Election 2015: Overview

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Political News Monday, November 09, 2015 View Count = 2203

Election 2015: Overview

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“Election 2015: Overview” is written by Chris Waddell from Carleton University. 

W
ithin just 96 hours of October's federal election, Chris Waddell and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

In the end, it wasn’t close at all.

Television networks could have come on the air at 9:30 pm Eastern time on October 19 saying Canadians had voted for a Liberal government even before a single vote had been counted between Quebec and Alberta. They politely waited for a few minutes before doing just that and then, seemingly within moments, called a Liberal majority. So much for predictions of a long night of tight races ending an eleven-week campaign, during most of which opinion polls showed Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats all clustered around 30% support.

In hindsight, things unfolded just as anticipated. Polling in July consistently found two thirds of Canadians wanted change and two thirds of those would vote for whoever could defeat the Conservative Party. The opposition party that had the momentum by Thanksgiving (October 12) would have the advantage. That was the Liberals.

Whether voters really decided in that last week or earlier may become obvious by comparing the results of the record 3.6 million votes cast at Thanksgiving-weekend advance polls with the counts on October 19. What’s harder to tell is whether Canadians voted for the Liberals or against the Conservatives. The answer to that could play a major role in the longevity of Justin Trudeau’s government. What is clear is that the Liberals caught the public’s current desire for change and each day of the campaign they drove home a positive message of change, one that was in contrast with the style and tone of Conservative party politics. Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver responded, where ignoring gridlock and environmental concerns seemed by-products of the cost-cutting induced by the Conservatives’ balanced-budget obsession.

But the visuals were just as important as Trudeau’s message. The camera loves the Liberal leader and the party used that to great effect every day, beginning with an unorthodox campaign launch at the gay pride parade in Vancouver. Playing to and off the enthusiasm of crowds in both staged and spontaneous moments, the Trudeau campaign looked different than the others in stills and video. You didn’t even need sound to get it. The leader thrived on the attention and crowds reciprocated. The message was spontaneity, risk-taking, and generational change. Visually, neither Stephen Harper nor Thomas Mulcair stood a chance. Not much else they tried worked either. Was all that the result of the specific dynamics of this campaign, or perhaps it was a reflection of the broader societal changes that will force re-evaluation of basic principles of political strategy and communication?

People may not like negative advertising, but it works, is the rationale often offered. This time it failed miserably, despite millions of dollars spent primarily by the Conservatives with the NDP piling on as its hopes slipped away. Who did the ads actually reach? Certainly not younger Canadians who have no interest in cable and satellite television in their turn away from mainstream media. Four years from now more Canadians will have embraced that view. Voters in much of Canada also found the almost-universal print media endorsement of the Conservatives anachronistic bordering on ridiculous, damaging remaining media credibility.

If the Fair Elections Act was designed to discourage participation by making voting more difficult, it failed to do so. Turnout at 68.5% was the highest in two decades, from an encouragingly sharp increase in First Nations peoples voting, possibly more young people participating, and the return of some people previously turned off politics. What appears to have succeeded, in part, was the Conservative and Bloc Québécois divisive appeals through their anti-niqab campaigns. It may have contributed, along with a split of the progressive vote between the NDP and the Liberals in a number of ridings, to the Bloc unexpectedly winning 10 seats and Conservatives more than doubling their Quebec representation to 12. Fear of Muslims may also explain the Conservatives’ strength in rural Canada and their crumbling in urban centres.

For the media, a long campaign and its revenue crisis caused by the collapse of advertising forced news organizations to finally risk what they had previously lacked the courage to try—abandoning the leaders’ national tours. On the planes, reporters were outnumbered by party staff. As a result, voters enjoyed a greater depth and range of news coverage from mainstream sources and online upstarts such as iPolitics, Buzzfeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post. That may have also increased turnout. Canadian politics, though, seems no closer to the transformational change social-media organizations now predict and promote with each election.

Also unsuccessful was the change in leaders’ debates. The benefit to voters of having five debates was lost as online and cable audiences were small compared to the audiences for broadcast debates of past campaigns. If, however, the result of this mess is an institutionalized process for future debates that puts voters’ interests first, it may have been almost worth the pain.

In electoral terms, Justin Trudeau’s Canada on October 20 looks a lot like Pierre Trudeau’s Canada on February 19, 1980. The Liberals dominate Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, urban centres, and immigrant communities. The Conservatives have sacrificed a decade of organizing and pandering, reduced to a narrow geographic and population base in western Canada and rural Quebec and Ontario. The New Democrats are again very much the third party. What’s different is how Canadians got there.

Accepted wisdom about campaign strategy and communications was steamrollered by a demand for change in 2015. There are now four years to assess whether that was merely an aberration or evidence that politics is now ensnared in the same maelstrom that has overwhelmed the media. The enticing possibility is that the result is a reversal of what seemed to be unstoppable declines in political engagement and Canadian democracy itself.

Chris Waddell profile pictureChristopher Waddell joined Carleton in 2001 after ten years at CBC News producing The National. He was also the parliamentary bureau chief from 1993 to 2001, and, from 1995, the executive producer, news specials. Prior to joining the CBC, he was an economics reporter in Ottawa, the Ottawa bureau chief, an associate editor, and then the national editor, at The Globe and Mail. He has won two National Newspaper Awards for business reporting and CBC programs he has supervised have won six Gemini awards for television excellence. He is the editor (with David Taras) of How Canadians Communicate: Media and Politics (Athabasca University Press, 2012).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

(Image credit: CBC News

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