Turns out this race is about likeability. That's why Layton's winning it.
And we should have seen that from the start. Mea culpa.
Three "inflection points," as peudo-savants like to say, that we unwisely ignored:
1. By longstanding conventional wisdom, an NDP breakthrough in Quebec is impossible. Except, as revealed in an Angus Reid poll of Quebec voters last May, if Layton has a shot at power.
In that poll 11 months ago, Quebeckers would prefer a Harper government to an Ignatieff-led coalition by 40% to 34%. But Quebeckers would prefer a Layton-led coalition over Harper, by 43% to 37%.
2. In January, an Angus Reid national poll finds Harper and Layton tied in job approval, at 26%. Iggy has dropped to a dismal 12%.
3. In March, two weeks before the election writ is dropped, another Angus Reid national poll has Layton as Canada's most popular national party leader (34%), followed by Harper (32%), with Iggy trailing far behind (14). Worse for the Grits, in the first nine weeks of 2011, Iggy's negatives have soared 8 points, with 55% of voters have a negative regard for the Liberal leader. Of all five national party leaders, only Layton's popularity has shown improvement over that pre-election period, while Iggy's has fallen the most.
In that same poll, voters were asked to select up to six words or expressions from a list to describe the four party leaders with seats in the Commons. The top five results for each were as follows:
• Stephen Harper – Secretive (39%), arrogant (38%), intelligent (33%), dishonest (30%), out of touch (29%)
• Michael Ignatieff – Arrogant (44%), out of touch (38%), boring (32%), inefficient (31%), dishonest (28%)
• Jack Layton – Intelligent (32%), down to earth (29%), honest (28%), compassionate (27%), open (27%)
• Gilles Duceppe – Arrogant (30%), out of touch (24%), intelligent (20%), boring (18%), inefficient (16%)
In Angus Reid's last voter survey, Layton boasts the highest voter approval rating (50%) in the past three years of the Angus Reid Public Opinion poll. Harper is at 33%, and Iggy is tied with the invisible Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, at 24%.
Going into the election itself, the contenders want it to be about sound economic stewardship (Tories) and unethical governance (the others). The economy did top voter concerns in the opening weeks, but in the past week the #1 spot has gone to health care.
You guessed it, Layton, at 36%, scores highest with voters in that poll as the best leader on health care.
Meanwhile, 45% of Canadians believe the Tories should be shown the door. That number rises to 61% in Quebec.
Alone among the leaders, Layton is likeable. Which wouldn't matter so much except that (a) so many elections turn on that factor, and (b) this is one them.
As shown in the debates, which Layton is credited with winning, the policy distinctions among the parties quickly grew indistinguishable. Harper has indeed been a capable steward of the economy in a time of global crisis, but the Chretien-Martin legacy of consecutive budget surpluses is widely recalled. So are the Grit ethical missteps of Shawinigate and the sponsorship scandals, a wash with Harper-era abuse of Parliament (a term resonating with few voters, in any case).
Which leaves us with a popularity contest.
And Layton's been winning that undeclared race for more than a year. I suspect that Layton, in company with everyone else, didn't imagine that the campaign wouldn't turn out this way.
With my soothsaying credibility in tatters (not that I claim any, but I do muse a bit), I'd like to report that the aforementioned Angus Reid surveys and the astonishing latest CROP poll showing huge NDP strength in Quebec are outliers.
But the latest reports by other polls are showing, in varying degrees, a similar NDP surge in selected, seat-rich areas across the country, if not quite as dramatic as the CROP survey.
The NDP has a tendency to peak in the pentultimate week of campaigns, but then fail to close the deal. On that score, I'm still operating on the premise that past is prologue. I don't see the Dippers with 80 seats in the next Parliament, as at least one seat projection shows.
But if the NDP surge holds, and the NDP equals or eclipses the Grit seat count May 2, the game changes irrevocably. Iggy will been gone, of course. And Layton, if his health bears up, will spearhead an NDP-Grit merger - the endgame he has quietly pursued for years.
You might doubt that unfolding of events, with good reason. But the three consecutive Chretien majorities were no indicator of Grit sustainability, given how divided was the oppositon of that time. Trudeau lost the West for the Liberals and poisoned the well with Quebec nationalists, reducing the Grits to a few pockets of shrinking support.
Back of that is the Grit arrogance and disconnect with the people, real and perceived. It's bred in the bone, a cultural attribute of the "Natural Governing Party" that just isn't going to change. The Liberals know their brand has only lost relevance steadily for decades. As did GM's. And even an agonizing bankruptcy hasn't changed its century-old ways.