At the end of week one of Canada's 41st general election, the narrative — as political scientists like to say — looked simple. The No. 1 and No. 2 political leaders had finished the week singing duet in perfect harmony: Me or the Other Guy.
The campaign was taking shape as a referendum on the personalities of Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff and, not-so-tangentially, on what form of parliament the electorate might prefer: majority or more minority.
Journalist Michael Valpy has reported for The Globe and Mail from across Canada, Ottawa and around the world. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is a senior fellow at Massey College and a fellow at the university's School of Public Policy and Governance.
Quebec political historian Marcel Martel, teaching at Toronto's York University, declared himself surprised at how successful Harper had been in setting out the narrative in the opening days — and how quickly Ignatieff had slipped into the drama Harper had created.
University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former Harper chief of staff, would unquestionably have found the script for this first week satisfying. He wrote in The Globe and Mail: "Campaigns result in the choice of people to fill positions, not ideas to be implemented. Policies are props — useful to demonstrate the worthiness of people and parties, but useless on their own."
The strategy carried danger for both sides. Ignatieff in High Noon gunslinger-mode, challenging Harper to a one-on-one debate, risks overplaying the part; and Harper, after five years as prime minister, remains unlikeable to the great majority of Canadians. It is an unfortunate personality trait but one that did not keep a former prime minister, Mackenzie King, from spending 21 years in office.
So there you had it: Shootout on May 2, whoever's left standing grabs the crown.
Then Ignatieff and his Liberals laid out their 96-page campaign platform on Sunday and the media, which perpetually needs new drama, declares that the campaign has changed.
The ballot question is apparently no longer a personality contest. The Canadian electorate has now being given fundamental policy choices.
Ignatieff has revived the Liberals as a Trudeau-like statist party in contrast to the Lockean Conservatives determined to limit the state to defence, justice and whatever else no one wants to do (with no social engineering by means of mandatory long-form census, which the Liberals would restore).
All this presupposes certain habits of the 21st century Canadian electorate that may not exist, beginning with the assumption that it pays attention to policy pronouncements, especially complex policy pronouncements, or believes in them. How many times have Liberals promised national child care?
It would be nice to have a campaign of fundamental policy choice, competing visions of the country and morally uplifting, far-seeing and spiritual notions to engage the young.
But that's not likely to be the reality, for two reasons.
First, as Conrad Black has written — and you've got to find him credible on something like this — the economic and fiscal differences between the Liberals and Conservatives are minimal. If Michael Ignatieff's Liberals were really like Pierre Trudeau's Liberals, Baron Black of Crossharbour would not be keeping the fact to himself.
Second, Canada is more culturally fractured than at any time since Quebec separatism topped the political agenda, and no party with aspirations to govern nationally wants to make the fractures deeper with fundamental policy differences.
Who can be lured?
Nanos Research, polling for CTV and The Globe and Mail, charted a steady rise of the Conservatives through the first week and on Monday said they now had the support of 42.3 per cent of the electorate, compared to the Liberals at 28.4 per cent, the NDP at 16.4 per cent and the Greens at 3.8.
Nanos was still polling Sunday when the Liberals released their full platform but most of the big items — for example, the components of the so-called Family Pack — had been set out individually earlier in the week.
Conventional wisdom holds that anything over 40 per cent is majority government territory.
What's interesting is to look into who the Canadians are who support Harper, something Ekos Research and its president Frank Graves did for a recent University of Toronto symposium.
The Ekos poll showed Harper with the support of the 20-to-25 per cent segment of the electorate who are social conservatives, people who say the most important traits in a national political leader should be certainty, decency and morality. No one is likely to take that vote away from him.
Another five-to-10 per cent of the electorate are hard-core traditional Conservatives who don't like Liberals. They aren't going anywhere, either.
Then on top of those two groups, says Graves, are the more affluent Canadians likely to drift to Harper's side because they see their bread being better buttered in Conservative hands; and groups such as Jewish voters attracted to Harper because of his policy on Israel.
And that's pretty much the Conservatives' full tank.
Graves adds that polling likely understates Harper's advantage because one other important demographic that supports him is older Canadians, drawing from the other groups, who march to the polls in phalanxes on election day.
Where there's voter mobility, Graves says, it's most likely between Liberals and Conservatives. If that's the case, who, from the groups just described — social conservatives, hard-core Conservatives, the rich and the courted special policy groups — are likely to be Liberal-wooed?
Michael Ignatieff might be advised to stay with the personality contest.