NATIONAL

Which way to the promised land?

The numbers still don’t show a Tory majority. Is Dion safe after all?

JOHN GEDDES November 19 2007
NATIONAL

Which way to the promised land?

The numbers still don’t show a Tory majority. Is Dion safe after all?

JOHN GEDDES November 19 2007

Which way to the promised land?

NATIONAL

The numbers still don’t show a Tory majority. Is Dion safe after all?

JOHN GEDDES

For all Stephen Harper’s commanding aura, his Conservatives are stalled this autumn below the level of popular support they need to win a majority. Despite Stéphane Dion’s haplessness, his Liberals have not sunk to the point of no return. Both these points seem open to dispute whenever leadership style or policy direction are being debated, but even if polls vary, and party strategists dissecting them often lapse into quasi-mystical talk about “magic numbers” and crossing into the promised land called “majority territory,” multiple opinion surveys and credible seat projections based on them don’t lie, or at least not often.

It’s all but impossible to gain access to the formulas the parties’ own number-crunching alchemists use to convert leaden polling data into the gold of forecasts about seats won and lost. But Wilfrid Laurier University’s Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy applied its widely watched votes-intoseats model to seven October polls for Maclean’s. Barry Kay, a political science professor at the institute, said the combined results of publicly released national surveys by four firms represented the voting intentions of about 9,000 Canadians. His projection based on that wide cross-section of opinion gives the Conservatives 135 seats in the House, up from 126 now, but still a full 20 shy of a majority. The Liberals, notwithstanding Dion’s struggles, would actually boost their contingent of MPs to 101 from 96 now.

This outlook might seem deflating to any Tory who has been reading the most upbeat poll results for the party. Ipsos-Reid has consistently found the highest Conservative support lately, most recently putting the Tories at 39 per cent in the week Finance Minister Jim Flaherty tabled his tax-cutting mini-budget. That’s just a point shy of the 40 per cent generally cited as the threshold for a majority, and far ahead of the Liberals’ 28 per cent. But even Ipsos-Reid pollster Darrell Bricker says Harper doesn’t yet have a majority within his grasp. Tory support, Bricker notes, stubbornly lags the Prime Minister’s strong personal approval ratings and broad satisfaction with his government’s direction. “They’ve got all of the numbers that one would nor-

mally look at as indicators of momentum,” he says. “But for some reason they just can’t seem to make the sale.”

It’s not for lack of a pitch. This fall has seen the Conservatives launch a new session of Parliament with a Throne Speech designed to bolster Tory popularity with tax cuts and a crackdown on violent crime. The target group: suburban voters preoccupied with their safety and prosperity. In general, the Tories (and the Bloc) already own rural and small-city Canada, while the Liberals (and the NDP) dominate big cities. That often leaves the burbs in-between as key battlegrounds.

ONLY ONCE IN THE LAST 15 ELECTIONS HAS THE FRONT RUNNING PARTY LENGTHENED ITS LEAD DURING A CAMPAIGN

So far, though, the numbers don’t show the Tories breaking through in strategic zones like Toronto’s sprawling suburban penumbra. Elsewhere, the Conservatives tend to pile up far more votes than they need in areas they are in no danger of losing or where they have nothing left to win, like Alberta. In Quebec,

the gap between Bloc Québécois incumbents and Conservative challengers maybe shrinking, but not enough yet, according to Kay, to deliver the Tories many seats.

The Laurier Institute’s projection has the Bloc falling to 44 from 49 MPs. The Tories stand to snag only two of those Quebec ridings, while the Liberals would pick up three of them. The Tories have to climb further in the polls to win more seats, because they tended to trail the Bloc by wide margins in the rural and small-city ridings where they were the main contender in 2006. The Liberals were much closer in the handful of ridings, mostly around Montreal, where they remain the federalist alternative, making it easier for Dion to capitalize on the Bloc’s sagging numbers.

Worried Liberals, however, view Quebec as so volatile that Tory gains beyond what recent polls indicate are a distinct possibility.

“Quebec is strange,” said a Liberal strategist. “When ridings flip, they flip massively. In some of the 10 Quebec ridings the Conservatives took in 2006, they had almost no support in 2004” Liberal insiders expect Harper to seriously contend for perhaps 10 to 20 current Bloc strongholds, many in the region

near Quebec City that was taken over by the conservative-minded Action démocratique du Québec in their breakthrough to official Opposition status in last spring’s Quebec provincial election.

In stolid Ontario, however, huge voter migrations across party lines are not expected. Instead, Tory tacticians focus on a dozen seats they lost last time by 10 per cent or less of the vote. Among these ridings, Kay points to three just west of Toronto, two Mississauga seats, and one in Oakville, that would switch from Liberal to Tory. These are the sort of suburban seats the Conservatives need a lot more of to manufacture a majority. Kay says the Tories typically gain two closely contested ridings for about every one percentage point rise of their Ontario vote. The combined October polls he used put the Tories one point behind the Liberals in the province, up from five points back on election day 2006. That translates, according to the Laurier model, into six current Liberal seats, along with one held now by the NDP, tipping into the Tory column.

How strong a campaign the NDP runs is a key Ontario variable. Some Conservatives estimate, for instance, that for every point the NDP climbed over 20 per cent of the Ontario popular vote, Layton would pick up just one seat, but three would go to the Tor-

ies. The reason is that NDP support at that level—well above their current range in the mid-teens—would eat into the Liberals’ suburban base, handing seats to Conservatives. Bricker views the NDP as an intriguing wild

‘QUEBEC IS STRANGE. WHEN RIDINGS FLIP, THEY FLIP MASSIVELY.’

card for the next campaign. “Jack Layton’s leadership numbers are actually quite good,” he says. “The NDP are the party with the biggest chance to grow in an election.”

That potential, however, has yet to show up in the Laurier Institute’s projection, which

shows the NDP dropping to 27 from 30 seats. The apparently dismal outlook for the NDP’s Jack Layton and the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe seems at odds with their recent bravado in the House, as their caucuses vote against the Tories, compelling the Liberals to abstain to avoid prompting an election. Senator David Smith, the veteran Liberal campaign boss, predicts Layton and Duceppe will eventually ease up. “Quite frankly,” Smith says, “it’s hard to understand why they are so trigger-happy.”

In fact, it’s hard to see why any party would be. Not the Liberals, whose own strategists credit brand strength, not Dion’s leadership, for their resilience. As for the Tories, history provides this note of caution: only once in the past 15 federal elections has the front-running party at the outset of the campaign lengthened its lead by election day. Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals managed it in 1974(In 1988, the Conservatives and Liberals entered the race about tied in the polls, so Brian Mulroney’s win that year might also be seen as bucking the trend.) Usually the party running second when the writ is dropped gains support during the campaign. But this fall’s polls suggest Harper, like Trudeau in ’74, will have to try to defy the odds and secure his majority, not in government, but on the campaign trail. M