A Campaign Saved by the Horserace?, June 25
There have been claims in the press that this has been an uninspiring campaign with unmotivating leaders and issues. As voters prepare for polling day on Monday, this is an opportune time to look back over media coverage of the campaign. What has the 2004 campaign looked like in Canada's major newspapers?
Predictably, government accountability has been the principal issue of the campaign, dominating over a quarter of the articles that have appeared since the writ was dropped. Health care, the issue highlighted in the Liberal and NDP platforms, was mentioned in 18 per cent of election articles, while 15 per cent focused on social issues. The primary Conservative issue, taxes, has largely been lost over the second half of the campaign - only 9 per cent of articles have mentioned taxes. Other issues have been few and far between in press coverage.
To the extent that we have observed an "issue" campaign, it can be characterized as a competition between government accountability on the one hand, and health and social issues on the other. Whether this is an interesting competition is another matter: there are limited differences between the major parties where either healthcare or social issues are concerned, and government accountability is not exactly a policy position. It should not be surprising that issues have been able to play a starring role only intermittently throughout the campaign.
The relative absence of policy issues is not the fault of the media, however. For much of the campaign, media coverage has tended to react, rather than lead. Issue coverage in the first few weeks quite clearly followed party press releases, for instance, and coverage of the debates adjusted quickly to match public opinion. Editorial and opinion articles have often been partisan, but overall coverage has been only marginally proactive.
If the campaign has been lacking in substance, then, party strategies share the blame. After a first week of substantive issues, attention turned away from the policies that parties stood for, and towards the issues that made other parties look bad. The lacklustre debates focused around this strategy, apparently shifting coverage and opinion only temporarily.
The saving grace has been the tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives in much of the country as well as speculation about the intricacies of a possible minority government situation with the NDP and the Bloc as potential kingmakers. The tone of press coverage at the start of the campaign was tilted heavily in the Conservatives' favour. This changed momentarily at the start of campaign week three, as all four parties prepared for the debates. Following this, the Conservatives received a boost in the press, although the gap in tone between the two front-running parties had narrowed substantially compared to early campaign days. As we cap off the final week of the 2004 campaign, the Liberals and Conservatives appear to be in a dead heat in terms of the tone of their press coverage and in tandem with opinion polls.
The volume of horserace coverage continues to hold as we move toward polling day. Yet, if this campaign has been short on substance, the explanation may rest as much with parties as it does with the media.