Most elections experience a moment where the campaign gels — a point where political ideas and forces come into focus, framing the likely outcome. It can happen when a party or candidate departs from the pack on a key issue: think of Tim Hudak's pledge to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs early in the 2014 Ontario provincial election. It could be a major stumble by a leader — such as John Turner's "I had no option" exchange with Brian Mulroney in 1984, or Jim Prentice's unfortunate "math is difficult" crack in the recent Alberta election.
When the moment happens, you know it; twists and turns may follow, but the campaign itself is suddenly on a track going in one direction.
The issue of Europe's refugee crisis may turn out to be 2015's moment. Soon after that shocking photo of a drowned 3-year old Syrian boy made its way around the world, the campaign narrative instantly turned to foreign policy, with Stephen Harper's Conservatives largely on the defensive. The Nanos Poll released September 6 was conducted the weekend after the issue arose, and it reported a dip in Conservative popularity that continued into the next day, dropping the incumbent party to third place.
It's still too early to tell how the refugee issue will affect the remainder of the campaign. We've been at this for 40 days now, but polling on national public opinion has changed little since the campaign began. Regional numbers tell a different story.
If we compare the average of the national polls released since August 2 to the July numbers, we find just a slight change: the Conservatives are down just over two points, the Liberals are up just over two and the NDP is up less than one, holding a narrow lead.
Monthly National Polling Averages
For all this apparent precision, there is wide variation in reported poll results. For example, in Ontario different polls have reported support for the Conservatives ranging between 40 per cent and 21 per cent since August 2.
Campaign Polls in Ontario since August 2
Ontario has the most seats, so this variability is something to watch.
The campaigns at the level of individual provinces and regions differ greatly; every party holds a lead somewhere. When it comes to individual ridings, it's the vote share in the provinces that determines wins and losses. Let's break them down.
In Atlantic Canada the Conservatives are down about four points since the campaign started, and we see a corresponding increase for the Liberals. This appears to represent an early election-related shift.
In Quebec, NDP support has grown significantly since the campaign began at the expense of the Conservatives and the Bloc, while the Liberals have held steady but far behind the New Democrats. Decisive polling shifts are always unmistakeable; the dramatic shift during the Alberta election was a striking example. Compared to the first three months of 2015, Quebec now looks dramatically different. The NDP has gained over 14 percentage points in support since then from all of the other parties — including six points in just the first month of the campaign. This implies a repeat of 2011's 'Orange Wave'. Has the campaign in Quebec already gelled?
In Ontario we've seen a small apparent shift away from the Conservatives, more to the Liberals' benefit than that of the NDP. However, given what we know about variability, it is not clear that a shift this small is significant. Along with its size, Ontario's apparent indecisiveness will make it the key target for leaders touring the country.
When we move west to the Manitoba/Saskatchewan region we see a clear pattern of movement away from the NDP, which appears to be a partial fading of the NDP surge following the Alberta election. It peaked in July here and in B.C. The 2015 campaign appears to have had not much of an impact to date.
The Alberta pattern is similar to that of Manitoba-Saskatchewan, with a slightly greater drop happening sooner here for the NDP. There has been a gradual improvement in Conservative fortunes here.
In British Columbia the NDP's upward trend preceded the Alberta election, but the Alberta outcome did give it an extra bump. The NDP's losses have gone more to the Liberals than the Conservatives. Polls here are notoriously volatile and variable, reflecting B.C.'s many political microclimates.
British Columbia Polls
The race may be a dead heat nationally; at the local level it's a different story. Given that polling is intrinsically variable, the post-Labour Day campaign is moving into a political climate of high uncertainty.