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Politics Six key things that will decide the federal election

So many things will factor in the decision that millions of us make this election, it's reckless to try to focus on just a few. But here goes anyway (based on a blend of personal observation and in some cases, Abacus polling data).

1. Tom Mulcair's campaign launch was a downer for any who were hoping for a rousing call to arms. He was stiff, took no questions, absorbed more energy than he created. An awkward start that foretold an 11-week struggle to find a tone of voice that worked.

2. Deficit Day: On a single day, the NDP leader pledged to balance the books and the Liberal leader promised to borrow to stimulate the economy. Both took a risk in the hopes of attracting hesitant voters. Public reaction could have gone either way. It was going to be a matter of who made a more convincing and inspiring case. Trudeau bested his more experienced adversary.

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3. In the closing moments of the Maclean's debate, Trudeau wrapped up with a closing statement that left some viewers cold, or worse. One reporter said it was "kind of horrible". But our polling showed that regular voters who watched it, liked what he had to say and how he said it. It contained a theme that would prove powerful: Stephen Harper wants you to believe "that better isn't possible…but better is always possible".

4. No consortium debate. Stephen Harper's best moments in this campaign were when he was on stage debating the other leaders. His command of complex issues was impressive, his demeanour was cool. These were moments when he had a chance to make a pitch to uncertain voters he would never meet on the campaign trail. If his image has been a drawback, his cause would have been better served by showing him at his best in front of the much larger audience that the major TV networks could have provided. A poor choice, possibly made for emotional (Sun TV vs. Media Party thinking), rather than rational reasons.

5. Snitch line day. Mainstream voters were already developing an uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Harper's fascination with the niqab had a darker side to it. Even those who agreed with him about uncovered faces in a citizenship ceremony were hard pressed to understand why he cared about it so much. One moment, the PM would find a way to fan the flame; in the next breath would accuse the other parties of stoking things. But when Mr. Harper had his Ministers Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander announce a tip line for people to report on their neighbours "barbaric cultural practices", a mask was removed: a flagging campaign was willing to divide, in order to conquer. The election quickly became about the values that define us, a fight that may turn out to be the worst choice the Conservatives made in this campaign.

6. The ad war. Not a single moment per se, but a collection of moments. The expected Conservative ad onslaught failed to strengthen their campaign, according to our data, and the last series "Trudeau is clueless" actually pushed away people who were considering the Conservatives. The NDP ads lacked the disruptive effect they needed to change the trajectory of a campaign that was going sideways. Trudeau's campaign had at least two strong spots. While some ridiculed his "they say I'm not ready" ad for giving oxygen to his opponents' argument, voters reacted positively. It seemed authentic and honest. Trudeau said, in effect "hey look everybody, at this elephant in the room". Later, the Liberals filled a rally with thousands of supporters and built from it an ad with plenty of the kind of emotion that builds momentum in the home stretch.

With hours on the clock, the outcome of the election remains uncertain. What's easier to conclude is that one party comprehensively out-campaigned the others. And a lot of voters noticed.

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