Four polls today made the NDP gain 8 seats in the projection, by far the largest one-day change for any party since the start of the campaign. The Conservatives gain 2 and are right on the fence between a minority and a majority, though it should be noted that their gain is due to a methodological change being phased in. The Liberals and Bloc suffer heavy losses: 5 seats each.
It's definitely time for the Liberal and Bloc campaigns to hit the panic button. The Liberals' goal is now to stay in second place. To do so, it must successfully defend the GTA and hope the NDP don't make any further inroads in Québec. A dozen of Toronto area seats could simultaneously determine who is Leader of the Opposition and whether the Tories win a majority.
As for the Bloc, the campaign is now a matter of survival. If it ties the NDP in the Québec popular vote, it keeps a respectable 35-40 seats - far more than any other party. But if it loses Québec by 9-10 points, as suggested by today's polls, its seat count may drop below 20, while the NDP could win a majority of Québec seats. Should the latter be the case, the Bloc would be at risk of withering away - who would want Duceppe's job?
The two key numbers to watch in the polls to come are:
- the Conservative lead in Ontario: 5% or below suggests a minority, while 10% or above suggests a majority;
- the Bloc vote share in Québec: around 25% implies disaster, while around 30% implies significant, but moderate losses.
It's clear where Harper and Ignatieff must focus: Metro Toronto. It's also clear where Duceppe should campaign: Southern Québec - those few Bloc-Conservative fights around Quebec City are not going to determine the Bloc's survival.
For Layton, things are more complicated. He obviously wants to win as many seats as possible, but he also needs to do his best to prevent Harper winning a majority. The reason is simple: if Harper gets his way, the Liberals will have 4 long years to rebuild, reestablish their credibility, and make sure that 2011 is a one-off. If Harper fails, the Liberals will have to choose between propping up a Conservative government - and alienating left-of-centre voters at every confidence vote for years - or give the NDP an important role in government.
Québec offers the most potential gains for the NDP, but it's in the West that Layton can impede Harper's quest to reach 155. One thing is clear, however: for once, Ontario shouldn't be on the NDP's priority list - the number of potential gains is very small, and a stronger NDP in Ontario helps Conservatives.