“They’ve got to make a choice,” Michael Ignatieff says, “about where does the progressive vote go in the next two weeks.”
Fourteen days ahead of the vote, aboard a plane bound for Winnipeg, the Liberal leader has an answer, or at least a proposal. “I really do feel that people are understanding, and it’s not an easy thing to come to, that you’re either going to have a Liberal government on May 2 or you’re going to have a Harper government on May 2,” he says. “And if you look at what you care about: action on the environment, child care, help with education, health care you can count on, the Liberal choice is the better choice.”
The preceding three weeks have been about making this clear. But the public’s general conversion remains elusive. Ignatieff would seem to be improving upon the Liberal run of 2008. The leader is more eloquent, the platform is more practical, the campaign has been relatively smooth. His town hall meetings and rallies are well-attended. On nearly a daily basis, meanwhile, Stephen Harper has had to deal with some controversy or another: from the tears of Helena Guergis to the sordid tale of Bruce Carson. But the gap—the 10-point polling margin that separates the Conservatives from the Liberals—persists.
For sure, the Canadian public does not easily change course. With the exception of Joe Clark’s brief interregnum, federal politics over the last 50 years has been defined by long stretches of dominant power. For a leader facing his first election campaign, defeating an incumbent may be even more daunting. Consider the case of Stephen Harper—a leader who needed two tries to defeat a government dealing with one of the biggest political scandals in Canadian history.
Going back so far as the 2006 campaign—when the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP finished with 36, 30 and 18 per cent of the popular vote respectively—almost nothing has changed in five years. That stasis is now Ignatieff’s to break.
In order to do so, the Liberals first need their supporters to return. According to analysis from Alice Funke of punditsguide.ca, the loss of Liberal seats in 2008 had less to do with other parties than with a drop in the Liberal vote from 2006 levels. The 800,000 voters that failed to materialize in 2008 are key to Liberal hopes in 2011. In tandem, the Green vote must decline—in 29 of the 31 ridings the Liberals failed to retain in 2008, Funke finds, Green support increased.
Even then, there is the small matter of the NDP and the current reality of political fragmentation. A plurality of Canadians—according to Innovative Research Group’s Canada 20/20 online panel for Maclean’s and Rogers Media—may agree with Ignatieff on student aid and a majority may agree with him on corporate taxes and pension reform, but while Harper is alone on one side of the argument, Ignatieff is competing for such voters. (For complete poll results see macleans.ca/electionpoll.) And NDP support has proved resilient. In the wake of Jack Layton’s performance in the leaders’ debates, the New Democrats have even risen in some polls.
The crowds Ignatieff is drawing on the road give the Liberals hope the party base has returned. The final two weeks will see a “significant” ad buy and a series of high profile television interviews, including an appearance on Quebec’s popular Tout le Monde en Parle. The Liberals also believe their ground game is much improved over 2008. While the NDP has moved of late to target Ignatieff directly, the Liberal message is broad—a condemnation of Harper’s five years in power with an appeal to progressives to unite behind the Liberal banner. “They know, [if] we get four more years of Stephen Harper, everything they believe in is going to end up being in worse shape,” Ignatieff says. This includes NDP and Green voters, but also Bloc Québécois supporters and former Progressive Conservatives. The Liberal “family pack” will be at the forefront.
Ignatieff says he is happy with the campaign he’s run. He hopes each night he speaks there are voters from across the parties in attendance and they see he is listening and addressing their concerns. He accepts there are differences between partisans and that this is a difficult question for progressives to consider. “But they really are coming to the crunch here,” he says. “Jack Layton will not be the prime minister of Canada on the 2nd of May. Elizabeth May will not be the prime minister of Canada on the 2nd of May. Gilles Duceppe will not be the prime minister. It’ll either be me or the other guy. This is where progressive Canadians will have to make a decision.”