Stephen Harper's Conservatives are slowly regaining the lead they had over Michael Ignatieff's Liberals but the census controversy continues to be a drag on their election fortunes, according to the latest EKOS poll.
Over the past two weeks, the Tories managed to widen the gap from just one point to five - 32.5 per cent national support compared to 27.9 per cent for the Liberals. The NDP has 17.4 per cent support, the Green Party is polling at 10.3 per cent and the Bloc Québécois is at 9.2 per cent.
The survey of 2,979 Canadians, released Thursday morning, was conducted between Aug. 11 and 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Despite the party's four-point gain, EKOS pollster Frank Graves notes the Conservatives are nowhere close to the 11-point lead they enjoyed in early June. "And way short of the margin they had last election, let alone the huge lead they had last fall," he adds.
The narrowing race, he says, is "almost certainly exclusively a product of the census decision" that has awakened the university-educated class in Canada. Indeed, the EKOS results show highly-educated Canadians moving away from the Conservative fold during the census drama - and the Liberals are the main beneficiaries.
Mr. Graves's tracking shows Grit support among university-educated Canadians climbing to 34.4 per cent from 26.3 per cent over the past several weeks. This as Conservative support among the group has declined to 29.2 per cent from 32.7 per cent support.
"This one movement has tightened the race," Mr. Graves says. It's significant, he adds, as "virtually all of what some have called the 'influentials' in society [opinion leaders who are early adopters and shapers of future trends]all are located in this segment."
College-educated Canadians, meanwhile, are sticking with the Tories. "The continued strength of the [Conservatives]with the college-educated suggest that there is a hardening fault line separating the expert and professional classes from the college-educated."
Citing the too-often-used coffee analogy, Mr. Graves thinks "the Tim Horton versus Starbucks' conflict may now be spilling over in to other areas." Dangerous territory for the Tories, he says, as they try to broaden their tent to form a majority government.
Awakening what he describes as an "erstwhile slumbering class of knowledge workers who have ready access to the tools of influence shaping public debate" is not a good strategy in his books. The university-educated crowd, he says, come out to vote.
The latest numbers also tell the familiar story of the east/west divide. That poll shows the divide become more entrenched, with the Conservatives enjoying a huge lead in Western Canada and the Liberals carving out a lead, which Mr. Graves characterizes as "less impressive," in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic.
In British Columbia, the Conservatives are now polling at 41.1 per cent compared to 21.9 per cent for the Liberals; the Tories are way ahead in Alberta with 55.2 per cent compared to 17.6 per for the Grits. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the Conservatives are at 41.4 per cent and compared to 14.2 per cent for the Liberals.
The picture flips slightly in the central and eastern provinces with the Liberals polling at 35.7 per cent in Ontario, 25.1 per cent in Quebec and 35.1 per cent in the four Atlantic provinces. This compares to the Tories, who have 32.4 per cent in Ontario, 17. 3 per cent in Quebec and 31.1 per cent in the Atlantic.
Mr. Harper would win a huge majority, Mr. Graves suggests, if an election took place only from Sault Ste. Marie west. But in the country as a whole, the Tories would be reduced to 123 seats while together the Liberals and NDP would have 137 seats if an election were held today.
Under this scenario, Mr. Graves says Parliament would be about "as stable as a drunken bear on a bicycle."
His seat projections, based on calculations drawn from his latest poll, show the Tories losing 21 seats. The Liberals would gain 21 seats, moving to 98 from 77; the NDP would have 39 seats, an increase of three, and the Bloc would lose one seat, taking 47 in Quebec.