A bad time for Harper to go to the polls

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National Post, Friday, February 15, 2008

When the minority Trudeau government engineered its own defeat over the budget in May, 1974, Liberal campaign director Keith Davey was sitting in the gallery, and later famously said he had the winning numbers for a majority in his pocket. And he did.

Well, Stephen Harper doesn't, even as he contemplates the defeat of his government on the budget in early March, which would trigger an election in mid-April. And neither does his campaign director, Doug Finley, unless he is combining leadership numbers with voting intention, a statistical conflation that would be extremely reckless and foolhardy.

Harper should be careful of what he wishes for.

Nik Nanos, the pollster who in 2006 predicted all four parties' score to within one-tenth of one percentage point, put out some numbers last week that should give the Conservatives serious pause. Nanos showed the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives nationally, 33% to 31%, with the NDP at 19%. In other words, a statistical dead heat.

But it was the regional breakouts in the Nanos poll that should really be of concern to the Harper Conservatives. In battleground Ontario, the Liberals led the Tories, 43% to 31%, with the NDP at 19%. Those are not even 2006 numbers, when the Conservatives won 40 seats with 35% of the vote, but more like 2004, when they won only 24 seats with 30%. These numbers foretell a clean Liberal sweep in the Toronto 416 region, and a virtual shutout of the Conservatives in the 905 belt around the city.

And in Quebec, where Harper hopes to graduate to a majority, Nanos had the Bloc Quebecios at 36%, the Conservatives at 23% and the Liberals at 22%. This basically aligned within the margin of error with the previous week's authoritative CROP poll, which had the Bloc at 36%, the Conservatives at 27% and the Liberals at 21%, with the Bloc up five points and the Conservatives down four from a 31-31 tie before the holidays.

Just as in Ontario, every point above or below 30% is generally worth three to five seats. At 31%, the Conservatives were looking at as many 30 seats in the key 50-seat battleground off the island of Montreal, where they have traded places with the Liberals as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc. At 27%, they'd basically hold on to the 11 they have now.

This week's national poll by Leger Marketing had slightly better news for Harper, placing the Conservatives ahead 37-32 nationwide. But even on this poll, a look inside the regional breakouts should be worrisome for the Tories. The party's national lead is based on strong numbers across the West, where its seat totals are already maxed-out, except in British Columbia. In Ontario, Leger put the Liberals ahead 42% to 32%, basically aligned with Nanos. And in Quebec -- where Leger is considered the most reliable measurement of public opinion, alongside CROP -- the Bloc was at 35%, the Liberals regaining second place at 27% and the Conservatives slipping to 21%.

This could be a blip, as Leger vice-president Christian Bourque explained to Le Devoir, reflecting a strong appearance the previous Sunday by Stephane Dion on Tout le monde en parle, the wildly popular Radio-Canada interview show that draws two million viewers per week. But blip or bump, it's not a number for the Conservatives to take into an election.

The Conservatives continue to count on Harper's strong advantage over Dion on leadership attributes -- as reflected by polling questions about who would make the best prime minister and who has the best vision for the country. The Conservatives likewise can take comfort from the high satisfaction rate, 55% nationwide, in the Leger poll. But there is no evidence, yet, that these numbers will sway stated voting intention.

In the days when Allan Gregg was polling for the Conservatives, he used to say that a Conservative government could look heartless, as long as it was seen as competent. One of the tests of competence may be knowing when to avoid an election.

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