Canadian Federal Election musings from a recovering hack (two weeks to go!)

Sitting outside in the warm sun of an October Sunday, it’s hard to embrace the idea that “Winter is coming”; which, electorally and meteorologically, it is.

Two weeks from today is Election Day in Canada.  

The federal election campaign will conclude with balloting on Monday, October 21st, and by the time Canadians wake up on Tuesday, October 22nd, we will know who has been (re)hired for the Prime Minister’s job.

Two weeks from Election Day – what do we know?

What do the polls tell us about vote intention, and what do seat projection models tell us about how support will translate into seats in Canada’s 338-seat House of Commons?

There are plenty of good “strategists” and “advisors” out there on TV or in other forms of broadcast media – many of whom I count as friends.  Most of them are prepared to tell you only their fervently-hoped-for-outcome (because, if you are an active partisan, the desire not to be seen “letting down the side” by embracing and publicly discussing what is *actually happening* tends to govern during an election, especially).

Many of the political scientists and non-aligned pundits being asked for comment will only hedge on definitive answers to any particular outcome-based questions because, well, they’re human. Most people don’t like egg on their faces. 

Let’s be honest, listening to spin gets old quick(ly), and watching “objective” analysts squirm to avoid proffering anything besides generalisms is, well, boring. 

So here are some observations from a former insider and student of politics, about where this campaign is, with two weeks to E-Day.

Burying the lede: Justin Trudeau’s Liberal will win a plurality of seats on October 21st. (This is where most people would insert a series of smart qualifiers and caveats. I insert none. We will wake up with him continuing as PM in two weeks and one day’s time).

How will each party fare in seat count?

Liberals – Down

Tories – Up

NDP – Down

BQ – Up

Greens – Up

Why? As John Kerry’s former advisor once said, the reasons are “…nuanced and multi-faceted”.  But, put simply, most/enough people aren’t ready for a change. And, while there may be (strong?) disapproval for some of the current PM’s actions and approaches (#SNC, #Blackface/brownface, #RIPElectoralreform), there’s not generally seen to be a better alternative out there. I’ve even seen senior (red Tory) Conservatives say “what better option do I have?”

There are and will be lots of localized arguments about the state of the “sign war” (Pro tip: Signs don’t vote) as evidence we Canadians are going to throw the bums out…but, nah.  Not happening.  (For an interesting homage to the resilience of the lawn sign efforts in our digital age, see this piece by the NYT’s Ian Austen last weekend).

There will be plenty of turnover in the Member of Parliament (MP) ranks.  Some of this will be from retirements (as of the Spring, the non-reoffering count was at about 50 MPs.  Since then a number of others have bowed-out).  Others will lose because they won in 2015 on a Trudeau wave (hello, Atlantic Canada and Ontario!), and still others because of a resurgent Bloc Québécois in la belle Provence, pipeline politics and/or hangovers from the major shifts at the provincial government level in Canada since the last Federal election in 2015 (I’m talking about you, Ontario, New Brunswick and Alberta; and yes, maybe even the emergent PEI Green enigma).

I’m not going to peg a full-on seat count at this juncture – that may be a bridge-too-far with 2 weeks to go, but I do admire Eric Grenier’s work at CBC and the 338 seat projections, and think they’re both generally in the right direction.  

As of now, and frankly for most of the campaign, they both have the Liberals in the high 150s to 160s, and the Conservatives in the 130-140 range.

The NDP stand to lose 20-30 seats under most projections, and the BQ to gain 4-9 (to land up in the high teens) while the Greens — despite polling consistently at 2x the BQ numbers — are still in the low single digits (between 3-5 seats, total). 

Biggest surprises of the campaign so far:

  • Wilting Mayflower – Elizabeth May rode a wave of momentum into the campaign, with fawning media coverage and use of words like ‘breakthrough’ (see here for one representative piece).  And, to be frank, my thought was that she stood the best chance of turning tonight’s English-language leader’s debate to her advantage. Instead, she’s been beset by predictable gaffes, evidence of how being too grassroots can create a lot of loose ends, and by wonkish answers to emotional and otherwise fundamental questions.
  • #Oppofails — This is, perhaps the worst election in my lifetime for the parties’ to have utterly failed to do “Oppo” (the term of art in politics for getting the destabilizing and otherwise dirty stuff on your opponent) on themselves and their own leaders.  Whether it’s the Mr. Dressup antics of Trudeau or the sketchy CV of Scheer (among other issues across the spectrum), the parties have failed miserably in this dark arts category.

