On the eve of the Quebec election, roughly one in 10 voters are undecided and at least one in five say they could change their minds, polls suggest – astonishing volatility that appears to leave the result of the tight three-way race in doubt.
The surprisingly high number of voters who say they could switch in final polls released by CROP and Léger Marketing makes predicting the outcome of Tuesday's vote more difficult than is generally the case.
The soft party support among this segment of the electorate is even more pronounced among those professing to back the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec.
"As many as 28 per cent could still change their mind. With CAQ supporters, that number increases to 38 per cent. There is still a lot of fluidity in the CAQ vote," said pollster Jean-Marc Léger, quoting figures from the Léger Marketing poll, released Sunday.
The Léger poll, conducted last Wednesday to Friday for QMI news agency, showed that little has changed in the past week, with the Parti Québécois ahead at 33 per cent, followed by the CAQ at 28, the Liberals at 27 and Québec Solidaire at 7, with 9 per cent undecided.
CROP's last poll, released on Friday, pegged the number of those who say they could switch at 22 per cent. CROP puts the PQ at 32 per cent, the CAQ at 28, the Liberals at 26 and QS at 9 per cent, with 12 per cent undecided.
But when the numbers are broken down regionally, the picture in both polls changes, especially in the predominantly francophone ridings in the northern and southern areas of Montreal, the so-called 450 area code region.
"The key to the election is the 450 region," Mr. Léger said. "There are 21 close races out a total of 41 ridings just outside of Montreal. This is the first time that the 450 region becomes such a major factor because usually these are PQ ridings."
For CAQ Leader François Legault, his party's biggest challenge will be to make a significant breakthrough in the 450. Out of the 41 ridings in the entire region, which includes the south shore of Montreal and the northern beltway outside Laval, 15 of the 21 close races are between the CAQ and the PQ. The others are between the Liberals and the PQ.
Réjean Pelletier, a Laval University political science professor, said there are two major categories of uncommitted voters. First off, there are Liberals who "don't want to say that they are voting for the party, they feel a certain shyness about it."
The other voters, who form a bigger group, are made up of "Liberals and péquistes who still have hesitations regarding the CAQ."
"These are the people who will make the difference on Tuesday. If they go for the CAQ, the Liberals could end up in third place. If they remain faithful to the Liberals, the party could form the Official Opposition," said Mr. Pelletier, who views a minority PQ government as the most likely scenario. Polls suggest support for the PQ is more stable than for the other two major parties.
McGill University political scientist Antonia Maioni also agreed that the high level of uncommitted voters is unusual at this late stage of a campaign but may have little impact on the outcome. She said many Quebec voters are unhappy with their choices and so they may simply stay home.
She said it is impossible to predict which way these voters will break. Typically, the Liberals tend to under-poll in opinion surveys because nationalist Quebeckers are reluctant to acknowledge that they support the federalist party. However, she said that is less likely with an unpopular governing party seeking re-election.
On Sunday, PQ Leader Pauline Marois toured several 450-area ridings north of Montreal. Ms. Marois spent the day posing for pictures with admirers, shaking hands and reaching out to the undecided in a region that could determine whether the PQ forms a majority government.
"I believe that part of the support I will get here could make the difference on Tuesday night," Ms. Marois said during a stop in Saint-Jérôme, where the CAQ's star candidate and anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau is running.
Meanwhile, Mr. Legault campaigned all weekend in and around the 450 region. Both Mr. Legault and Ms. Marois attended the same family festival in Laval at different times on Sunday, and were supposed to campaign in the same chicken rotisserie simultaneously in the evening. The similar schedules highlighted how they are battling for francophone voters in the same territory. The PQ had to change its evening plans to avoid a direct confrontation.
Throughout the weekend, Mr. Legault repeatedly attacked the PQ in a bid to further polarize voters and shake federalist votes away from the Liberals. His major target was the PQ's referendum strategy, particularly the decision to allow for a citizen-initiated referendum on sovereignty.
"If you intended to vote the way that you traditionally did, you are actually voting for a referendum," Mr. Legault said to crowd of around 700 supporters In Drummondville. "If a third referendum is not on your wish list, which is the case of 70 per cent of Quebeckers, you must then vote for the Coalition,"
In Quebec City, the Liberals are locked in a battle with the CAQ to preserve key ridings. But Liberal Leader Jean Charest attacked the PQ in his efforts to consolidate his support. Mr. Charest used hockey to evoke a separatist scare, stitching together past assertions by Ms. Marois to pit economic growth and stability under the Liberals against a hypothetical scenario where the PQ wins a majority government, wins a referendum, and five years of turmoil ensue.
"If I put myself in [NHL commissioner Gary] Bettman's shoes, full employment means people will have the means to go watch hockey. Then there's the other choice, with five years of economic disruption,"
said Mr. Charest, flanked by 10 of his local candidates, seven of whom are incumbents.
The NHL's history, however, has shown it is not terribly concerned with local politics. The last Quebec City NHL franchise joined the league in 1979 – just before Quebec's PQ government called the first referendum.
The Léger Marketing poll continued to underscore the high level of unpredictability as the various campaigns appeared at a loss in attempting to gauge how the numbers will fall.
"A swing of just one percentage point could change the results in close to a dozen ridings. The percentage point may not seem like a lot but the impact could be devastating," Mr. Léger said.
The latest Léger Marketing poll was conducted using 1,856 eligible voters randomly selected from a pool of 185,000 Internet users. A poll this size is considered accurate within 2.3 percentage points 19 times out of 20. The CROP poll used 1,002 respondents, providing a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.