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It’s too early to be definitive about anything in this final week of the campaign – other than the trite observation that something is happening. So, some observations:
In some ways, there is a predictable pattern emerging. Leadership numbers and party preference are starting to come into consonance. Mr. Harper’s numbers have always been a fit – he’s ahead in both and fluctuations have been mostly minor. Mr. Layton’s high personal numbers have stayed high and NDP preference is rising to meet them. Mr. Ignatieff’s low personal numbers have stayed low and Liberal preference is dropping to meet them. As to Mr. Duceppe, there hasn’t been a lot of work done on his leadership numbers over time. But presumably, they’re heading into consonance as well.
Timing of the NDP surge
There are two primary choices – take your pick.
The May 2nd election is around the corner and widely divergent polls have introduced some elements of suspense in the 2011 campaign. Depending on who you choose to believe, the Tories have either a 19, 12 or 9-point lead over either the Liberals or the NDP. Most, if not all of the excitement has been generated by the apparent surge in NDP support in the province of Quebec. According to the data released at the end of last week, NDP support in Quebec is solid anywhere between 23% and 36%. However gripping this tale of numbers may be, what the leaders have to do in the next few days is akin to what salespeople are facing everyday; leaders have to find a way to close the sale for their respective parties.
Without going into the intricacies of our electoral system, it is generally understood that a certain level of support in vote share does not translate directly into a similar proportion of seats. One only has to remember the 1997 election when both the Reform Party and the PC Party received 19% of the votes but Reform became the Official Opposition with 60 seats and the PCs lingered in fifth place with only 20 seats. Accordingly, last-minute appeals to segments of voters and “Get-Out-The-Vote” (GOTV) efforts are imperative to ensure that supporters head to the polls on Election Day.
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.
The startling NDP Quebec (and resultant national) numbers have set off a whole new set of discussions about the campaign and what happens on May third. While it is early days and not clear whether these numbers are real, will hold or spread elsewhere, they may represent what sometimes happens in election campaign: a sudden break out by one of the parties. After covering 44 federal and provincial election campaigns from the staid to the dramatic, allow me to offer some random and perhaps premature thoughts.
More often than not, these sorts of break outs cannot be reversed. They represent a collective decision making process that sometimes builds on mounting evidence or sometimes catches media by surprise after events or debates — although this would represent a very slow reaction to a debate. There are notable exceptions like the PC’s beating back the resurgent Liberals in 1988 but they are rare.
Often, the final results overshoot the initial wave. Momentum builds and begins to sweep into ridings that most think are not in play. I’ve been involved in dozens of CBC projection meetings where seasoned political reporters said that it was inconceivable that certain ridings and personalities were lost. And yet they were. Canada is littered with former cabinet ministers who never should have lost. Some examples: Roy Romanow fell to a gas station attendant in her 2os. In the same election, the CBC did not put a mobile in Grant Devine’s riding in order to save money because his Tories could not possibly win. Richard Hatfield was speechless the night he lost 58 -0 to Frank McKenna– there were ridings that turned for the first time ever. In some elections, there are ridings parties don’t think are winnable which elect people who are not entirely prepared to win (Chris Waddell’s point below). For instance, the Tory MP elected in 1984 who could speak neither English nor French. Or the two MP’s who first showed up for work at the National Assembly
In every election the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP know there are ridings that each has no hope of winning but at least in media eyes there is credibility attached to running candidates in all 308 constituencies. So they all nominate candidates everywhere but not necessarily with the same degree of scrutiny as in ridings they know they can win.
Sometimes that means candidate backgrounds aren’t checked all that closely. Neither are their beliefs, past comments on the record or past activities. The only qualification in some cases is that the individual is willing to have his or her name put forward when there is no one else around – secure in the knowledge they will never have to worry about winning.
That may mean the candidate doesn’t live in the riding or even have much connection to it. No one looks that closely when everyone knows the person will be an election night afterthought.
My contribution to the confusion can be found here:
As Elly has noted, coalitions and minorities are back on the table with reporters tossing out scenarios to party leaders and demanding they respond even though no one knows what the parliament will look like after May 2.
So here’s a couple more scenarios to throw into the mix.
First, let’s say Mr Harper and the Conservatives end up on May 2 with the most number of seats (which almost everyone concedes at the moment is the most likely result) but are still in a minority having lost most if not all of their 11 MPs from Quebec.
Virtually every political operative, communications consultant and journalist watching last night’s Mansbridge/Ignatieff interview would have known immediately what would come next. And it did.
The news story flashed out on the wires and all-news TV; the Conservative war room response was immediate; the next morning’s front page headlines were large and blaring. More inferential than literal, the news stories and political attacks focused on what Mr. Ignatieff might do if the Conservatives won a minority on May 2. Most reports (and certainly the Conservatives) elevated it to a working plan to topple Mr. Harper and cobble together a government supported by other opposition parties. Mind you, not a formal coalition but something that looks like it.
As predictable as all that was the likelihood that Mansbridge would ask the question and press it home. Not as predictable was Mr. Ignatieff’s choosing to respond the way he did. It is the stuff of which election “gaffes” are made.
Or is it? And should it be?
So the week begins with a “surge” in NDP support in two online public opinion polls. That certainly fits the media’s need to find a narrative for the campaign’s final two weeks. If there isn’t going to be a race for first place, a race for second is more entertaining than no race at all.
However precedent suggests it is worth being cautious and asking some questions about NDP performance in online polls.
In the 2006 election, Decima Research conducted a series of experiments comparing polling results from an online panel it had assembled with those obtained from traditional telephone polling. The goal was to see how accurately online polls could match telephone results and to try to figure out how online polls should be weighted compared to the traditional demographic weighting done for phone polls to ensure the pool of respondents matched the demographics of the country.
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