Three-way race makes election hard to read

But no matter who wins election, Mario Dumont won the campaign

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The Gazette, Monday, March 26, 2007

When it comes to turning the polls into seat projections in today's Quebec election, we are in uncharted territory.

The first competitive three-way race in Quebec history means there are no precedents for breaking reliable seat models out of poll numbers. The vote splitting can break different ways in different regions, to the advantage of any of the parties.

Much depends on turnout, and there was a huge turnout of 10 per cent in last week's advance poll, double the number of advance voters in 2003. Such a high turnout in an advance poll would normally be largely Liberal voters, driven to the polls by the Big Red Machine. But it could also be dissatisfied voters, highly motivated to vote against the government.

Then there's the ground game, getting out the vote. The Liberals have a significant advantage here. What difference does a great ground game make? No more than three or four points, but in close ridings that could be everything. Mario Dumont doesn't have a ground game to speak of, but his support has risen to the point where it might well deliver itself. As for the Parti Quebecois machine, once a formidable force, there hasn't been much sign of it in this campaign.

Even the weather can effect the outcome. Spring was expected to break out across the province today. That's not a good harbinger for the Liberals, who get out their vote in all weather. Incumbents prefer light turnouts.

All that being said, given the closeness of the polls, the number of undecideds, and the volatility of the vote even at the final weekend, any number of outcomes is possible.

Here they are, in descending order of probability:

A Liberal minority, with the PQ in opposition and Dumont holding the balance of power. In a 125-seat National Assembly, the magic number of 63 could well elude the Liberals in a tight three-way race. The PQ could finish third in the popular vote, and still form the official opposition if it performs well in its regional strongholds and benefits from splits to the ADQ to the detriment of the Liberals, as in its historical fortress of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean.

A Liberal minority with the ADQ in opposition, and the PQ relegated to third place. The Dumont earthquake will be centred in Quebec City, but how far will the aftershocks spread? They are expected to be felt in the Mauricie, but if they register in the Laurentians and the Monteregie on the South Shore, that could drive seats to and from both the Liberals and the PQ.

A Liberal majority, with the PQ in opposition and the ADQ as a recognized party for the first time. Then, both Jean Charest and Andre Boisclair would have saved the furniture. A Liberal majority was the expectation going into this election, which was why it was called early. Nobody anticipated the Dumont surge, but then no one thought the PQ vote would collapse as much as it did. With a majority, Charest wouldn't have to watch his back, and as the official opposition, the PQ would still be the first alternative. It's not hard to see the Liberals at 50 to 60 seats, it's more difficult to see them at 63.

A Liberal majority with the ADQ in opposition and the PQ relegated to third place. This would be real realignment with profound implications both federally and provincially. It would mean that the ADQ would replace the PQ as the alternative to the Liberals, with the framing of issues changing from federalism vs. separatism to right vs. the centre, with the left on the margins. The PQ and Quebec solidaire would probably merge. And Stephen Harper, having backed the two winners, would have a decision to make about taking advantage of disarray in the sovereignist camp by calling an early election.

A PQ minority with the Liberals in opposition and the ADQ in third place. Theoretically, the PQ could form a minority government with fewer votes than the Liberals or ADQ, or even both of them. How's that for a crisis of legitimacy? Boisclair might be forced by his own party to propose a referendum question, which would be defeated by the other two parties in the legislature, triggering the government's resignation on a question of confidence, while investors, who despise uncertainty, head for the exits.

An ADQ minority, the least likely scenario. This would be the worst case for Dumont, being called upon to govern in an unstable House before he and his team are ready.

And while we don't know who's going to win the election, it's fair to say that Dumont has won the campaign. With no money, no real organization and a completely untested team, he has successfully surfed his way to shore.

It's an amazing story, in what might prove to be a watershed election.

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