Do election campaigns really matter? Do they help people make up their minds—or even change their minds—about who to vote for on election day? According to Stuart Soroka, co-director of the Media Observatory at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, the best efforts of Stephen Harper’s rivals may be failing to move votes around. “If we’re looking for evidence the campaign can shift the vote considerably,” he says, we’d do best to look elsewhere. In Canada’s federal election, “so far, there’s not much going on.”
According to the 2008 Federal Election Newspaper Analysis Project, a weekly election feature in Maclean’s, the campaign has been remarkably static so far. Harper continues to shape the debate, consistently earning more than double the media coverage of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. “It’s all about Harper,” Soroka says. With time running out before the Oct. 14 vote, it seems other party leaders have yet to mount a significant challenge to the Prime Minister.
The Media Observatory conducts an automated analysis of election coverage in seven newspapers: the Globe and Mail, National Post, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun. Shifts in media content, Soroka explains, can predict similar shifts in public opinion several days in advance (this is partly because journalists are often the first to learn of policy announcements and other news, Soroka says). Tracking media reports, then, is a valuable way of anticipating vote share.
From Sept. 21 to 27, the third full week of campaigning, Harper was mentioned first in about 37 per cent of election coverage. Dion, meanwhile, was mentioned first in 16 per cent. Their parties are more evenly matched: while the Conservatives were mentioned first in 28 per cent of articles over the same week, the Liberals got first mention in 24 per cent. (Jack Layton’s NDP party trailed with 10 per cent of first party mentions, and six per cent of first leader mentions.)
Soroka’s team classifies mentions as positive, negative or neutral, then subtracts negative from positive to find a “net tone.” Harper’s rating has generally improved since Sept. 1, while Dion has been up and down. Overall, the Tory leader is proving the more popular of the two—Harper’s total net tone is -0.09, while Dion has a -0.2.
Yet it’s the Green party’s Elizabeth May who, with an overall net tone of 0.6, has scored the best of any leader. And while the Greens don’t get nearly as much coverage as the major parties—they scored just two per cent of all first mentions last week—what they do get has generally been favourable. Like their leader, the Greens have an overall net tone of 0.6, the best of any party. (The Conservatives have an overall net tone of -0.3, the Liberals have -0.4, and the NDP has zero.) Maybe because they aren’t perceived as a threat, “other leaders are less critical of the Greens,” Soroka says. This could help explain their high score.
As for talking points, the economy continues to dominate. Last week, one-half of all election coverage mentioned economic or employment issues. Meanwhile, 27 per cent touched on the environment or energy, and 26 per cent mentioned foreign affairs (including Afghanistan). Of the 16 topics tracked by Soroka, Aboriginal affairs has so far attracted the least amount of attention, with just one per cent of election coverage mentioning it.
All in all, Soroka agrees, the third week of campaigning looks much like the week before. So, do election campaigns really matter? “Not all of them do,” Soroka says. Whether this campaign starts to matter or not, remains to be seen.