This election campaign has been all about Mario

Quebec voters want a Liberal government with the ADQ in second place

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Friday, March 23, 2007

If you asked Quebecers to express a collective will on the outcome of this election, they would elect a Liberal government with Mario Dumont as leader of the opposition.

They think the Liberals are going to win, and have thought so all along. Even Dumont's voters don't think he can win - if they did, some of them wouldn't be voting for him. Thus, in this week's CROP poll of the Quebec City region, 40 per cent of respondents said they'd be voting for Dumont, but only eight per cent thought he would win on Monday. Fully 60 per cent thought the Liberals would win, while just 10 per cent thought the Parti Quebecois would win.

The sense of Liberal inevitability works in Dumont's favour, and against the Liberals. Thinking the Liberals will win, Dumont's supporters can pay themselves the treat of voting for him. It deprives the Liberals of the leverage they have over voters who would normally be concerned a vote for the PQ is a vote for uncertainty and another referendum. But a vote for Mario is, what? It's a vote for Mario.

With Dumont, the only uncertainty is whether he's going to be opposition leader or leader of a strong third party. Either way, in the event of a minority, he would hold the balance of power.

People who are voting for Dumont aren't with him because of his team, his platform or the ADQ brand. He's the brand. That's the point.

When pollster Nik Nanos of SES Research was in the field for Policy Options magazine on the two nights following the debate last week, he asked 500 Quebecers three key questions on the relative strengths of the parties: best team, best platform and best defender of Quebec's interests.

The Liberals were seen as the best team by 49 per cent, as against 23 per cent for the PQ and only 7.4 per cent for the ADQ.

The Liberals were seen as having the best platform by 36 per cent, as to 24 per cent for the PQ and 15 per cent for the ADQ.

And the Liberals were seen as the party most likely to get Quebec's "fair share" from Ottawa by 42 per cent, as against 28 per cent for the PQ and 13 per cent for the ADQ.

In other words, the team is the ADQ's weakest attribute and even Dumont's voters know it. The ADQ also finishes last in terms of ideas and defending Quebec's interests. But that didn't prevent 30 per cent of Quebecers, in last week's Leger poll, from saying they would vote for Dumont.

Clearly, it's not about the team, the platform, or the litmus test of defending Quebec's interests in Canada. It's about Mario Dumont, period. He has created a comfort zone for himself with the voters, as an autonomist who once voted Yes but would never call another referendum, as someone who represents the right for voters who think Quebec has gone too far left, and as the representative of the regions in a revolt against Montreal.

But everyone also knows Dumont isn't ready to be premier. Even he knows it. Actually winning the election, with an untested and unprepared team, would be his worst nightmare. Coming second, forming a government-in-waiting, winning the confidence of voters, becoming premier in four years at age 40, that's his dream.

If he finishes ahead of the PQ in the popular vote, then there's every chance the voters will realize their wish of a Liberal government with Dumont as opposition leader. This would then go into the books as a realignment election, with huge implications on the federal and provincial scenes.

But we are also in the uncharted waters of a competitive three-way race, where much will depend on turnout and ground game, and where everything will depend on the vote splits. Anything can happen.

For example, Dumont's base is in the Quebec City region, where he stands to win nearly twice as many seats as the PQ has in the east end of Montreal. How's that for a running start? But if his support is growing into places like the Mauricie, and even into the Lanaudiere and the Laurentians, then he could tilt PQ seats to the Liberals.

For the Liberals, the building blocks to government begin in Montreal and Laval, and include the Outaouais, the Eastern Townships, eastern Quebec and even the Saguenay. And the issue will be decided in area code 450, the Monteregie south and west of the city, with 20 seats up for grabs.

After a very indifferent campaign, the Liberals have been growing again this week, to an extent not yet revealed in the polls. The fundamentals are coming back into play as voters focus on the choice. And the fundamentals favour the Liberals.

My prediction: a Liberal government, on the doorstep of a majority, now with a good chance of Dumont in opposition.

 
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