In this business, the quickest and cheapest poll is found at Tim Hortons.
It is, however, one thing to pester the pensioners heading back for a refill and quite another to stand in line with the candidate, especially when the candidate looks more like he should be standing on the other side of the counter than standing for political office.
They all know Patrick Brown, the 26-year-old local councillor with the gelled hair and the mouthful of teeth. The girls pouring his iced coffee call him by name; the pensioners shake his hand. One middle-aged man with more opinions than there are Timbits -- none of his, however, glazed in sugar -- says Patrick Brown is a shoo-in for the Conservatives.
"You'll win," he snaps. "Your party won't win more than two or three seats in Ontario, but you'll win." Perhaps he's right; perhaps he's wrong. This, after all, is already the election where everyone knows everything; no one knows anything.
Less than one week into the campaign and it feels less like an exercise in democracy than a Monty Python skit: the Most Important Election in Canadian History, according to the man who called it, and yet no one remembered to bring along an issue.
All that seems certain is that the issue the Prime Minister thinks will carry the day, health care, makes people slightly ill when they try to wrap their heads around it. Certain, as well, is that the primary political wind in this, the largest province, blows from a hugely unpopular provincial Liberal budget that seems, somehow, to have cut the legs from under the federal Liberals, if in fact there ever were legs for the long haul.
"I've door-knocked in 10 provinces," says the young Conservative candidate in the new riding of Barrie, "and I've never seen anything like this. It's bewildering. A campaign with no issues? And Paul Martin says he has to have a mandate? For what?"
Brown smiles almost constantly and has, appropriately, set up campaign offices across the street in a vacant building that still has a sign up for the Happy Man Arcade.
The Liberal stumbling has pushed local issues to the fore, such as the price of gas in a community where 40 per cent of the workers commute to the Toronto area, an hour away in rare, light traffic. Whether they are to blame or not, the Liberals are on the receiving end of considerable anger.
The incumbent is Liberal Aileen Carroll, first elected in 1997 and Barrie's first cabinet minister, serving as Minister of International Co-operation in the Martin government. She is popular and capable, and she has benefited hugely, just as Jean Chrétien did, from a fractured right that took her to two victories in this traditionally conservative region.
This city, with its small-town, almost rural, values, is where Ed Harper became, in 1993, the only Reform candidate to win a seat east of Manitoba. Rob Hamilton, now the mayor, thought he could win it for the Alliance in 2000, only to suffer from 7,000 votes lost to the Progressive Conservative candidate and, as he puts it, "a national leader [Stockwell Day]and a national campaign that effectively torpedoed the local candidates." Both Harper and Hamilton are strong Brown supporters now that the right has finally merged.
Edna Anderson, who won the seat for Brian Mulroney's PCs in 1988 but chose not to run in 1993 because of family illness, is also backing Brown.
If early lawn signs are any indication, the young non-practising lawyer has a significant early jump on Carroll.
Anderson says she knows exactly what is happening, since she has seen it before, when Brian Mulroney came flying in 1984, and when her Conservatives went flying out in 1993.
"It's time for a change." But change, all will admit, is only now possible because of the merger of the fractured right.
Brown, oddly enough, was actually raised in a New Democratic household -- his lawyer father Edmund twice ran unsuccessfully for the NDP -- and only found his political footing when he heard Jean Charest speak at the 1993 Tory leadership. He worked for years to bring about a unified right and gained national attention several years ago when, as president of the PC Youth, he was among the first to speak out in favour of it.
Finally, it came about, and Patrick Brown was quick to offer himself up to run federally, even though he admits finding, as he goes door to door, an almost visceral distrust of "politicians of all stripes. But I'm going to do politics differently," he says.
"I'm going to keep my word." All that's fine, says Ed Harper, but the decisive factor is not going to be any promise.
"It's the anger that's out there," says the former Reform MP.
"That's what did it for me in '93 -- and that's what's going to do it for Patrick in 2004."