Happy Writ Day, Canada! 5 things to watch for over the next 11 weeks

A blank writ of election for a general federal election in Canada. 338 of these will be signed today by Governor General David Johnson for the Oct. 19, 2015 election.

Gentlemen,
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to visit Canada’s Governor General at Rideau Hall around 10 am this morning, to ask that the 41st Parliament be dissolved and writs of election be issued for a general election on October 19, 2015. This will launch an 11-week federal election campaign, the longest in Canadian history – four days longer than the 74-day election in 1926 (assuming the writs are signed today.)

5 things to watch for in this election

Recent polls show the governing Conservatives and NDP in a virtual dead-heat when it comes to popular vote, with the Liberals trailing in third place, significantly behind but not yet entirely out.  It’s the closest thing we’ve had to a three-way race in, well, maybe ever.  So predictions of who will win are unusually difficult at this stage, especially with an unusually long election period. What we’ve seen in recent elections across Canada is that campaigns do matter, so this election seems likely to be won by the party that runs the most effective campaign.

1. It’s the Pocketbook, Stupid. Polling has confirmed what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: voters are most likely to be asking “what’s in it for me?” when evaluating the parties’ campaign platforms.  This factor gives an advantage to either the Tories or the NDP, depending on how closely they can stick to their scripts.  Both parties do well when they focus on pocketbook issues – the bread and butter more-money-in-your-pocket issues that resonate with self-defined “middle class” and lower-income voters.  The NDP recently won in Alberta by focusing on pocket-book issues rather than ideologically-driven socialist issues.  Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath was riding high in the polls before the 2014 provincial election because of her strong focus on pocketbook issues.  Unfortunately, her party was not on board with her mindset when she triggered the 2014 election and she lost badly.  In the aftermath, Party mandarins have reeled her in and re-educated her to parrot the Party’s losing left-wing ideology.  As a result, the NDP will not be a political factor in Ontario for the foreseeable future.

If Tom Mulcair can maintain focus on the pocketbook and avoid “lefty” ideology, he’ll do well at the polls on Oct. 19.  It’s harder to maintain message discipline with 338 candidates all pounding the pavement, especially when the campaign is long – so a long campaign is not his friend.

If Stephen Harper can keep people focused on their pocketbooks through the long campaign, he’ll do well. But there are lots of other issues that threaten to distract voters from their wallets over the next 11 weeks.

Justin Trudeau has the most difficult job on the pocketbook front.  His Liberal Party is rarely focused on practical matters and does better talking about airy-fairy theories and principles.  Neither of those is likely to compel voters to show up and vote for the trailing party in October.

2. The Economy.  Last year, Harper could point to his government’s handling of the economy through the last recession as a major feather in his cap and proof he can deliver on pocketbook promises.  But, the Canadian econ0my has started to flag, with five consecutive months of GDP shrinkage. One more month of shrinkage, which will be reported as the campaign picks up steam around Labour Day, will put Canada officially in recession.  That will provide the NDP a very welcome brick to throw repeatedly at the Harper Conservatives.

On the other hand, when voters across Canada think about their own experiences with NDP governments, many of them in BC and Ontario will remember governments that absolutely destroyed the economies of their respective provinces.  Sure, there have been NDP governments that weren’t economic disasters, but not in seat-rich provinces.

The Liberals can point to their success at battling former deficits and balancing the federal budget, but to do so, they have to remind people about Paul Martin (a brilliant finance minister and disastrous Prime Minister) and the Ad-Scam era that gutted the Liberals and paved the way for Harper to become Prime Minister in the first place.

3.  Integrity.  The Senate circus will continue through this election campaign and each news bite out of Ottawa courtrooms will take a chunk out of Harper’s trust level.  By calling an early election, he may be hoping that voters perceive the senate and election news as “politics is politics” and simply tune it out.  Trudeau and Mulcair, in particular, will be doing their best to focus on the Senate scandals when they can.  But, in so doing, they must use up their precious share of audience bandwidth talking about reasons not to vote Conservative, rather than talking about reasons to vote for them.  This may boost the Liberal vote and depress the NDP vote, leading to a split that benefits the Conservatives.

4.  Spending.  Much has been said, for good reason, about the election finance laws and the fact a long election means the parties can spend more money on this campaign.  The Conservatives have more money in the bank and have proven to be much more effective fundraisers than the other two parties, so a long election favours them.  They will come out the gate with a heavy ad spend (they’re doing it already before they even got in the chute) and try to maintain the pace.  Expect to see more ads targeting Mulcair on a screen near you soon.

More money to spend also means Stephen Harper will be able to travel earlier and more often to more places than his main competitors.  This will allow him to win coverage in more local media than his competitors, leaving them to fight over second-mentions in the national media.

5.  Provincial Governments.  Once the campaign period begins, third party advertisers such as Working Families Coalition, unions and single-issue groups, will come under strict spending limits. (There are no limits on their spending pre-writ). This is a boon to the Conservatives, who are the target of most third-party attack ads.  However, there is no spending limit on what provincial governments can say during the campaign period.

Ontario voters are particularly important to federal parties and I expect the Liberal government of Ontario to ramp up its anti-Harper rhetoric to stratospheric levels as the campaign proceeds.  Premier Kathleen Wynne has already been doing this for months and will “turn it up to 11” over the next 11 weeks.  When Trudeau fails to become Prime Minister on October 19, expect her to be a leading contender to eat him alive and take his spot in the years to come.

For the same reasons, it will be interesting to watch the behaviour and rhetoric out of Edmonton as Alberta’s new NDP government finds its way through its first federal election.