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April 29, 2011

Finding some perspective on recent poll results

Geoffrey Stevens

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Start with the New Democratic Party. Its “orange surge” of recent days — leading to fevered speculation that it would supplant the Bloc Québécois as number 1 in Quebec and the Liberals as number 2 in Ottawa — has been the most arresting development in an otherwise listless election campaign.

Although the orange surge does not look like a tsunami, it has excited the news media, alarmed the other parties and fuelled a new round of attack ads, this time aimed at Jack Layton and his followers. It has even forced Prime Minister Stephen Harper to vary his standard teleprompter speech to warn Canadians that the Coalition of Evil would be even more evil if it were led by Raging Socialists instead of Grasping Grits. Canadians could wake up on May 3 to find Layton in bed at 24 Sussex — and how would the country survive that?

Perspective suggests we have been there before, in the 1980s, when Ed Broadbent was the most popular national leader. Although the great breakthrough did not occur, Broadbent did win 43 seats in the 1988 election. Those 43 seats remain the NDP’s high-water mark. (It is worth noting that in the next election, in 1993, when the vote split very differently, the NDP was reduced to nine seats.)

In the most recent election, in 2008, the NDP took 37 seats. In this campaign, Layton seems to have connected personally with Canadians in a way that neither Harper nor Michael Ignatieff has been able to. Common sense would suggest the NDP will equal or surpass its 2008 total, but not by enough to capture 24 Sussex or Stornoway, the residence of the leader of the Opposition.

What we don’t know, and can’t know, is how many of the “loose fish” who have swum to the NDP in recent days are converts and how many are treading water until they decide where best to place their strategic ballot to block a Harper majority.

Common sense also suggests the Liberals are not about to collapse the way they did in 1984 when they won only 40 seats. In Ignatieff, they have a leader who is stronger, more effective and more popular than his predecessor, Stéphane Dion. The party is better organized, more cohesive and seems to be adequately financed. The prospect of a Conservative majority has mobilized Liberal troops, bringing out supporters who stayed home last time.

The Conservatives seem impervious to the campaigns raging around them. Their candidates sound like mini-Steves, as they faithfully recite his mantra. Take credit for the economic recovery. Blame the opposition for forcing an unnecessary election. Attack his enemies for trying to usurp power. Warn of the peril the country’s economy and, indeed, its unity would face if Canadians fail to elect a stable majority Conservative government.

There is no evidence that the Harper message or the party’s attack ads are getting through to large numbers of voters, aside from core Tory supporters. That’s why the Conservative numbers have barely budged since the election call. They went into the campaign just shy of a majority (155 seats), and they are still there, according to most polls.

Sixty per cent of Canadians may not want Harper as prime minister. The question is, will they do something about it?

My instinct is they will not. But instinct and common sense go only so far. Who would have thought that a lightly regarded, unilingual Prairie orator by the name of John Diefenbaker would win 208 seats in 1958, including 50 in Quebec where the Conservatives had previously had no presence at all? More recently, the Tories went into the 1993 election with a majority government. They emerged with just two seats in all of Canada.

The electorate seldom moves en masse. When it does, no one can gauge how far it will go.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at .

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