Liberals’ muddled and unfocused campaign message. While there were no wild swings in party support, Conservative numbers were steadily inching upward. Advantage Harper.
But then something happened on the way to the majority: a small cut to an obscure cultural program made in the dead of summer found new meaning in an offhand comment made by the Prime Minister, and breathed new life into the Bloc Québécois campaign. Prior to that comment, it looked like the BQ was riding a train to oblivion as voters questioned its relevance and value as a party. But in one day, and with one comment, the cancellation of a program no one had heard of prior to the election became a symbol of how badly the Harper Conservatives misunderstood Quebec and turned the Quebec campaign on its head. Nanos-Sun Media polling showed that over one-third of committed BQ voters were actually voting to stop Stephen Harper from forming a majority government and not voting in favour of Gilles Duceppe.
For a leader and a party so wellschooled in message discipline, it is ironic that such an offhand remark about culture would derail what was increasingly looking like a major Conservative breakthrough in Quebec. Reaction by Quebecers to Harper’s comments was strong and immediate. The nightly tracking showed a dramatic drop in voter support in Quebec on the first night of the story. The Conservatives, who until then had been in the hunt for major seat gains, were put on the defensive and never recovered.
Then came the leaders’ debates. With two weeks to go in the campaign, and with cultural cuts and a world economy in crisis, the leaders gathered in Ottawa for the French- and Englishlanguage televised debates.
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In a game where managing expectations is the key to success, Stéphane Dion did better than expected in both debates. In contrast, the Prime Minister’s cautious and controlled approach in the French debate did not stem the Quebec tide against him. The English debates were more of a wash, not giving a particular advantage to any party leader. Fighting the Prime Minister to a draw, however, seemed to put a bit more wind in Dion’s sails — that and, of course, the economic storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Without a doubt, the biggest story for this election, in fact the backdrop, was the consistent bad news in the financial markets. It turned the economy from a positive issue for the Conservatives into a potential vulnerability. As Canadians watched their retirement savings or the savings for their children’s education take a downhill ride with no bottom in sight, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile Harper’s “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” with the sense that the world is now in uncharted financial territory.
In the first phase of the campaign, the economy played to Stephen Harper’s advantage. He was able to frame the choice as one between a steady Harper hand on the wheel and a risky, costly Dion alternative. But by mid-campaign, the economy became the growing issue of concern and conversation as the bad news poured out of the global financial markets. Volatility in the value of savings and investments led to election volatility, and Canadians found their prime minister’s reaction wanting. Imagine coming home and a family member saying they had a bad day. Responding that “the fundamentals of our family are strong” would not be enough. One needs to demonstrate a willingness to listen, understand and provide support if asked. Harper responded more like a reasoned economist than a politician in a campaign looking to connect with voters.
Harper’s response undercut the significant progress made in the opening stages of the campaign to establish a personal connection with voters and reinforced the image of the PM as distant and aloof. In contrast, the Liberals, NDP and BQ jumped in, going the extra mile to “feel voters’ pain.” Realistically, all that was missing for Harper was a second statement that he was not going to panic and would act decisively when needed. Canadian voters only needed to look south to see a rightwing Bush administration proactively looking to stem a financial crisis. Why not in Canada?
The accumulation of the bumps in the road for the Tories and the turning of the economy as an issue changed what was, at one point, a likely Harper majority and a near-death experience for both Dion and Duceppe into a closer race. It was not until the closing moments of the campaign that Harper and the Conservatives regained their footing and reclaimed some of the ground they had lost.
Looking at the big picture there are a number of narratives in this campaign.
First, Stephen Harper can rightly claim victory. Under his leadership, the Conservatives increased their number of seats in the House of Commons for the third consecutive election, and improved their showing in battleground Ontario, where they surpassed the Liberals in popular support for the first time in 20 years. But there are chinks in the Conservative armour. Although the Conservatives have the most sophisticated voter segmentation and tracking system and “knew” everything about voters, they did not fundamentally “understand” voters. The handling of the culture comments and the response to the change in the economy as an issue are indicative of a disconnect with the voting public. The Conservatives were poised to win a majority mid-campaign until the culture and crime issues revitalized BQ support. Indeed, this election surely could have resulted in a sweeping majority Harper mandate had the Conservatives been able to respond more quickly to the issue. It was truly a missed opportunity.
Second, there are very few positive messages for the Liberals in the tea leaves of the election results. Under Stéphane Dion’s leadership, the party posted one of its worst-ever seat count results, and its lowest share of the popular vote in 100 years, sinking two percentage points below the low-water mark of John Turner’s collapse to 28 percent in 1984, and four points below Paul Martin’s losing score in 2006. Moreover, on the best prime minister measure (figure 3), Stéphane Dion scored lower than Jack Layton for all but two days in the entire election. After narrowing the gap in early October and showing some strength, the leaders tipped the advantage back to the Conservatives with their weekend performances. With Stéphane Dion’s announced departure, the Liberals find themselves once again searching for a new leader, having lost two and a half years and support across the country.
Third, the CPAC-Nanos tracking data show that Jack Layton and the NDP had consistent levels of performance and ballot tracking throughout the election, which led to a strong showing on election night.
Fourth, Gilles Duceppe avoided a BQ meltdown by playing the culture card. Only time will tell whether the campaign reversal of fortunes will be long-lasting.
Finally, there is no question that getting into the leaders’ debate represented a breakthrough for the Green Party. A corresponding increase in popular support as recorded by opinion polls did not completely materialize in the ballot box. The impact of Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s decision late in the campaign to tell Green voters to cast their ballots for the Liberals is uncertain, and may have a negative long-term impact on party support.
In the end, Canadians did not focus on which leader they liked or did not like. The election was not a popularity contest but more of a reasoned pragmatic choice. This campaign will likely be known as The “Wall Street” election. It is very rare for a national election to be sideswiped by international financial turmoil, but that’s exactly what happened in 2008.
Looking to the future, and the next parliament, Canadians should take a moment to think about the morning after. This election was called by the Prime Minister to end a dysfunctional House of Commons. In these uncertain economic times, however, our last “dysfunctional” parliament might look pretty good compared to the next parliament.