Stephen Harper will likely win government when voters go the polls Monday, but the unanswered question is whether he will eke out a majority of seats or find himself in a tough fight for first place with the surging NDP, according to the final poll of this election campaign.
The Nanos Research poll, conducted Saturday and Sunday for the Globe and Mail and CTV, has the Conservatives enjoying 37.1-per-cent support nationally, compared to the 38.6 per cent with which they started the election campaign. In the past election, the Conservatives polled 37.6 per cent of the vote.
Although the current governing party remains essentially where it was in the affections of Canadians, the other major parties have registered massive changes.
Jack Layton's NDP enters election day with 31.6-per-cent support, just under six percentage points behind the Conservatives. The NDP began this election campaign as the third party, with 19.9-per-cent support, but since then, voters have flocked to them, principally at the cost of the Liberals and Bloc Québécois.
Michael Ignatieff's Liberals come a distant third, at 20.5 per cent. They began the campaign with 27.6-per-cent support, and polled 26.2 per cent in the 2008 election.
If these numbers hold, the Liberals are set to suffer an even worse defeat than they did in the past election.
Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois are at 5.7 per cent, nationally - a major slump with the NDP the sole beneficiary - with the Greens at 3.8 per cent.
"The separatist BQ on Monday will be dealt a resounding rebuke from Quebeckers registering their worst showing in BQ history," pollster Nik Nanos predicted.
The precedent of 2008 suggests that, while Mr. Harper will win a strong minority government, he will not obtain the majority of seats without which, he has repeatedly warned, his government will be unseated by the other parties in a matter of weeks.
But Mr. Nanos observed that in 1997, "with similar results, Jean Chrétien did manage to form a majority government."
He did it by sweeping ridings across Ontario thanks to a divide on the right between the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties.
Whether the NDP surge in this election splits the votes on the left, allowing the Conservatives to capture a clutch of ridings in Ontario and win their majority, is unknowable.
"It all boils down to the distribution of support," Mr. Nanos observed.
And with a three-percentage-point margin of error, the result could even show the Conservatives and NDP battling for first place.
In this election, the most sophisticated tracking of voting behaviour is as reliable as a finger in the wind.
Much will depend on which party's supporters are more motivated to vote, and which riding machines have done the better job of tracking and delivering their voters to the polls.
In relation to Ontario, Mr. Nanos did offer one telling observation, however. On Saturday, the gap between the Conservative and Liberal parties was five percentage points. By Sunday, it had widened to 10.
"In the last the day of the campaign, the most movement has been in the province of Ontario," he said.
If Ontario voters, still spooked by memories of Bob Rae's unpopular NDP provincial government in the 1990s, are shifting from the Liberals to the Conservatives to prevent a repeat at the federal level under Mr. Layton, then the Grits may be in for a grim night.
But with a five-percentage-point margin of error among the Ontario numbers, and with the electorate so clearly in flux, predictions are impossible.
On the Nanos Daily Leadership Index - which has tracked the party leaders throughout the campaign based on voter responses to questions of which leader they thought showed the most trustworthiness, competence and vision - Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton ended the campaign in a virtual dead heat, with Mr. Harper at 95.3 , Mr. Layton at 87.3 - double where he was at the beginning of the campaign - and Mr. Ignatieff languishing at 34.1.
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