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The Opposition ballot question

Posted by cwaddell under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links, Election 2011 Media commentary

Christopher Waddell

Today’s Ekos poll that places the NDP in second nationally ahead of the Liberals is the latest in the strange twists of a campaign that was written off as being about nothing and had the NDP wandering around the country for the first week amid stories about small crowds and a campaign going nowhere.

It could of course all change again by voting day as recent campaigns have shown lots of last weekend and maybe now even voting day volatility among voters and this final week seems to be setting the stage for that.

But a few things are becoming clear even amidst the confusion.

Throughout the campaign the Conservatives have held the largest group of supporters and that has hardly moved. Mr. Harper’s regular refrain that this is an unnecessary election is code for we need to stop doing this every two years and it appears that hits a note with a lot of the public. That may be enough to give him a majority but it would be the ultimate frustration for Conservatives if he falls short in the end in part as a result of how successful his party has been in maligning Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.

That is possible because there is another large group – in total larger than Conservative supporters – who don’t want Mr Harper as Prime Minister but are split between four parties. That’s been true since 2006 but the story of the campaign’s last week seems to be shifts among the relative strength of those four parties.

Most important here is the potential decline of the Bloc Quebecois. The lower the Bloc falls on election night the more possible it becomes that the Liberals and NDP could ultimately form a government on their own without needing Bloc support (either with an absolute majority or close enough to one to effectively run the House if given a chance). The Ekos poll today hints at that. It still seems less than likely as it would require a sharp drop in Bloc seats – much steeper than most anticipate at this this point at least for it to happen.

But if the Bloc sinks to very low levels then suddenly we are back in a world Canadian politics hasn’t seen for decades – with three parties and a rump from Quebec (remember the Creditistes of the 1960s and 70s).

Equally intriguing is the apparent rise in NDP support. To date the media talk has been of an NDP surge and suddenly going up to match the Liberals makes it look like that is underway. But until today has come almost solely as a result of Quebec vote transfer.

The Bloc traditionally polled anywhere from nine to 11 per cent nationally but have now sunk to about six per cent. Most of that four-to-five percentage points seems to have transferred directly to the NDP. As a result the NDP suddenly looks like a viable national challenger equal to the Liberals and is played that way in the media even though to this point it has been almost solely on the result of growing support in Quebec and a bit in Atlantic Canada too.

This is where the coverage of polling results may be turning an illusion into a reality, pushing the NDP ahead of the Liberals as public opinion responds to media reporting of the surge by jumping on the bandwagon at least for today.

There may be some underlying reasons as well.

If voters accept that the Conservatives are going to get the most seats and form a government, then who does that group who oppose the Conservatives want as the voice of the opposition in parliament?

It’s a question that may make Mr. Layton the beneficiary as it exposes three critical weaknesses in the Liberal campaign.

First the party and Mr. Ignatieff have been ineffective in opposition in parliament and its campaign has done nothing to shake that view among it appears almost three-quarters of voters.

Second Liberal policy is not sufficiently distinct from the Conservatives on economic issues for the public to notice a difference, the Liberals haven’t campaigned on the economy and the party has no recognized spokesperson with gravitas on economic matters.  Yet those issues remain very important with voters across the country and the NDP does offer a clear difference here although its policies have never faced much scrutiny. (The Liberals are trying to shine that spotlight on Mr. Layton this week.)

Third, the Conservative pre-election framing of Mr Ignatieff’s personality, character and interests has proven devastatingly effective with voters and Liberal campaigners are getting that regularly on doorsteps. Mr Ignatieff’s campaign hasn’t shaken that impression in the public’s mind.

In a campaign of ifs on top of ifs on top of ifs, for many voters it may be coming down to who will be the best Leader of the Opposition.

If that’s becoming the real ballot question for most of the electorate, it could be a long week for the Liberals and a very tough election night for Mr. Ignatieff.

Christopher Waddell is director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University. He is a former reporter, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail and a former CBC-TV parliamentary bureau chief and executive producer-news specials for CBC TV News. You can follow him on Twitter @cwaddell27