Published on Aug. 24, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.
Everyone remembers the three big surprises of election night, May 2, 2011.
The first surprise: after three consecutive elections had produced minority governments (Liberal in 2004, Conservative in 2006 and 2008), voters in 2011 gave the Conservatives a majority with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote. Second: propelled by their “orange surge” in Quebec, the NDP won an astonishing 103 seats (to the Conservatives’ 166) and became the official opposition in Parliament. Third: the Liberal vote collapsed and the once-mighty party dropped like a stone into third place with just 34 seats and a meager 19 per cent of the popular vote.
A smart person would not bet on anything in this 2015 election other than this: there will be more surprises on Oct. 19.
We are already three weeks into the election with eight long weeks stretching ahead – plenty of time for multiple surprises. On the surface, nothing much has happened in the first three weeks, aside from the daily drip-drip of the Mike Duffy trial. But below the surface, out of the sight of the television cameras, something is going on.
Politicians will attest that the most potent force in an election is the desire for change. Last week, Forum Research published a national poll that reported that 71 per cent of respondents want a change of government.
Seventy-one per cent! That’s astonishing. Is the poll wrong? Maybe, but probably not by too much. A desire for change has been in the political air for many months.
How do the Harper Conservatives cope with a force like that? How do they turn it around, or throttle it back? So far, they have been campaigning against the current, presenting themselves as the party of the status quo, the party that stands against significant change in all important matters, especially their twin issues – the need for a steady hand on the economy and emphasis on law, order and public security. More of the same is the Harper mantra.
The mantra is not helping much. The latest polls put the Conservatives at, or just below, 30 per cent – in the other words, about 10 points below their 2011 vote, and perhaps four points behind the New Democrats in this campaign, with the Liberals right on the Tories’ heels.
What happens on Oct.19 if an irresistible force (the desire for change) meets an immovable object (the status quo)? I would put my money on the irresistible force, but we have eight weeks to go and anything can happen. The Tories may be able to persuade voters that change is not worth the risk, an international or domestic crisis may intervene, or one or both of the principal opposition parties may make a ghastly error.
On the same day last week as the Forum Research poll, the Montreal newspaper La Presse published a new CROP poll that put Thomas Mulcair’s NDP at 47 per cent in Quebec, which the pollsters said would enable the party to exceed its 2011 results when, under the late Jack Layton, it surged from nowhere to 59 seats in the province.
If this Quebec momentum continues and if some of it spills over into Ontario – which is possible – the NDP could pull off the biggest surprise of Oct.19 by winning the election.
As for the Conservatives, they are counting on desire-for-change voters to split roughly evenly between the NDP and the Liberals, and thereby enable the Tories to eke out at least a minority government. But that may not happen. Voters who are serious about change may flock to whichever opposition party they feel offers the best chance of getting rid of the Harper party.
It is also possible, if 71 per cent want change, that both opposition parties could attract enough voters to finish ahead of the decidedly unpopular Tories. Like the Liberals of 2011, they could slide into third place. They would be another surprise to remember!