Will Jack Layton usurp Michael Ignatieff?

Our polls show the NDP is very close to leapfrogging the Liberals

Thanks to a late-campaign surge, the NDP has a real shot at replacing the Liberals as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Jack Layton’s party is arguably closer to forming a government than it’s ever been. But that doesn’t mean the party is actually contending for power. There are clear limits emerging to just how far the party’s sudden popularity might take it.

According to an Innovative Research poll conducted for Maclean’s and L’actualité between April 21 and April 25, the New Democrats are now very close to leapfrogging the Liberals for second place among decided voters. The NDP’s popularity sits at 23.9 per cent, just a point behind the Liberals’ 24.9 per cent. Despite their stagnating fortunes, the Conservatives remain in the driver’s seat going into the final week of campaigning with 38.4 per cent of the vote. Support for the Bloc, meanwhile, has dipped to 6.4 per cent nationally and 27.7 per cent in Quebec, while the Greens sit at 5.3 per cent.

Indeed, the NDP’s rush toward the spotlight from its usual place at the margins of Canadian politics has been the story of the campaign so far. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Quebec, where the party has supplanted the Bloc Québécois as the first choice among province’s prickly voters. The NDP now has 36 per cent support in Quebec, nearly nine points more than the Bloc. Perhaps most significantly, Layton’s party is far ahead of its federalist opponents in the province, with nearly double the support of the Conservatives (18.3 per cent) and an even heftier lead over the Liberals, who are now solidly fourth in voter intentions with a paltry 13.6 per cent support.

“It looks like Layton has created a ‘third option’ in Quebec,” says pollster Greg Lyle, the managing director of Innovative Research. “While hard federalists and especially hard sovereigntists have resisted his appeal, soft federalists and sovereigntists have really gravitated to the NDP.” Among those who describe themselves as “somewhat favourable” to Quebec’s independence, the NDP was the first choice of 53 per cent. Meanwhile, 49 per cent of those who say they’re “somewhat opposed” to Quebec sovereignty say they too will cast their lot with Layton. That push toward the mushy middle of the constitutional divide has left the Conservatives (39.8 per cent) and the Liberals (19.5 per cent) fighting over the hard federalist vote, while the Bloc Québécois takes home the overwhelming majority of (77.1 per cent) of militant sovereigntist votes.

Though less dramatic than in Quebec, the NDP’s popularity in B.C. has seen a similar upward swing. At 29.4 per cent support, the NDP still trails the Conservatives (41.7 per cent) by a significant margin, but it may have seized enough ground to disrupt the Conservatives’ designs on a handful of ridings out west. “The Conservatives may end up breaking even, depending on how hard the NDP surge goes,” Lyle says. “But that’s a big difference—from between four and six pickups to zero. You’ve gone from half the gains you needed for a majority to none. If this is going to be a game of inches on election night—which it might be—then this surge cost them a lot of inches.”

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s in his home province of Ontario that Layton’s popularity has been most stubbornly stagnant. At 17 per cent, his party trails far behind both the Liberals (36.1 per cent) and the Conservatives (41.4 per cent). Their breakthroughs elsewhere simply haven’t carried over into the one province anointed the key battleground at the start of this election, a situation Lyle attributes partly to a wariness among centre-left voters outside Quebec that voting NDP might clear the path for a Harper majority. “English Canadians are a lot more likely to say this election is a two horse race than Quebecers,” Lyle says. “This may be the reason behind the NDP failure to break through in Ontario.”

Regardless, though Layton’s popularity may end up hitting a wall in Canada’s most populous province come election night, he’ll have at least succeeded in positioning himself at the centre of a post-election coalition scenario—a role even the Conservatives had never imagined could be filled by anyone but Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. That scenario, says Lyle, is now dependent on Layton’s success at wooing those Quebecers who for years have cast their lot with the Bloc Québécois, but are now legitimately intrigued by the NDP. “How far can Layton take this? He could say to Quebecers, ‘Look we may not be able to get into government in one shot, but you can make us number two and set the stage for a progressive coalition that will end the Conservative government’,” Lyle says. “There’s real excitement in Quebec at the idea of a Jack Layton-led minority.”

The online survey was conducted among current members of INNOVATIVE’s Canada 20/20 panel from April 21st to April 25th, 2011. The Canada 20/20 Panel is recruited from a wide variety of sources to be representative of the known distribution of Canadians by age, gender, region and language. The weighted total sample included 1543 responses eligible for inclusion in our analysis including 363 in Quebec. An unweighted probability sample of 1543 would have an estimated margin of error of ±2.49 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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