Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
All the strategy and planning of a national political campaign is essential. But party veterans know elections are messy and organic, not neatly manufactured. Things happen that disrupt flow and create new momentum.
Alberta's election had a flash point, when Jim Prentice disrespected Rachel Notley during a leaders' debate, and lit a match to his political career. A flippant comment about families spending daycare money on 'beer and popcorn' haunted the Liberals in 2006. In 1984, a too-casual "inside voice" moment by Brian Mulroney had him sounding like he thought patronage was an inside joke ("no whore like an old whore"). He recovered later in the campaign when he hammered John Turner with more appropriate sounding indignation ("you had a choice").
There are many examples to remind us that it's impossible to predict what an election will turn on.
But, with that caveat stated, here are five things I'll be watching for.
Can a cool economy warm Tory fortunes?
Stephen Harper says the economy is pretty darn good. Okay, maybe not as good as it could be. But the other fellows would make it a lot worse. He's betting people will think a mild recession is the best we can hope for, and that there are no better ideas out there. Many Canadians have accepted this argument for years – but with the U.S. economy growing, and having had to listen to Conservatives boast about their record for years, the PM has his work cut out for him. A campaign about the economy has more potential risk, and less potential reward for Stephen Harper in 2015, than in any of his prior campaigns.
Your parents' NDP, or something different?
Thomas Mulcair spent almost no time in his launch speech talking about the NDP. He said his focus would be on improving the economy for regular Canadians. He knows that if he's going to win this election, it won't be because Canadians have finally decided that it's time for a sharp left turn. He'll be grilled on the long-standing NDP aversion to trade deals, mushy policy language about 'social licence' and what it really means for economic development projects, whether oil, LNG, pipelines, mines. He wants to tax businesses more, but regrow the manufacturing sector. How he answers these questions could determine whether mainstream voters believe the change he would deliver will accelerate the economy, or apply the brakes to it.
A Trudeau second wind?
Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair hope Justin Trudeau disappears from view and the election becomes a two-way fight between a party of the left and a party of the right. This could happen, and Trudeau's back is to the wall, no doubt. But the next 11 weeks for Justin Trudeau include no days in the House of Commons, where his share of voice is small and his performance only average. Instead, he'll have day after day on the hustings, which is where he built the substantial lead he had only a year ago. His priority is to start a new, comeback narrative. To make that happen, his performance in this week's first debate is not quite an "all-in" moment, but close to it.
A wartime election?
In his opening statement, the Prime Minister spoke at length of the risks in the world and the threats to Canadians' safety and security. Generally, the voters who most worry about these issues (about 15 per cent in total) are solid supporters of the Conservatives. The PM is betting that he can make the threat of Islamic State a ballot-influencing issue for more voters. But it's possible that world events will likely have more to do with whether this bet pays off than the repetition of arguments that have been made for months domestically.
Nowhere to hide
Arrogance is the only crime in Canadian politics where a conviction comes with an automatic death penalty. Eleven weeks of questions from journalists and voters will wear on these leaders. In a 37-day sprint, a low-bridge campaign with few unscripted moments is easier to imagine. But that much control won't be possible for almost 80 days, and if voters think they are being taken for granted, or played for rubes, it will show up in polling data before long. For better or worse, there will likely be more authentic moments in this campaign than we are used to seeing.