Thierry Giasson (Université Laval) has published about televised political debates in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, political journalism in the Canadian Journal of Communication, politicians’ image management in Questions de communication.
Big shocker in Quebec this week, the NDP places first in voting intentions, five points ahead of the Bloc. An unprecedented situation!
Something the Bloc’s strategists and pollsters clearly did not see coming in their market research prior to the election call, as Gilles Duceppe’s very emotional public pleas geared toward Quebec nationalists to reconsider an NDP defection can all attest.
They used all the arguments from the political advertising book to reverse the soft nationalist defections. In the last two days, Duceppe tried to stir suspicion by casting this “new” NDP support as a mirage, to mobilize anger by recalling the NDP’s support for the clarity bill in 2001 and for the Lower Churchill power lines project, to create fear by repeating that a vote for the NDP is a vote for a majority Tory government, and to stimulate nationalist pride by launching a new TV ad depicting himself as a Quebec patriot “with a dream in his head and a country in his heart”.
The approach might work. It did in 2008 when Layton benefited from a slight surge in Quebec voting intentions following a surprising debate performance in French. The Bloc managed to crush the growing NDP support by waving the red flag of a majority Harper government. Nationalists went back to the Bloc.
But this time around the fear mongering does not seem to work. Could it be because the Bloc’s brand is tired?
The Bloc’s has been in Ottawa for 20 years. Many voters in Quebec have not experienced anything else, being socialized politically with a majority of Quebec MPs in opposition. Yet, those under 25 have not been strongly affected by the post-Meech constitutional psychodrama the country experienced between 1990 and 1995. Support for sovereignty in Quebec is not soaring and this new generation of voters is entering the electoral market ready to listen to alternatives to the Bloc’s offer.
These voters are now considering the NDP as such an alternative. It presents a more palatable electoral product than the Tories and Liberals are. Ideologically, their left-to-center option seems close to the Bloc’s. And the NDP does not suffer from the Sponsorship scandal stigma the Liberals still endure in Quebec.
Furthermore, the Bloc’s core message – in Ottawa to defend Quebec values and interest – could also feel old to many voters. From 1993 to 2004, when elections were called every three or four years, the Bloc was great at marking its relevance in Ottawa. The political context, deeply rooted in constitutional debates, gave the party lots of ammunition against its liberal opponents (close referendum campaign in 1995, clarity debate, sponsorship scandal…).
That context sifted dramatically with the Tories arrival to power, the succession of minority governments and the consequential acceleration of election cycles. Constitutional politics are on the back burner, and the over-repeated Bloc’s message on Quebec values in the last four campaign sounds like a broken record. What seemed inspirational in 2004 now simply feels tarnished, used. Could recent message over-repetition have killed the Bloc's brand value?
During this campaign, the Bloc’s been saying to Quebecois voters that it would go to Ottawa to “speak of Quebec” (“Parler Québec”) in the House. What the surge in NDP support seems to signal, is that many Quebecois now feel the BQ should'nt have a monopoly in voicing Quebec’s aspiration and interests any more. The NDP is now seen as a valuable option, a fresher brand.
But the NDP product, as its 2008 reversal in Quebec voting intentions indicates, is not an impulsive purchase for voters in La Belle Province. It’s still generates a lot of uncertainty. The NDP has difficulty in closing the electoral transaction with Quebec voters.
Like a rich – yet pricy - cashmere sweater, Quebecois electors like the NDP’s color, its soft feel, its warmth. But many voters still fear its purchase might be to expensive, that it could alter their budget, that it could change form once washed. The temptation is there. It’s been attractive since 2006.
The NDP’s challenge this time around will be to brake this cycle of uncertainty and to make sure the electoral transaction is completed. They will need as strong ground organization to achieve this goal an dget out the vote. And this is precisely their weak spot in Quebec.
Ultimately, electoral consumers in Quebec might end up putting the orange cashmere sweater back on the shelf and instead choose yet again the slightly faded – but familiar - blue cotton knit.
See you at the register on May 2nd.