For Stephen Harper, this week's debate on extending the mission to combat the Islamic State is like pushing a button that lights an applause sign across half the political spectrum. But the issue itself isn't likely to drive voters on election day – so the way the leaders handle the issue will be more telling than their party's vote.
Polls have repeatedly shown a majority of Canadians favour the contribution to the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. But a new Angus Reid Institute survey suggests that support doesn't mean Canadians are gung-ho.
While there are twice as many Canadians who support the mission as oppose it (54 per cent to 28 per cent), it's far closer when they're asked whether they want to extend the mission – 56 per cent want to see Parliament extend the mission, but 44 per cent don't.
There's skepticism about whether the mission will succeed in debilitating the Islamic State, and most don't think it will make Canada safer. And there's no consensus on how the mission should evolve – 33 per cent favour the current contribution of air strikes and advisers, 21 per cent believe Canada should also send in ground troops, and 28 per cent think we shouldn't be involved at all.
"There isn't a lot of visible desire to see a really big commitment," said Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Institute. (The online survey was conducted with 1,500 people randomly selected from a panel of 130,000)
It's still a good issue for Mr. Harper. A large proportion of Conservatives, 78 per cent, back the mission. When he talks about it, nearly everyone who'd consider voting for his party approves.
And it helps Mr. Harper promote his narrative that he's a strong leader, willing to make tough choices, and imply his Liberal opponent, Justin Trudeau, doesn't have the same mettle.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair opposed the mission clearly, saying it's not Canada's war, and might do more harm than good; a slight majority of his supporters (56 per cent) oppose extending the mission. But Mr. Trudeau, whose supporters are split 50-50, has sat on the fence, with a muddled message that Canada should support the coalition against the Islamic State, but not send bombers. He raised eyebrows when he said Canada shouldn't "whip out" its CF-18s.
But Mr. Harper does face some risk of overestimating Canadians' desire for military commitment. He said he will propose expansion, and his government has mused about expanding air strikes to include targets in Syria. But there's no sign Canadians are itching for expansion.
Jean-Christophe Boucher, a professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said Canadians usually support military missions abroad as long as they fit certain conditions – and so far, this mission does.
Canadians are willing to send the military to protect innocents from bad guys, and reports of Islamic State atrocities fill that bill, Prof. Boucher said. That support can slip over time if the moral case becomes murkier, as it seemed to in Afghanistan. But for now, Canadians see it as a good cause.
The Canadian public also likes to see us do as others like us do – notably the U.S., Britain, and France, Prof. Boucher said. And they want a proportional, limited commitment. Voters might question an expansion of air strikes to Syria if British and French planes aren't doing the same.
The Angus Reid Institute's survey also suggests Canadians don't see the mission as a simple issue. It's not about domestic security; more think it will make Canada more dangerous (38 per cent) rather than safer (19 per cent). Only 10 per cent think it will succeed; most think its impact will be less clear-cut.
And the politics? Canadians see this as one issue among many, not a big vote-driver, Ms. Kurl said.
Prof. Boucher doesn't see it as a wedge issue, either. In fact, he thinks Mr. Trudeau's position – less military, more humanitarian support – fits many Canadians. But that can seem like fence-sitting, and risk making the leader look weak. That's the political trick of this week's debate: it's less about where the parties stand, and more about the messages it sends voters about how each leader handles war.