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 his daughter works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.
Campaign teams are exhausted. Nerves are frayed. That's as true for the teams that are making gains as for those that are losing ground. As the clock ticks down on this most unpredictable campaign, parties have only a few choices left that might influence things. What could they do? Here's how I would size up the backroom choices today.
Incumbent MPs will be worried – some with reason. The party is polling well behind the Liberals in an election where NDP supporters desperately want to see the end of the Harper era. The party has lost the battle to win, has in all likelihood lost the battle for second place, and now must focus on holding as many of its seats as possible. Taking an aggressive stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is one way to rekindle lost enthusiasm among the labour and far left base – but it's something of a poison pill. The 15 per cent who will always vote NDP will like this position, but the next 20 per cent who might vote NDP see things differently.
Platform is only one of the problems for the NDP, and can only be part of any solution. The other is the campaign style of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair. He intended to be more reassuring than Justin Trudeau, and ended up being less inspiring. Forget about finding a sixth gear, he's got to find a fourth gear. Lovers of old-time NDP religion are the audience he needs to hold, and he's got to preach it with fire, like there's no tomorrow. That doesn't mean talking about postal service, or abolishing the Senate, or cutting small business taxes or (heaven forbid) balancing the budget. It means being a champion for the poor and oppressed – the guy who'll put his heart and soul into a fight for equality and opportunity. A narrower message, delivered to a smaller audience, with more conviction.
Every morning, Conservative strategists have to watch two things on their dashboard: Is Trudeau still growing? Is our base pumped?
In an ideal world, you could hype the base without everybody else hearing the things you say to make that happen. In the real world, that's not so easy.
Forget the arguments made by some Conservatives that they are only answering questions about Muslims and they wish people would stop asking. Day after day, comment after comment (snitch line, Bill C-24, risky refugees, niqab-wearing in everyday life), Stephen Harper is letting voters to know that it's okay to fear Muslims, it's a prudent thing to do, and maybe even a matter of Canadian honour.
This, too, is something of a poison pill. The more Mr. Harper uses this issue to rally the intolerant or fearful, the more resistant to his message the larger majority of Canadians become. Mainstream voters, hearing these themes over and over, become more tempted to coalesce around the Liberals or any local candidate that can beat a Conservative.
The Conservatives know that over-prosecution of the anti-Muslim theme gives Trudeau an opportunity to profit from a backlash, and makes voters forget about whether Trudeau is ready to manage the economy of the country.
So the logical choice is to use advertising to knock his economic chops with a broad cross-section of voters while using seemingly small tactical moves and off-the-cuff comments to keep the angry and fearful angry and fearful. My guess is that's the mix they will finish the race with, unless the nightly numbers make it clear they've got it wrong. At the end of the day, Stephen Harper's eye is on a win, and he's fully comfortable with, and accustomed to, being disliked.
The Liberal campaign has passed two important tests so far. First, they have made the case for a platform of investment and growth, and stolen the change argument from the NDP. And second, the Liberal Leader has become the talk of the election, and not in the way his opponents had intended.
Now, the Liberals face a few key choices. To win, they need to find four to five points more support in Ontario, and a bit more in B.C. as well. They can find these among disaffected progressive type conservatives and among NDP voters who are willing to vote red to avoid blue.
Ideally, you'd find a way to do both, which probably involves messages that are a blend of more respect for minority rights than the Conservatives and more economic prudence than the New Democrats. The right speeches and ads could likely balance these, and avoid having one message distract from or weaken the other.
In some ways, the bigger question for the Liberals comes down to whether what it takes to finish on top is more about passion or reason. It may be tempting to assume that voters will react to rational, fact-based arguments, but it's probably more true that voters have already priced in all the facts and figures and policy ideas that they will consider. What's left to be resolved is emotional in nature.
Welcome to the home stretch of the most exciting election campaign in modern Canadian history.