Is Harper’s campaign in decline?

Recent polls would indicate that the Conservative campaign has experienced a steady softening in support since both federal leader’s debates. When polls go well partisans treat them like gospel and when they go poorly, the methodology is questioned. Supporters will point to a good poll, frame it, put it in the window well past the time it fades with age and relevance. And for bad polls, well, polls simply for dogs aren’t they?

With respect to one’s worldview, in recent weeks that of many Canadians — not to speak others around the world — has been shaken by the global economic crisis. Up is down and then up again before it goes back down and while Canadians are captivated by their investment portfolios, they find as much uncertainty with the future of politics as they do the economy and thus politics captivates us all as well.

In a time of global economic uncertainty, are we seeing a natural inclination of Canadians to be uncertain of politics as well? As the stock markets take dips and dives affected by factors outside of our borders it is understandable that Canadians are in a state of uncertainty on how they would shape the future political landscape of this country.

In the next week, Canadians will be forced to make a choice early, before all of the dust has settled worldwide and Canadians will look to what they know but they will be largely affected by what they will come to understand over the next week. These 6 days before the election are critical for the leaders to make their case and for them to shape perceptions of their ability to lead, to show stability and convince Canadians that their vision represents stability to allow the Canadian ship to weather the global economic storm.

I write this as I watch Stephane Dion address a joint meeting of the Empire Club and the Canadian Club of Toronto. The Prime Minister addressed the same organizations the day before at the Royal York and such speeches at this junction of the campaign can shape perceptions, firm up expectations and bring stability to uncertain political times.

Yet such hallmark opportunities to address Canadian business and economic leaders can be an early political indicator for the final close on election day. Declining campaigns show declining momentum; in the last days of the 2006 federal election, as John Tory’s bid for Ontario Premier came to a close last year, as Ernie Eves ushered in last dying battle cry of the common sense revolution, reports indicated dwindling numbers at rallies, diminished interest in speeches and rooms left half-full as leaders could do little to hide realities of a halted momentum in their campaigns. As an indicator of campaign viability, the Prime Minister’s campaign has positive momentum during these final days of the campaign. As suggested by Steve Paikin’s tweet just one hour ago from the Royal York, the same cannot be said for Stephane Dion, “the royal york is starting to fill up. dion is en route. harper had 1000 yesterday. only 300 for dion today.”

So, what of these polls that suggest a tightening between the Harper and Dion campaigns? Unlike financial markets that show volatility in real-time where investors can gain or lose their fiscal security in one single day, Canadians are fortunately not faced with the same demands as they make political decisions. As the economic world spikes and plunges before them, Canadians are taking stock of the political landscape and are doing their research before they lock in their investment on election day. The question is, when they vote, will they be bullish and choose high risk with uncertain yield or will they go with a safe investment which has shown a stable modest return?

The battle for second place

As we enter the third week of the federal election campaign, one cannot help but be struck by how early poll numbers suggesting a Conservative majority government have held. Nanos/CPAC numbers were fairly consistent over the past three days indicating an approximate fifteen point margin between the Conservatives and the Liberals. As one senior Liberal strategist told Sunmedia’s Greg Weston, “For us to make any significant gains would require that just about everything go terribly wrong for the Conservatives.”

We’re about to see the opening of a secondary race; the race for Stornoway is going to be of intense media focus. Consider this: the NDP has a greater chance of tieing or surpassing the Liberals than Liberal leader Stephane Dion has of challenging Stephen Harper for the lead. When we consider this truth, the narrative changes: this is no longer a race to replace the Prime Minister, this is a race to hold him to a minority. And, as NDP and Liberal numbers tighten up, there’s a new math problem for the left-wing collective calculator to solve. Indeed, pollster Angus-Reid yesterday showed results of a national tie between the Dippers and Grits with a larger sample size than usual and a margin of error of just 2.5%.

The New Democrats have always battled with the Liberals to be champions of the left, and now a new entrant – the Greens – are proving to be a serious challenge for Layton. In the past, we’ve seen the estranged Liberal family unite under the banner of the Think-Twice Coalition that usually includes folks like Buzz Hargrove, Maude Barlow, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. Will we see an 11th hour alliance between Liberals and the Greens or will such a move sour the goodwill that May has built by making a case for her inclusion in the leader’s debate?

If the Tories play things responsibly and do some smart thinking – twice if need be – and refrain from being too eager to respond to each and every opportunity to put out some pushback, this race will focus on the territorial skirmish on the left. This week’s debate may just help Canadians break from the psychology of the Conservative-Liberal dichotomy and a solid performance from Jack Layton is important for this to happen. In fact, look for Stephen Harper to be a willing combatant against Layton when the NDP leader challenges him this Thursday. Harper and Layton will balance this by doing their best to dunk Dion with their respective right and left feet whenever he tries to get his head above water but we’ll see Elizabeth May come to his rescue in order to get some valuable stage time. Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe will just muddle the left-wing message by taking up yet another podium and will do well to underscore the divide between a calm and collected Harper and the jumbled, disjointed side-show to his left. Though Canadians have been impressed with Duceppe’s English language debate performances in the past and are familiar with the Bloc leader, having a separatist voice among the muddled and crowded opposition will just lead more Canadians to side with Harper. If Layton finds his voice with Harper’s help, a strong debate performance by the NDP, in concert with the surging of his party’s poll numbers and the darkness embracing the Liberals may change the media narrative (and Canadian psychology) to think of the NDP as the champion of the underdog left. It is doubtful that the media will then focus on Harper vs. Layton for the rest of the race. They will, however, treat the Dion-Layton-May contest as its own.