Not surprising:

  • #Tourfails — Leaders tours are a focal point of the media, and how a campaign projects its image and conveys its “message” to voters.  For that reason, there is a disproportionate focus on the logistics of these massive undertakings.  There’s the bus-in-plane-Wing-thing of the Liberals, the rent-a-crowds of the Tories, the photo-shopped mug of May, to name a few.
  • Candidate firings – Especially with the advent of social media, candidate eruptions (and calls to, or the actual act of, firing them) has become almost commonplace.  The issue is trying to limit the number of people who drop out after names are already set to be on ballots and candidates aren’t replaceable any longer.

What to watch for this week:

  • English-Language Leader’s Debates: This is like candy for political watchers (insert eye-roll and thoughts of “lame!” here…).  Truly, debates themselves do not change elections – despite how breathlessly some people may try and talk them up this way.  They can produce revealing or important moments, they can help journalists to shape the end-game narrative, but debates themselves do not change the course of elections.  They just provide potential fodder to unlock or unleash the forces of the electorate.  Distinction without a difference, maybe, but I’ve never been a fan of the knock-out punch potential of most political debates.
  • Leader’s Tour Itineraries: Where the leaders go in the last/dying days of a campaign does have a lot to say/show about where they believe they can make a difference.  Sometimes, this is purely defensive (“saving the furniture” in political parlance), but much of the time it’s meant to telegraph where and how they see the last days playing out.  You will also begin to hear the “end-game” messaging take over.  Elizabeth May has already started her “give me the balance of power in a minority government” message, meant to stanch the bleeding the Green vote intention seems to be having since early August (for more on good election polling, Nic Nanos has long been one of Canada’s pre-eminent, most reliable pollsters).  Expect to see Trudeau mostly in Quebec, the “905 belt” in Ontario, and BC – with obligatory stops in key ridings in other places to show his national reach and ambition (plus, he has two planes!).  Scheer will hit the 905 and some key BC ridings, and also the hoped-for pick-ups in New Brunswick and the Prairies.   Singh will be playing some defence in Quebec, some offence in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), and the Prairies/BC.  Elizabeth May will either make a choice to do some ‘silver buckshot’, and keep up the illusion of a truly national campaign (to increase her overall vote share and therefore argument to push for electoral reform in a minority government – more on this from me next week), or actually hone-in on the 6-9 ridings in which her party is competitive (which are actually spread in pockets across the country), in hopes of converting ~5 of those on E-day.  The BQ will try and follow-up on YFB’s (Yves-Francois Blanchet, their leader, for those of us in English Canada) strong TVA debate performance and really drive home their message in the Saguenay and regions where there’s a pre-disposition to vote BQ.  Mad Max?  Who cares. He’ll win his own seat if he’s having a good day on the 21st.
  • Single-digits-to-E-Day: Central campaigns (both nationally, and regionally) are shipping out their workers and staff to buttress and support key ridings this week.  They have begun to “staff down”, recognizing the shift to GOTV (Get Out The Vote) and the “ground-game”, as the ‘air war’ is partially narrative-driven from the media and the ad buys are all bought and paid for at this stage.  Advanced voting has started, so campaigns are trying to get their identified vote out early, so they can focus on the undecided or “leaning” folks.

What’s next

  • Minority government maneuvering (more on this from me next week).  Expect it to swing into full gear from the BQ, the NDP and the Greens – all looking to make a case for why they should have more seats to hold the balance of power with.  Both the Conservatives and the Liberals will gamely campaign for a majority, although at this stage that’s really only in reach for the Liberals with some amazing vote efficiency and a few bobbled opportunities by the Tories, as well as a few vote splits going their way.