Wednesday, June 23, 2004

A race too close to call

We have a race too close to call. The election commenced with hostility to the Liberals as a common theme, but the electorate was unable to find an alternative to the Liberals on whom to bestow their favour.

The defining moment actually came months earlier, when the Auditor-General released her report, and a political firestorm was ignited. It upset the plans of a new Liberal team inclined to call an election early, tilt a little to the right to capture Progressive Conservatives fleeing the Alliance takeover of the united right, and sweep to a huge majority before getting down to the business of governing.

But they had no plan ‘B’, so after putting a spring election off as long as possible, they went ahead despite the emergence of a second defining moment in an unpopular Ontario budget, the impact of which may be fading a bit now. And they appear initially to have ignored the threat from a resurgent NDP until late in the campaign.

An article by Maurice Pinard, one of Canada’s pre-eminent analysts of public opinion, describes well the path of public opinion in the last few months. It can be found on the web site of CRIC, the Centre for Research and Information on Canada. He confirms the two moments above, but also notes small additional Liberal losses in Quebec during June to the Conservatives and the Bloc means the Bloc could win up to 60 seats in Quebec.

However, the comments by former Quebec Premier Bernard Landry predicting that a big Bloc victory on June 28 could set the stage for a 2009 referendum are potentially very damaging to Mr. Duceppe. At this point BQ support is so high that they must be getting support from strong federalists as a consequence of the scandal. Shifting the ground back to the sovereignty issue at this point can only help the Liberals. In a close election, it would be a considerable irony if Paul Martin were to owe his victory to Bernard Landry. It is well to remember in this final week, Quebec’s record of producing election night surprises of one sort or another.

There are two new polls out today, June 23, 2004, which confirm a shift back to the Liberals is underway. The SES poll has the Liberals still 3 points ahead of the Conservatives 34-31, with the NDP strong at 21%. An Environics poll reports a 33-33 tie between Liberals and Conservatives with the NDP at 18. Translated into seats this produces a very weak Conservative minority: Conservatives – 115, Liberals – 104, NDP – 30, BQ – 59. The overall numbers are essentially consistent with the Ipsos-Reid polls. But given the sampling error of polls and the error implicit in any method of seat forecast, it means it is impossible to determine from the poll numbers today which party will emerge in first place on June 28.

I smoothed the SES data by creating a four poll rolling average of their results. It suggests that the Conservatives peaked on June 11 while the Liberals hit their bottom the same day. There has been a slow reversal of fortunes since that now seems to have hit a plateau.

The NDP still looks to the media like it is not doing well. Jeffery Simpson calls their polls ‘flat’. He is ignoring, however, the impact on winning seats of strong NDP showings in Ontario and B.C., in the context of a tight Liberal Conservative race in both provinces. In a first past the post system getting close to the other parties even if you are in third place (and it is not clear who is in third place in B.C.) means that many seats can come your way. Going in the NDP had only four seats in the two provinces. I think they will win at least four seats in the City of Toronto alone on Monday.

Winners and Losers
The winner on Monday is going to be in very weak position, so weak it may well be that the loser is better off.

If the Liberals lose, Martin will be under great pressure to radically overhaul a campaign team that failed miserably, but he will have time to rest and recover his bearings before the inevitable early election. Those who would dump him don’t have time so he can hang in for this short term if he so desires. If the Liberals win they may have to govern in cooperation with their natural enemies, the Bloc.

The Conservatives, who are so clearly a collection of not-ready-for-prime-time-players, will face the inevitable pressures of learning to govern – don’t forget that Harper whatever his intelligence has almost no managerial or administrative experience – while dealing with a fractured House of Commons. On the other hand, if they finish second they will have at least year to finish their party building and getting ready to govern.

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