The combination of these factors will put the Liberals in crisis mode as their war-room, faced with a question of survival, not only electoral but institutional, debates on whether to spend the limit or bank the few dollars that come its way during the rare fundraising event that is a general election.

What hasn’t been discussed may in fact be the clincher for a Harper majority this election. With so many parties eating each other’s lunch on the left, that magic 40% threshold for a majority may in fact be old math. Jean Chretien, facing a fractured right won a 155 seat majority with 38.5% of the popular vote. The left has pushed for proportional representation in the past in order to buck unity of ideology for increased representation in Parliament. After October 14th, as May, Layton and whoever replaces Dion work over the new math they might come to realize that unity presents the only way forward. For now, the left battles itself with four divided voices and the prize is second place.

Who cares about policy! When’s the election?

In Ottawa this year, it seems that most parties have figured out the very fuel which drives media cycles and therefore access to important eyeballs during the dinner hour news: election speculation.

From CTV’s Question Period, to CBC’s At-Issue Panel to even CPAC’s Primetime Politics, the questions are almost cliché,

What do today’s events mean for election timing?

Will we see an election this spring or before summer?

I’ve noticed that the Conservative government has tied this number one concern of Ottawa-area reporters with the issues that they want to underscore for their constituents. Crime is perhaps the best polled issue for Conservatives and by this measure alone, it has the Prime Minister’s party towering above the others even in Liberal Fortress Toronto. Yet, it is a topic the media either doesn’t find attractive or relevant to selling ad space or commercial time. How could the Conservatives remedy the situation?

Late last year and early this year, the Conservative government made its crime bills an omnibus one and an issue of confidence. Immediately, the passage of the crime bills and Conservative-Liberal logger heads on the issue and the striking differences between the two parties on a popular Conservative issue could be highlighted. By testing the confidence of the House, the Conservatives were able to talk about their issues, but by tying it to election speculation, they had a willing open microphone in the mainstream media.

Even as polls show immobility for the Liberals and Conservatives in the electoral horserace, recent events such as the halting of the sale of MDA, the seizure of the Farley Mowatt are being seen through the lens of election timing even though most in this town have written off an election prior to the summer break. Darrel Bricker of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs tried to do his part to drive election speculation by calling the recent poll numbers as “a stalemate in perpetual motion.”

We’ve even seen opposition parties use the allure of the election story to highlight their policy differences with the Conservatives. The Liberals embarrassingly threatened to pull down the government over changes to immigration legislation by dropping a confidence motion on the government to force an election in early June. Unfortunately for Dion, the Liberal leader then proceeded to vote for the immigration legislation.

So, when will there be an election? It seems to be a matter of importance to anyone that works within the Ottawa bubble as travel schedules need to be booked, airtime reconfigured and commercials for sit-down showers benched for Lakota herbal medicine and alpaca farming opportunities. Outside of the bubble, people are concerned with real policy and how it will affect their lives. Bring on “vote-rich Ontario” and “the path to a Harper majority goes through Quebec” because if that’s how policy discussion is framed by our media framers, then parliamentarians will keep the press hounds rabid thinking Ottawa is always on the brink of election.

Harper sizzles in latest poll

The Prime Minister’s personal numbers continue to sizzle and the latest poll shows a continuation of this trend. This latest poll final question asks for an important answer from Canadians. It’s an answer that speaks to the personality of a politician and the “main street” appeal of any candidate for the office of Prime Minister.

It’s the Harvey’s/Ipsos-Reid Hamburger poll commissioned in honour of National Hamburger Day which falls on the 28th day of this month of May.

It’s a moderately well known fact around Ottawa that Harvey’s actually is one of the PM’s favourite places to grab some food on the go and it’s of no real surprise that Harper cleans the grill (sorry) with the other contenders.

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Dion comes up with a particularly poor showing. Perhaps Canadians are already aware of his hotdog-eating etiquette.

“If this gets out, it could mean the end of the Liberal Party of Canada,” warned a local politico, requesting anonymity.

And what, pray tell, has the Grits so up in arms? It seems that when Stephane Dion touched down in Winnipeg last month, he and his entourage popped by North End mega-icon Kelekis for lunch. There, Dion shocked locals and his handlers by eating Kelekis’s world-famous hot dog with – gasp! – a knife and fork.

“It conjured images of George on Seinfeld eating a Snickers bar the same way,” said another witness who, for obvious reasons, also asked not to be named.

The same poll found that cheese tops the list for favourite topping among Canadians (63%) while only 13% of Canadian eat the burger alone.