Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

At this late stage, outcome clear as mud

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Have we ever had an election campaign in which, with only one week to go, the outcome was so uncertain?

Polling results are all over the map, with the governing Conservative party showing support from the high 30s (status quo) to the low to mid-40s (solid majority territory).

The end result is hard to predict, although seat projectors are doing their best to provide some scenarios. You'll be happy to know that taken together, the projectors are quite confident the Conservatives will form the next government with either one of the largest majorities in the history of Parliament or a smaller minority than they have now. That's a variation of nearly 100 seats. Unpredictable has never been more aptly applied to a scenario.

Which pollster has a better handle on the results? Methodology varies quite a bit from polling company to polling company, and so do the results. Ipsos-Reid and Ekos, which report large samples taken over three days, consistently report the Conservatives higher and the Liberals lower. Both these pollsters were the first to suggest the NDP might be running even or ahead of the Liberals.

For my money, I like Nanos Research, which uses a smaller "rolling" sample of 400 respondents that is added to a master sample each day to provide new results. Nick Nanos' work, being reported exclusively in this campaign by The Globe and Mail and CTV News, provides voters with a fascinating daily snapshot of the evolution of the campaign. Although Nanos has the Conservatives lower (in the high 30s) and the Liberals a bit higher and ahead of the NDP (high 20s), the trend line is the same. The Tories seem destined to win this campaign. The only question left is by how much.

There were cynics who stated this election would be meaningless because it would not fundamentally change the composition of Parliament. Although it is true a Tory minority of about the same size is one possibility, there appears to be a growing sense that the opposition parties will be forever changed by this election. NDP support is surging, although it is unclear whether it will translate into actual seats. If the NDP does get more voter support, but does not translate that support into actual seats, there is every reason to believe the Conservatives are in for a big day at the polls.

A robust NDP vote would likely lead to a massive collapse of Liberal support and provide Prime Minister Stephen Harper with his majority. This was the scenario that played out in 1997, when former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien won a thin majority government with just 39 per cent of the popular vote. The Reform party came in second, in large part by sucking nearly all support away from the Progressive Conservatives, which finished as the fifth party in the 36th Parliament.

Which leaves us with perhaps the only sure thing in this vote: The federal Liberal party as we know it may be waging its last electoral campaign. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has run a pretty good campaign, but voters have not warmed to him and are not tuning in to his platform. The Grits had an early campaign surge and seemed to narrow the gap with the Tories to single digits. That quickly evaporated. If the Ipsos-Reid and Ekos polls are accurately tracking the movement of voters, especially those who may make game-time decisions to change parties, this could very well be the end of the Liberals.

Many Grits theorized that their party needed a complete collapse to really retool and restock for politics in the 21st century. Perhaps, but the cautionary tale of the Progressive Conservatives should weigh heavily on Liberal minds at this stage of the campaign. Unable to survive the disembowelment of the party, the PCs had to burn their membership cards, negotiate a truce with the feisty Reformers and rise again as the Conservative party.

Ignatieff has clumsily rejected the idea of a formal Liberal-NDP coalition in the event of another Tory minority. However, if the Liberals sink as low as it appears they may go, then Ignatieff and the Grits may find a coalition is the least of their worries. On a go-forward basis, they may have to consider whether their continued existence is justified.

Nobody knows for sure what will happen election night. But on the day after the election, it seems more and more certain that Canada's natural governing party may be left contemplating its own mortality.

Join Dan Lett at the Free Press News Café, 237 McDermot Ave., on Wednesday to discuss polling and elections with Chris Adams, vice-president of Probe Research, polling and public policy expert Andrea Rounce of the University of Manitoba, and Reg Alcock, former Liberal MP and cabinet minister. The panel gets underway at 7 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2011 A4

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