Eleven Grinding Weeks and this Election Comes Down to a Science Question: Momentum, or Inertia?

(Photo: Justgrimes/cc/flickr)

Eleven Grinding Weeks and this Election Comes Down to a Science Question: Momentum, or Inertia?

After 11 grinding weeks on the campaign trail, here we are on the cusp of a great federal election and nobody really has the foggiest notion of how the dust will settle Monday night.

As high-profile Alberta pollster Janet Brown put it yesterday after a busy couple of days counting lawn signs in the Calgary Centre riding -- where former Liberal MLA Kent Hehr is challenging sitting Conservative MP Joan Crockatt in a race another pollster has declared to be a dead heat -- "one of two things is going to happen: the Liberals are going to win a plurality of seats ... or they're not."

This is good news for political commentators, even amateurs like me, a spur to political engagement across geography and generations and, without a doubt, nerve-racking for the people running the three principal campaigns for the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP.

Who would have thought, when our tactically clever but science-unfriendly prime minister visited the Governor General to call this election on Aug. 2, that it would all come down to a question that sounds as if it belongs on a physics exam: momentum or inertia?

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Strong momentum is what Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau now has going for him and, as Brown reminds us, "momentum is a very powerful force at the end of an election campaign."

"If the positive momentum continues through the weekend, it's not inconceivable that they could push themselves into majority territory like the NDP did in Alberta," Brown told me yesterday -- noting, however, that no polls show them there yet.

Powerful inertia is what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has going for him, and if you think about it, that's not necessarily bad news for the Conservatives either, at least at this point in a campaign that hasn't gone the way they expected it to when they pulled the election trigger.

Harper may be a polarizing politician viscerally disliked by large numbers of Canadians, but several recent elections in Canada and elsewhere have taught us voters who signal a desire for change can behave differently on election day. Brown explains it this way: "Polling in most recent elections has overestimated the desire for political change and the governing party has ended doing slightly better than expected." Sometimes that's enough to save a government's bacon.

Whether this was caused by pollsters getting it wrong or voters getting cold feet at the last minute, this real phenomenon has led to unexpected parliamentary election results that benefitted governing parties in Alberta in 2012, in British Columbia in 2013, in Ontario in 2014, and in Britain in 2015.

Of course, it doesn't always go the governing party's way, and it didn't in Quebec last year or Alberta this year. Which keeps things interesting. Still, Brown said, "if everyone is underestimating the CPC vote, then CPC and Liberal seat counts could be very close in the end."

Alas for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, the auguries suggest he now has neither momentum nor inertia working for him.

Still, while the last 11 weeks have been a disappointment for Canada's New Democrats, who looked like winners at the start and then saw the air leak steadily out of the party's tires, voter intentions seem to have stabilized in Quebec with the NDP still in the lead in that province.

Mulcair was in Edmonton last night drumming up support for strong New Democrat contenders in several close races in the city before a throng of about 1,500 supporters. He had a little help on the stage from Premier Rachel Notley, who for the most part has stayed out of the campaign and declared that, while she would prefer the NDP Leader as PM, she'll work with any prime minister.

Unlike Calgary, where the strategic anti-Harper vote seems to have coalesced around the Liberals and could deliver them several seats, what voters will do in Edmonton is less clear. If there is no consensus by Monday in some ridings, the anti-Harper vote will be split and Conservatives could eke out a few more potentially crucial seats.

Voters everywhere are now firming up their voting decisions, which means the election may come down to the three major parties' ground games -- that is, who can actually get their committed supporters to the polls. That's something Conservatives and New Democrats have a reputation for being able to do well, another factor that makes predictions harder to make.

Nevertheless, at this point it seems likely that, whatever happens Monday, of the three main leaders only Trudeau can count on finding himself in an improved position the morning after, ironically in part because he was the beneficiary of low expectations set for him by a series of nasty Tory attack ads.

Harper's and Mulcair's reputations will both be tarnished, even if they salvage something from what has to potential to be for both of them a disastrous campaign.

If you're sick of this and think it will all be over when the ballots have been counted, guess again. If no one manages to get a majority, we could all be back at the polls another time in a matter of months.

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