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A counter-intuitive thought

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

Christopher Waddell

This is the week, according to the way campaigns are usually covered, media attention should focus on post-debate public opinion polls. The search is on for any movement in the polls and every move is accentuated as the media looks for evidence to build a narrative of a closing race heading into second half of the campaign.

The problem this time is that so far the polls really aren’t moving. There are differences between the results reported by individual polling companies but within each poll there has been little change since the campaign started, a trend the debate didn’t change.

So the search for news means the media campaign spotlight turns to other issues – Helena Guergis, G20 spending, Afghan detainee documents – reprises of stories from the last parliament that opposition parties played hard today.  That was done despite the fact that there’s no evidence that there was a significant public response that hurt the Conservative government the first time these issues came around.

For that to be different this time, the public would have to be following the twists and turns closely enough to know what’s changed and what it means. It is just as likely that many voters hearing Guergis, detainees and the G20 thought it was more of the same noise they found so irrelevant in the last parliament that turned people off all politics rather than towards the opposition parties.

It would be ironic if coverage the media believes shines the spotlight on past Conservative misdeeds in fact leaves the public thinking politicians are at it again – talking about things that don’t matters to voters or affects their lives so what’s the point in voting.

The Conservatives with their demonstrated ability to energize their supporters and get them to the polls would be the  most likely beneficiaries if the result is more people stay home.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27

Reader's Comments

  1. jpammett |

    This may be a good campaign to illustrate the “no” side of the perennial question “Does the campaign matter?”

    I agree we may see a turnout decline greater than the underlying demographics would produce, in that short term stimulants to voting seem absent.

  2. ealboim |

    I was going to post this today but Chris beat me to it. It is a slightly different take but the core is the same

    The search for narrative: Part Two

    Among media, week three began with a sense of pregnant expectation. This was the week that the campaign would really begin, when things might start to shift and the campaign take off. By week’s end we would know a lot more and the narrative of the election would become clearer – and hopefully more dramatic.

    Well, by week’s end, we did know a lot more. Things were pretty much where they’d been. The polls moved a bit but only within their margins of error. The Conservatives were still a bit shy of majority and there was no perceived Liberal momentum. News developments – the AG report, the misleading quote, the Afghan detainee file –had bubbled up and dissipated. You could almost hear the air come out of a number of narrative balloons.

    The quest for compelling campaign narrative is a powerful media instinct – the search for the Holy Grail of politics. There are still two weeks left and few yet want to write the outcome most synchronous with current evidence – a virtual rerun of 2008 with minor seat swings. The more powerful story of a dogged prime minister finally winning his majority is not in the cards (at least not yet) under the current numbers. The fall from grace story line of an utter collapse (Circa 1984) of the Harvard dream isn’t either.

    So by week’s end, the search for secondary story lines surfaced. Helen Guergis’ plight became a story line of callous power and an indifference towards women. An argument about early voting at the University of Guelph was evidence of vote suppression of the youth vote. That built on the base of stories chronicling youth vote mobs and clever anti-Harper social media efforts and wondering if the 55% of young people who sat out the last election might be becoming motivated to vote and exert the power of their numbers.

    And minor NDP gains in the polls became the emerging undercard story of a squeeze on the Liberals in Quebec and perhaps elsewhere although it wasn’t altogether clear whether it was real or what its potential consequence might be. Potentially interesting at some level but far from realization and far removed from the probable main and relatively uninteresting story of a return to power of the Conservatives.

    Some journalists wondered out loud why none of the incidents and events of the campaign seemed to have made a difference. They mused how stories they thought “had legs”, didn’t. There was an undertone of disquiet that a PM who so clearly showed disdain for them and for the central institutions of government could be so far ahead. For those who remember, there were similar feelings about Brian Mulroney’s win in 1988 after losing almost half his cabinet to problems of one sort or another.

    So week four begins uncertainly as the boys and girls on the buses continue their quest for a captivating story line and compelling news. They are not yet ready to write this one off and of course, should not because there has been no vote and there are many days still ahead. But the track is getting shorter and the tell tale signs of stirring, let alone a break of any kind, are not evident.