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So what now?

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Elly Alboim

Last night’s English language debate clarified some campaign variables while others remain uncertain and speculative.

Let’s start with media, the first and influential intermediary for those who didn’t watch and for many who did.

It seems clear that no matter how you assess individual performance, there is no immediate momentum or “buzz” around Mr. Ignatieff. There is a clear media consensus about that. Post debate commentary displayed an almost tangible wistfulness for what many of them see as the end of the possible Cinderella story of a strongly competitive campaign outcome. The first polls of the morning will underscore that. They show, at least initially, no significant change and where asked, a sense that Mr. Harper did very well.

Barring some reversal in the polling data, emphasis will now switch remorselessly to the prospects of a majority government for Mr. Harper and whether strategic voting will coalesce to stop it.

Part of the Liberal gamble to precipitate an election from so far behind was that Canadians had not had the chance to see Mr. Ignatieff in action and that to see him was to re-evaluate the view of him created by the Conservatives. It is not clear that the thesis is bearing itself out post debate although he clearly performed at least reasonably well.

As to the French language debate this evening, it is possible that performance may impact on what some say is a shifting dynamic in Quebec. But three of the leaders are speaking in their second language – always an obstacle for many Quebec voters. And given that this debate comes second and will have comparably fewer first hand viewers outside Quebec, it is unlikely it will impact on the overall dynamic. It will take something extraordinary for it to mean much in the Rest of Canada. Nevertheless, if what many believe to be the relatively predictable seat math in Quebec gets shaken up, it may create unforeseen changes to the overall count.

There is more potential math at play. More than three quarters of a million Liberal voters sat it out in 2008. If Mr. Ignatieff’s performance gives them reason to reengage, they can alter the equation somewhat. After all the percentage of vote is a function of the turnout. If undecided regular voters were to split along polling lines (the usual outcome), the return to the polls of lapsed Liberals would have a significant impact on holding Mr. Harper to a minority.

How likely is that? It is impossible to tell because it depends on motivating people in a way that is impossible to track.

The flip side is whether undecided voters break towards what they see to be the stability of majority government. That of course is the Conservative objective. If it comes to pass, it would neutralize at least in part any re-entry of lapsed Liberals.

There are still almost three weeks to go and that other variable – the often quoted Harold MacMillan “events dear boy” – is always in play. The AG report can still reverberate or accelerate. All election campaigns feature unforeseen events and issues. Whether this campaign has had its share or whether there are more to come is an “unknown unknown.”

Finally, the variable that starts becoming more and more important as of this week is paid advertising. Conventional campaign wisdom backloads the advertising buy and it also suggests that the losing party invest heavily in darkly negative ads to undermine the front runner. In the unfortunate reality that most Canadians say they get much of their campaign information from political ads, the impact of that is still to be calibrated. Certainly late campaign negative advertising had an impact in 1988, 2004 and 2006. It had a different counter-productive impact in 1993.

By the end of week, after the French language debate and a spate of polls, more variables will clarify and we’ll know much more about where all of this is going.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief.