NDP Leader Jack Layton

The news coverage of the New Democratic surge noted in a poll early today by Angus Reid reads like a bad joke.

“NDP moves into tie with Liberals: Poll,” said a headline in the Toronto Star, sensibly enough. However, the reporter led the story as follows: “The New Democrats begin the fourth week of the campaign tied with the Liberals for second place, but their support could collapse by the time voters go to the polls, according to a new survey.” (Emphasis added.)

Here’s the bad joke this reminds me of:

Jack Layton and Jesus are in a rowboat together, having a quiet chat while Jack rows Jesus out into the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is wearing one of those Tilley hats. Suddenly a gust of wind comes up and blows Jesus’ hat into the water, about 20 feet from the boat.

Well, Jack clambers out of the boat, takes his cane and limps over to the hat. He bends down and picks it up, shakes the water off it and walks back to the boat where he hands it to Jesus, who thanks him and puts it back on his head. Then Jack climbs back into the rowboat, picks up the oars and rows Jesus back to the dock.

Now, a question: How does the Toronto Star cover this story?

The answer: “It’s Official! Layton Can’t Swim!”

OK, people, ask yourselves this: If a new poll had showed a huge surge in support for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, would reporters have “balanced” their stories by noting in the lead, “but their support could collapse by the time voters go to the polls”? Unlikely.

If the poll had shown a huge jump in support for Michael Ignatieff and the Liberals, would the Toronto Star have observed, “their support could collapse by the time voters go to the polls”? Impossible!

A little later on, the story says: “The survey also notes that New Democrat support is considered soft. ‘There is a clear difference among people who say they are going to vote for the NDP and the other parties,’ said Jaideep Mukerji, vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion, noting that 41 per cent of respondents who said they would vote for the NDP also said they could change their mind before the May 2 election.”

“A lot of people are flirting voting for the NDP but it’s not a solid thing at all. That could quickly evaporate as . . . a Tory majority becomes a little bit more of a possibility (and) I think you will see some of those votes from the NDP peeling off towards the Liberals,” Mukerji went on, according to the Star.

Well, fair enough, but pardon me if I note here (as Mukerji doesn’t bother to do, at least in the Star) that this kind of response by poll respondents recognizes the harsh reality of strategic voting under Canada’s only slightly democratic first-past-the-post system, in which supporters of the party running third in the polls outside Quebec must acknowledge the possibility they will have to hold their noses and vote for the No. 2 party to keep the Harper neo-Conservatives from gaining too much power.

Plenty of voters, myself included, have voted strategically for Liberals when we preferred New Democrats because in the ridings where we lived the No. 3 party, whichever it was, didn’t have a chance.

If the New Democrats are on the cusp of becoming the No. 2 party, it may in fact be the Liberals who see their support peeling off toward the NDP by the time voters go to the polls.

Count on it that if that possibility rears its head, the mainstream media — and not just the perennially Liberal Toronto Star — will pull out all the stops to prevent it from becoming reality.

So look for plenty of stories in the next few days like the Star’s, full of qualifiers, hedges and explanations of why what you’re seeing isn’t really what you’re seeing.

But who knows where that might lead? As Layton observed in the same story, “A lot of Canadians don’t like to be told what to do, and so we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm on the ground.”

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...