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Election 2019 starts with voters uninspired by choices, so campaign will matter

OTTAWA - The political axiom that campaigns matter may prove especially true this time around.

Canadians don't seem very enthusiastic about their choices at the ballot box come Oct. 21, polls suggest — a collective shrug that puzzles even some pollsters.

"There's something going on," says Leger executive vice-president Christian Bourque. "It's kind of a weird one."

Whereas the 2015 campaign, from the outset, focused on the thirst for change after 10 years of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and the 2011 campaign was about the desire for stability after three consecutive minority governments, Bourque admits he can't figure out the underlying narrative for this one.

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A voter marks a ballot behind a privacy barrier in the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, west of Montreal, on election day, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Pre-election polls finding that Canadians aren't particularly enthusiastic about their choices suggest the political axiom that campaigns matter will be particularly true this time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

A voter marks a ballot behind a privacy barrier in the riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, west of Montreal, on election day, Monday, Oct. 19, 2015. Pre-election polls finding that Canadians aren't particularly enthusiastic about their choices suggest the political axiom that campaigns matter will be particularly true this time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

OTTAWA - The political axiom that campaigns matter may prove especially true this time around.

Canadians don't seem very enthusiastic about their choices at the ballot box come Oct. 21, polls suggest — a collective shrug that puzzles even some pollsters.

"There's something going on," says Leger executive vice-president Christian Bourque. "It's kind of a weird one."

Whereas the 2015 campaign, from the outset, focused on the thirst for change after 10 years of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, and the 2011 campaign was about the desire for stability after three consecutive minority governments, Bourque admits he can't figure out the underlying narrative for this one.

Neither can David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data.

"I don't think it's going to be a Seinfeld campaign," he says. "I mean, it's not going to be about nothing. I just don't know what it's going to be about yet."

Bourque notes that all the economic indicators suggest Canadians are doing better than they were four years ago and that normally bodes well for the party seeking re-election. Instead, Justin Trudeau's Liberals are entering the campaign essentially tied with Andrew Scheer's Conservatives, with neither party within reach of a majority.

The Liberals have recovered somewhat from the SNC-Lavalin affair last spring, when support for the party and its leader plunged to new lows. But the ethical cloud seems to have sapped whatever was left of the enthusiasm progressive voters once felt for Trudeau. Many of them were already disappointed that he had not lived up to their expectations on a host of issues, from reneging on his vow to end the first-past-the-post electoral system to buying a petroleum pipeline.

Yet, despite the Liberals' troubles, the Conservatives have not been able to expand their support much beyond their traditional base, suggesting some popular discomfort with Scheer.

Jagmeet Singh and the NDP are fighting to maintain their status as a distant third-place party, locked in a potentially existential battle with Elizabeth May's Green party.

The Greens — buoyed by breakthroughs in provincial elections in British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and by doubling their federal caucus to two after a byelection win last spring — are the only national party that's shown much in the way of momentum. But even that seems to have stalled lately.

Maxime Bernier's fledgling People's Party, meanwhile, registers as barely a blip in most polls.

Coletto suspects part of the apparent lack of enthusiasm is due to the fact that a big chunk of the electorate has not been paying attention to federal politics. That's unusual at the start of a campaign. What makes this one particularly hard to analyze, however, is that the opposition leaders are simply unknown to many voters.

"It sounds like a cliche — campaigns matter. But campaigns particularly matter when people don't know who their choices really are and won't really assess them until they see them more," Coletto says.

On that score, Bourque gives the first round to the Liberals, who had Scheer on the defensive for more than a week over his socially conservative views on abortion and gay rights — not exactly the ground on which the Conservatives would have preferred to introduce their leader.

It was, Bourque says, "a classic example of your enemy defining who you are."

That episode aside, both Bourque and Coletto suspect the Liberals have an edge as the campaign begins. Regional poll results before the writ drop suggested they were in position to make gains in vote-rich Ontario and Quebec to help offset expected losses elsewhere, whereas the Conservatives' national numbers were inflated to a degree by overwhelming support in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they already hold most of the seats.

Still, it wouldn't take much to upset the Liberals' apple cart.

Once voters start paying attention, Scheer could impress them as a reasonable guy, not the Harper throwback and social conservative threat the Liberals are trying to make him out to be.

Singh or May could catch fire, as the NDP's Jack Layton did in 2011, and gains by either party would largely be at Liberal expense. While both parties' lack of resources could ultimately hold them back, recent provincial elections — last year's victory of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, an upstart party created just seven years earlier, or the Greens' vaulting into second place in P.E.I. last spring — suggest a certain volatility in the electorate, a willingness to take a flyer on something different.

In Quebec, where Liberals are hoping to cash in on the apparent collapse of NDP support, Bourque says even a small increase in support for the Bloc Quebecois could "spoil the party" for Trudeau.

The Liberals could fall because young people, Indigenous voters and other progressives who turned out in droves to back them last time simply stay home, too dispirited to bother voting for anyone. Any drop in voter turnout will help the Conservatives, whose committed base can be counted on to turn out come what may, says Coletto.

On the flip side, an increase in support for the People's Party could cost the Conservatives in ridings where they are in tight contests.

As happened in 2015, progressive voters could be stampeded to the Liberals again to stop the Conservatives. Singh has tried to insulate the NDP against that by declaring his party would never prop up a Tory minority — a tactic some New Democrats fear amounts to conceding defeat before the writ was even dropped.

May, meanwhile, has said the Greens are prepared to bring down either a Liberal or Conservative minority and force Canadians back to the polls to get a government that's more committed to fighting climate change — a threat that may yet backfire among voters who don't relish instability.

In other words, pretty much anything could happen once voters tune in and start assessing the performances of the leaders on the campaign trail.

"Sometimes elections go the way we expect, the way voters expect. Sometimes they don't," says Coletto.

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