Quebec, party-spoiler

The conventional wisdom — which is certainly conventional, but seldom ever wise — suggests Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are doing well. The Cons are the likeliest election winners, goes the theory, because they are so regularly ahead in the polls.

But all is not what it seems.

For months, assorted surveys have pegged the Conservatives in the mid-to-upper 30s, placing them — on average — six to seven points ahead of Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.

Being consistently ahead in a poll is usually better than being consistently behind. So the prime minister is entitled to be smiling about his good fortune — and giddily preparing for an election that will come at any time, right?

Well, no.

Here’s the problem: Stephen Harper has lots of support in places where he doesn’t need it (like the West). And he has little support in places where he does (like Quebec).

As a poll by the respected Leger Marketing firm showed earlier this week, the Conservatives’ unpopularity in la belle province is at record levels. In recent weeks, in fact, Quebec’s satisfaction with the PM and his team has dropped seven full points. Only one in five Quebecois voters now approve of the job the Cons are doing.

One Leger executive even likened it to a political “October crisis.” Political insiders won’t go that far. But Liberal pundits agree the Conservatives face the realistic prospect of losing every one of their Quebec seats — although not the Beauce riding of the popular Maxime Bernier, the Conservative’s libertarian firebrand.

“The reality is the Conservatives are offside with a lot of voters (in Quebec),” Bob Richardson, the head of the Liberals’ Red Leaf ad consortium, said: “Right now, nine Quebec Tory seats are going to be very competitive in the next election.”

My friend Tim Powers, one of the ruling party’s lead spokesmen on TV, doesn’t deny that the Conservatives’ Quebec numbers are dismal. But Powers says what the Tories lose in Quebec can be picked up elsewhere:

“Picking up new seats can be done. It’s harder in an environment when regional vote clusters in vote-rich Quebec currently favour the separatist Bloc. However you can work to build a patch-work quilt from other parts of Canada to get that winning warmth.”

When you are attempting to cobble together “winning warmth,” Powers says, a seat is a seat is a seat. As long as you have more than half of Parliament’s 308, that’s what counts.

But there’s a problem. The MPs Harper loses in Quebec may not be offset by shiny new Tory Parliamentarians elsewhere in Canada.

How many more seats, for example, can the Conservative leader hope to acquire in the prairies? He already has as many as he is going to get. Atlantic Canada will be a wash, and the NDP are on the upswing in B.C., not right-of-centre options.

To achieve his much-desired majority, and to compensate for expected Quebec-based losses, Harper needs to acquire as many as two dozen seats.

In an uncertain economic environment, and with the government continuing to lose key votes (for a seat at the UN Security Council, or on the gun registry), that’s a tall order.

And so, if all that has you now suspecting we won’t be facing an election any time soon, know this:

You’re right. We won’t be.

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