Thanksgiving gatherings fuel election discussion
A man walks on Parliament Hill on September 15, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, October 9, 2015 5:43AM EDT
OTTAWA -- It's the burning question for Canada's federal party partisans this Thanksgiving weekend: Which turkeys will get cooked?
Advance polls open Friday for voters wishing to get an early jump on the Oct. 19 election, but the real action may take place around dinner tables, TV sets and camp or cottage closings.
Since long before this 78-day election campaign began, the October holiday weekend has been circled on calendars as a crucible where the fortunes of Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau could be forged: Far-flung families gathering together to talk turkey, just as voters begin focusing on who should form the next government.
"Urban legend!" Tom Flanagan, Harper's former chief adviser, barked in an email.
"I know of no evidence that holidays are important in elections because people talk about politics when families gather for a big dinner."
John Duffy, a former adviser to Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, has a rather different take.
"Whenever friends and family gather late in a campaign the conversation can turn to politics and, if it does, the influence of family can be important," the principal at Strategy Corp., said in an interview.
"It's a commonplace that long weekends are resonating chambers."
Duffy, who is not involved in the current Liberal campaign, has reason to know.
He was on the losing end in January 2006 when Harper's Conservatives first took power following a long campaign that spanned the December 2005 Christmas holiday, during which public opinion turned decisively against the incumbent Liberals.
A bombshell RCMP release on Dec. 28 detailed a criminal investigation of alleged insider trading in the finance minister's office. A cloistered, holidaying public with little other news and lots of opportunity to gossip kept the shrapnel ricocheting for days.
"It's not just the family factor," said Duffy. "There's not a lot of news being made usually. So if you can actually get something through into the relative quiet of people's lives during one of these holiday periods, it can have quite an effect."
Author Paul Wells, in his 2006 book "Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism," said Conservative campaign guru Doug Finley saw the holiday period as a decisive opportunity, even before the RCMP's sledgehammer intervention.
"Finley thought that if the fundamentals were strong going into Christmas, and Harper kept popping up on TV screens, folks who were already sick of talking about the bundt cake would mention that this guy Harper might not be so bad -- and hear some agreement around the living room," wrote Wells.
Mike Marzolini of Pollara Strategic Insights, a former Liberal party pollster, says the Conservative platform was winning over engaged voters in late 2005.
"I knew that once Christmas was over, this 15 per cent of engaged electorate would swell to 50 per cent and they would be heavily influenced over the holiday by the opinion leaders/early adopters and by experiencing the same perceptions as they did," he wrote in an email.
A similar dynamic, in theory, could also serve Liberal Leader Trudeau or possibly the NDP's Mulcair this weekend.
This year's 11-week campaign actually encompassed three statutory holidays. It began Sunday Aug. 2 on the Civic Holiday weekend, ambled through Labour Day and now will reach a crescendo on Thanksgiving.
Under the Conservative government's controversial "Fair Elections Act," an extra day of advance polls has been added this year, giving voters four days -- through Monday -- to cast an early ballot.
Andrew MacDougall, Harper's former communications director who now lives in England and is not involved in the campaign, isn't convinced Thanksgiving family confabs will be vote-movers.
"This notion that everybody's just waiting to talk turkey over turkey is a bit far-fetched," he said in an interview.
Still, this has been the last week for the various campaigns to effectively introduce any new ideas, he said, and this holiday weekend provides an ideal opportunity for a barrage of TV advertising -- especially geared to live sports (Blue Jays, anyone?) that can attract family groupings.
"I imagine every party will have timed their ad buy to take full advantage of that," said MacDougall.
All the political parties have also been blasting their supporters with Thanksgiving-themed messages, ramping up the urgency of closing the deal.
And Facebook partisans have been having a field day.
One typical jibe making the rounds shows a classic roast turkey with the caption: "Thanksgiving: An opportunity to talk your family out of voting Conservative. You'll probably ruin dinner but you may just save Canada."
Marzolini predicts what he calls "some interesting opinion changes" this weekend, but strongly warns against reading much into any holiday polls.
He's been doing daily tracking of federal and provincial campaigns since 1985 and says he's thrown out an entire holiday weekend of polling more than eight times.
"What I know from experience to be absolutely true is that all polls conducted over a family holiday weekend are wonky -- without exception."