Michael Ignatieff spent his first full week of campaigning doling out gifts. It seemed like there was a new one every day: $4,000 to every student for tuition on Tuesday, $500 million for child care on Friday, and a smattering of renovation tax credits on Sunday, when the Liberal leader unveiled the rest of his plan.
For Stuart Soroka, the McGill University political scientist who runs the Federal Election Newspaper Analysis, it was reminiscent of the early days of Stephen Harper’s 2006 campaign when the Conservatives broke through by using a similar excitement-building rollout. (Maclean’s is publishing results from the newspaper analysis every week until election day. The project tracks which issues get written about and the tone of stories.)
If the Liberals’ plan was to attract attention, it worked. “Not only are they getting more coverage,” says Soroka, citing an increase in Ignatieff’s “first mentions” in news stories—up from 18 to 23 per cent between March 28 to April 2, compared to the previous week; Harper, meanwhile, fell from 68 to 62 per cent—”It’s also better coverage.”
Ignatieff nearly caught up with Harper in the degree of positive coverage in the 794 stories analyzed last week. He scored a “net tone” of 0.94 compared to Harper’s 1.06. That’s a big improvement over the previous week (March 21 to 26) when he was at 0.47, compared to Harper’s 1.04 and Layton’s 1.58. (Layton fell to 1.37 this week; the sample is not big enough to grade Gilles Duceppe.) Net tone is calculated by a computer program that looks at the words found near each leader’s name in a story and, using a dictionary of 6,500 words, determines whether the sentence is negative or positive. Words like “bold” and “rational” might provide a boost, while “condescending” and “unfortunate” could negatively affect a leader’s score. The measure can predict changes in voting intentions with 80 per cent accuracy, says Soroka.
A lot of positive coverage is potentially powerful, and seemed to be swaying voters. A Nanos Research poll conducted after the Liberal platform was unveiled showed the Liberals had narrowed the gap to less than 10 points (39.8 per cent to 30.2 per cent).
What’s still holding the Liberals back, however, can be summed up in a single word: coalition. “It’s almost unbelievable, but the word coalition came up 398 times last week,” says Soroka. “Coalition overshadowed all else.” Although many stories cited Harper’s own past flirtations with opposition parties, polls consistently show that Canadians believe that Ignatieff would strike an alliance if faced with another Harper minority after the May 2 election. Ipsos Reid found that 62 per cent of Canadians believe Harper about the coalition, while just 38 per cent trust Ignatieff. And if Canadians don’t believe Ignatieff when he says “we’ve ruled out a coalition,” they’re likely skeptical about his other promises, too.