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From left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pose for photos prior to the federal election leaders debate in Ottawa. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
From left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pose for photos prior to the federal election leaders debate in Ottawa. (Paul Chiasson/Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Why this campaign has been a boon to democracy Add to ...

We can debate endlessly why it happened. We can question whether it's the start of a whole new dynamic among our political parties, or just a blip. We'll have to wait to see whether it produces better, worse or the same government.

But this much is safe to say: Jack Layton's magical rise in this spring's election has been enormously good for our democracy. Because it has proven that national campaigns really do matter, blowing up the assumption made by Conservative strategists at its outset.

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Stephen Harper's push for a majority government has revolved around the idea that to most voters, the "air war" - the party's communication efforts, their exchanges with each other, the media's coverage of it all - is just a lot of white noise. So he has made no effort to engage us collectively. On the contrary, the Conservatives have tried to foster indifference with a stultifyingly boring and repetitive central campaign - all the better to allow them to micro-target just enough swing voters in just enough ridings to win a majority government.

Many pollsters, and some insiders from other parties, entered this campaign sharing the belief that the vast majority of voters aren't really in play. It was a depressing experience to listen to them explain why, beyond motivating their bases to come out and vote, parties really just had to worry about targeting a relatively tiny number of swing voters in swing ridings.

For the first half of the campaign, that theory held up. The Liberals, trying to get Canadians worked up about Mr. Harper's alleged disrespect for Parliament, excited the people who came to their campaign rallies and pretty much nobody else. The New Democrats got even less attention. Popular support remained so stagnant that daily tracking polls were becoming punchlines.

Then, after the leaders' debates, all hell broke loose. Starting in Quebec, then spreading to other provinces, support started shifting toward the NDP - not just in tiny blocs, but in large numbers. If the polls are to be believed, millions of voters have moved to a party that was assumed to have hit its ceiling in the last campaign.

It is not Conservative voters, primarily, who have shifted. In Quebec, where Mr. Layton has for years been courting left-of-centre and soft nationalist voters, the NDP capitalized on fatigue and annoyance with the Bloc Québécois. Elsewhere, the gains have mostly come at the expense of the Liberals and the Green Party.

But the Conservatives, who thought they had this election fully gamed out, have not been nimble enough to respond. They have watched as anti-Harper support has consolidated behind the NDP, putting in jeopardy some of the seats they were counting on, and until the last few days seemingly refused to believe it was happening. And because they didn't think it was worth speaking to most self-identified supporters of other parties, they've been unable to woo many of the disaffected Liberals leaving that party in droves.

None of this is to say that Mr. Harper won't get his majority. The vote splits could still break that way. And if they do, the strategists will no doubt pat themselves on the back.

But they cannot seriously claim any more to have had the electorate all figured out. And in future campaigns, all parties will know better than to treat us as quite the automatons the Conservatives thought we were.

Rather a lot of voters, it turns out, have open minds and open hearts. And when someone like Mr. Layton gives them something to be excited about, remarkable things can happen.

As in every election, many people will not be happy with the result on Monday. But the race that got us there is one for all of us to celebrate, for what it proved and for what it disproved.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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