An election campaign full of surprises and shifts

May 1, 2011

As the election campaigns hit the home stretch, Globe reporters Patrick Brethour, Les Perreaux and Adam Radwanski reflect on the events of the past weeks, and offer some thoughts on the political landscape to come.

Patrick Brethour: Les, Adam - What started out as the most boring campaign I could remember suddenly became the most interesting election since at least 1993, when the federal landscape was last radically altered. What was the first sign you saw that a big shift was coming?

Les Perreaux: I travelled with the Bloc for the first week of the campaign, and I use the word "travel" loosely. The lack of ambition and energy on the trail with Gilles Duceppe was instantly apparent. We didn't leave Montreal for the first five days. There were a lot of events that were strictly for media, and when they did assemble supporters, the rooms were half empty and nearly devoid of enthusiasm. I won't say this was a harbinger of an NDP surge, but it was clear the Bloc was relying on voter habits.

Adam Radwanski: Watching the English-language debate, I thought Jack Layton was coming off poorly - too glib, with the goofy "hashtag fail" and "bling" references, and the line about crooks in the Senate. But others evidently disagreed.

The French-language debate was probably a bigger factor in his party's ascent, given that the surge started (and is still strongest) in Quebec. But the favourable reactions to Layton in the days that followed the English debate were the first sign I saw that people had an open mind about him.

The New Democrats' strategy, in the debates, was to cut through the noise and stop being marginalized by the two biggest parties. It's fair to say they exceeded their goals.

PB: For me, it was the English-language debate - ironically, the Quebec-centred part of it. Gilles Duceppe attempted to ambush Jack Layton on extending Bill 101 to federally-regulated businesses in Quebec. It was pretty clear he was looking to tee up a more ferocious attack on language issues in the French debate the following night (which he did). Clearly, Mr. Duceppe was worried about the NDP; he was right to be so.

Adam, to your last point. Entirely accurate, but fair to say, it's been the NDP's goal in previous elections to avoid being squeezed to the margins; it's just not succeeded until now. What was different this time? Same leader, similar platform...

AR: That's the question we'll be trying to answer for years, I think.

Setting aside Quebec, which is a whole other dynamic that Les probably understands better than I do, my best guess is that Mr. Layton has filled the populism void.

Mr. Harper, who once occupied more of that space, is running a weirdly remote campaign in which he speaks in macro terms about the economy. Michael Ignatieff is passionately complaining about the Conservatives' treatment of democratic institutions, but to many people it just sounds like he's standing up for Ottawa. Mr. Layton is talking largely about pocketbook stuff, and comes off like he understands people's everyday concerns.

This is also the campaign, I think, in which his personal charms have struck the sharpest contrast with that of his opponents. Mr. Layton comes off like a real people person. Mr. Ignatieff gives the impression that he's trying really hard to seem like a people person. And Mr. Harper isn't even trying to do that any more.

LP: No doubt the NDP deserves some credit, but I really see their improved standing as more attributed to the decline of the others. I covered the NDP campaign in 2004 and during the Christmas campaign of 2005-06 and I didn't see vast improvement. The Liberals are dead in francophone Quebec. The Bloc is tired and lacks a Canadian outrage to hammer on. That leaves Jack Layton as a cheery default option for left-leaning French-speaking Quebeckers. And, as is often the case, a surge by any party in Quebec lifts the boat in other regions in Canada.

PB: Adam, I think you've nailed it: Stephen Harper tried to gather up that sentiment in his stop-the-bickering message in the debates. Problem is, he couldn't articulate a big vision that he would get to work on, should he be given a majority. Really, he was reliving the 2008 campaign, as were the other parties for that matter. Voters, bless their hearts, were not. Adam, Les - any closing thoughts on what we'll see on Monday?

LP: It will certainly be incredible if the NDP defeats the Bloc in Quebec. Even if the federalist parties combined manage to win more seats than the Bloc, that would have to be considered a big positive for Canadian federalism. Any willingness to buy in from francophone Quebeckers is a positive sign. I would, however, caution against the usual eulogies for the sovereigntist cause. It's not dead yet.

I was really struck over the past week how the NDP's shot at second place has supplanted the Conservative shot at a majority government as the story to end the campaign. It's a bit of an odd turn, given how a majority Conservative government could change Canada.

AR: Les makes a good case there. And really, so long as the NDP doesn't take away too many Conservative seats, this whole thing hasn't worked out too badly for Mr. Harper. He was hoping we'd spend the whole election talking about Mr. Ignatieff and his dastardly scheme for a coalition; instead we've wound up talking about Mr. Layton. But the bottom line is that it's allowed his majority pitch to fly under the radar, and he's just fine with that.

One other stray thought is just what a remarkable failure the Liberals' strategy has been. I know that seems self-evident. But it has to be said: Their big goal coming into this campaign was to win back the votes that have drifted from their party to the NDP over the last decade. Instead, that shift seems to be accelerated beyond anyone's wildest imagination. Talk about backfiring.

Finally, a modest hope. If Mr. Harper winds up winning a majority with nearly two-thirds of people voting against him, and the NDP gets fewer seats than the Liberals despite finishing way above them in popular support, perhaps it will help kick start a discussion about our electoral system. That's one post-mortem I'd really like to see.

PB: If Mr. Harper really does squeak out a majority, we're likely to see a big change in the national scene: a national Conservative plurality that is edging toward 40 per cent, the NDP as the main left-of-centre party, and a Liberal party in steep decline. If that sounds familiar, it should - it's been the entire thrust of Mr. Harper's long-term strategy, though I don't imagine he thought it would arrive quite so quickly.

But given the volatility of the polls - particularly within regions - in the last couple of weeks, Mr. Harper could be joining Mr. Ignatieff in the ranks of misfiring strategists. If the Conservative minority is weakened, and the NDP can make the case for forming a government, Mr. Harper becomes a footnote in Jack Layton's biography, the Arthur Meighen of the 21st Century.

One last thought (and this is cribbing a bit from Adam's excellent Saturday piece). It's impossible to say what will happen with voter turnout, though advance polls do point toward a rebound. Setting that aside, this election has restored competitive electoral politics to much of Canada. The Tories still have a bit of a lock on the Prairies, but even there, the NDP is a factor. On the other hand, the Conservatives have a real shot at nabbing urban seats across the country.

That is fabulous, not because of the fate of a particular riding, but because it means our democracy becomes more vibrant if parties can't take voters for granted, or conversely, if they don't simply write off large swathes of the country.

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