Voters’ choice: continuity or chaos

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The opening and closing arguments of every election are about the framing of the ballot question. Each party has a different one and struggles for control of the message with the media. And nowadays, not just mainstream media but social media. Campaign 2.0.

Welcome to Quebec’s first Twitter election. François Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, already has a very active Twitter feed, sometimes to the point where it seems he has nothing else to do. The other day, when Jean Charest announced three former MNAs from Action démocratique du Québec were running for the Liberals, Legault posted bitter and twisted comments to Twitter.

Twitter can be a very dangerous place, but also a very useful one for making mid-course adjustments, as well as rallying and thanking the base. We saw both in the Alberta election last spring, when one of Alison Redford’s young Progressive Conservatives campaign workers posted a Twitter feed alleging that childless Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was unfit to be a mother. Redford immediately apologized to Smith, but lost three days in damage control.

On the other hand, as she pulled away in the closing days of the campaign, Redford used her Twitter feed as a momentum builder, before during and after each event. If she had a great event in Vegreville, she thanked the crowd and told you about it in 140 characters or less.

Up to now, Premier Charest and Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois haven’t been on Twitter, but you can be sure someone will be tweeting from his and her bus. It’s pretty hard to ignore.

Barack Obama, for example, has 17 million followers on Twitter, which gives him a big advantage in that department over Mitt Romney, who has only 750,000. Not that the president of the United States has time to tweet, but someone in his Chicago headquarters or the White House does so several times a day in his name. While he’s preaching to the converted, he is rallying the troops, as well as getting messages out for fundraising.

Until recently, the Quebec Liberals didn’t do social media very well, but they’re getting better at it. Their video of Marois banging casseroles during the Argenteuil by-election went viral on YouTube, and got lots of earned media on broadcast news and in print. And they’ve put together hundreds of social networkers for the campaign.

As for the mainstream media, and the ballot question, it depends on each party’s message.

For the PQ, the ballot question is change and corruption. For the Liberals, it’s continuity or chaos. For the CAQ, it’s somewhere in between — change without sovereignty, change you can trust.

The next 33 days will be about which party has the best message, and the best messenger. And make no mistake, it is all on the shoulders of the leaders. The PQ can talk all they want about building a team around Marois, but she will be the only one on stage at the leaders’ debate.

When the campaign is built on the team, some of them talk too much, as the PQ’s Bernard Drainville did in the Globe and Mail on Monday, talking about building support for sovereignty by picking fights with Ottawa. At a conference of New England governors and Eastern premiers in Burlington, Vt., Charest jumped all over it. “The strategy of the Parti Québécois,” he said, “will be to start fights with Ottawa to promote their option, and to hold a referendum as soon as possible. And that’s the priority of Pauline Marois.”

There it is again, the hidden ballot question in the prospect of another referendum, what Robert Bourassa used to call “the ballot box bonus,” which he always thought was worth at least five points for the Liberals on election day.

Elsewhere on the PQ team, there’s student leader Léo Bureau-Blouin, who’s trading in his red square for a PQ membership card as a candidate in Laval.

Which kind of frames the Liberal ballot question of continuity or chaos. The Liberals would raise university tuition fees by $254 a year over seven years, already a compromise from their initial five-year plan. The PQ would freeze tuition fees pending an education summit, while CAQ would raise them $200 a year over five years.

But this is really about who’s in charge in Quebec, the government or a street mob. Continuity or chaos.

As the campaign begins, the election is too close to call. The Liberals and PQ appear to be tied within the margin of error in the low 30s, with CAQ in the low 20s, and Québec solidaire in high single digits. Those splits should work to Charest’s advantage.

One thing’s for sure — he wouldn’t be calling this election if he thought he was going in behind.

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