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A look at the federal political horse race

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Lots to talk about as Parliament goes on summer hiatus.

For now: a word about opinion polls, horse races, and -- to paraphrase Lewis Carroll -- "shoes and ships and sealing-wax, cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot."

Political journalists have a love-hate relationship with polls and pollsters. But even those who profess great skepticism can't help but be influenced by the stories the polls tell.

The big story, for the English language national media, right now, is the seeming enduring popularity of Justin Trudeau and his Liberals.

After the 2011 election many wondered if the Liberal Party, at the federal level, would even survive.

The Party had, in the past, known some pretty hard times. It had seen its share of seats shrink down to below 50 on more than one occasion.

In the 1958 (Diefenbaker) and 1984 (Mulroney) Progressive Conservative sweeps, the Liberals were reduced to 48 seats and 40 seats respectively.

Those were bruising results to be sure; but they were different from 2011.

In 1958 and 1984 the Liberals were still in second place, still ahead of the CCF (in 1958) and its successor party, the NDP, (in 1984), and still had Official Opposition (and ergo alternative government) status.

In 2011, for the first time since Confederation, the Liberals did not win either government or official opposition.

Many thought that would mean Canada would see a new left-right re-alignment of the sort that happened in Britain, in the 1920s, when the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservatives.

Did Justin Trudeau breathe life into a corpse?

If opinion polls have any validity, it may not be turning out that way.

The arrival of Trudeau as Liberal Leader seems to have had a miraculous effect on his once moribund party's fortunes.

Certainly, that is the way most in the mainstream media are interpreting the available polling numbers. The latest of those, from Toronto-based Forum Research, shows the Liberals at 39 per cent nationally, the Conservatives at 30 per cent and the NDP at a shocking 19 per cent.

Forum supplies regional breakdowns, but they have to be taken with a big grain of salt, because the sample sizes are so small.

In Quebec, for instance, Forum shows the Liberals leading the NDP by ten points, 36 per cent to 26 per cent. That is quite at variance with two very recent Quebec-only polls that show the NDP either in the lead or in a tie with the Liberals.

One of those Quebec polls does a breakdown between francophones and non-francophones, and gives the NDP a 14 point lead among francophone Quebeckers -- over the Liberals and the Bloc Québecois, who are tied.

Among non-francophones in Quebec, all polls show the Liberals with a very high level of support, something approaching 70 per cent in some cases.

There are about 20 federal seats in Quebec where non-francophone voters are a significant factor, and the Liberals now hold six of them. The NDP has legitimate grounds to worry about the handful of such seats it holds, in parts of Montreal and in some Montreal suburbs.

But non-francophone voters are extremely concentrated in Quebec.

The vast majority of Quebec seats are, and will be even more so after redistribution, overwhelmingly francophone. Given current numbers provided by Quebec-based pollsters, the NDP does not seem likely to lose many, if any, of the 50-odd francophone Quebec seats it now holds.

A different world depending on your language

Francophone journalists are sensitive to the distinctive nature of Quebec public opinion, and they treat the various federal parties quite differently from the way their English-language colleagues do.

The Montreal Gazette's report, this past Saturday, on the most recent Léger Marketing poll places the emphasis on that poll's finding that the NDP and Liberals at a tie in Quebec.

Reporting on the same poll (which it commissioned) the French-language daily Le Devoir focuses on the fact that, in its leaders' ratings, the most recent Léger poll shows NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair far ahead of all the others.

"Mulcair domine Trudeau," the Le Devoir headline reads. "Mulcair dominates Trudeau." 

The world of Canadian public opinion obviously looks very different depending on whether you are looking at it in English or in French.

Mind you, in the wake of its big 2011 breakthrough, the NDP had a right to expect that three years on it would be competing for power with the ruling Conservatives, not competing for attention with a seemingly resurgent Liberal party.

For voters in English Canada who may have voted NDP last time, but who now mainly want to be rid of what they see as a toxic Harper Conservative regime, the current polling numbers and the increasingly fierce competition between Trudeau's party and Mulcair's are no doubt very vexing.

What do you do when you mostly want to unseat a party in power that you consider to be not just antipathetic but pretty near dangerous?

There is no simple answer.

Nonetheless, for the NDP there has to be at least a measure of reassurance in the fact that current polling information shows that the Party is anything but an evanescent phenomenon in Quebec, where it did so well last time.

NDP vote in Quebec last time was no protest

The assumption among so many in the English Canadian elite -- who know little about francophone Quebec and pay even less attention to it -- that the NDP vote in Quebec last time was some sort of "protest," seems, thee years after the last election, to be quite wrong.

In Quebec, last time, this writer's impression is that those who voted NDP were expressing anything but a protest. Their vote was more of an affirmation, in fact.  

Those voters were demonstrating a willingness to support a federalist party that proposed policies for the whole country, rather than continuing to, in effect, "waste" their federal votes on a Quixotic exercise in separatist protest.

Anglophone Quebeckers -- for now, at least -- seem ready to renew their traditional allegiance to the Liberal Party, especially with the son of English-speaking Quebeckers' greatest political hero at its helm.

There is no evidence, however, that francophone Quebeckers are similarly moved.

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