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crunching numbers

Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest smiles as he arrives for a tour of Techniflamme Combustion engineering plant during an election campaign stop in Richmond, Que., Tuesday, August 7, 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

With the election campaign in Quebec just starting to gain some steam, the province is on track for a minority government headed by either the Parti Québécois or the incumbent Liberals. But with the candidacy of Jacques Duchesneau for the Coalition Avenir Québec, the election could quickly turn into a three-way race.

The effect of Mr. Duchesneau's entry into the campaign had yet to be recorded in any public opinion poll as of Aug. 7. The data that was released during the first week, however, suggests that the CAQ has a great deal of ground to make up against the two front-running parties.

According to's seat and vote projection model encompassing all polls released up to yesterday, the Parti Québécois holds a narrow advantage after the first round of the race, with 38 per cent support to the Liberals' 36.7 per cent. Based on regional support levels, the PQ would likely win 60 seats and the Liberals 57. This puts both parties just short of the 63 needed to form a majority government, making the seven seats projected to be won by the CAQ (on 15.3 per cent support) and the one seat likely to vote in an MNA from Québec Solidaire absolutely vital.

While the two polls released in the campaign's first week agree on the order of the parties, there is far less consensus on their level of support. Because of this degree of uncertainty, the model gives both the Parti Québécois and the Liberals the potential to form a majority government. The CAQ, even at these low levels of support in the polls, could still win as many as 11 seats, Québec Solidaire as many as two, and Option Nationale one, making it possible for either of the two main parties to form some sort of working arrangement or formal coalition in order to govern if they do not win a majority on their own.

But Mr. Duchesneau could turn things around for CAQ Leader François Legault dramatically. The breakthrough of the federal New Democrats in the province in 2011 demonstrated how fortunes can change in Quebec in a matter of days. The CAQ is in a good position to make gains in some parts of the province, particularly in the outlying regions of the Montreal metropolitan area. Mr. Duchesneau's chosen riding of Saint-Jérôme lies within this area, and the CAQ is projected to take 19.9 per cent of the vote in the region. That could certainly grow, putting even more ridings in this part of the province at play.

The CAQ might also see a bounce in support in central Quebec and in Quebec City, two regions that were particularly welcoming to the ADQ in the 2007 election.

But in other parts of the province the CAQ is unlikely to make any gains unless the party sees a major surge in support. On the island of Montreal, the Liberals have a lock on their seats in the west but could find tighter contests elsewhere. They currently lead with a projected 43.1 per cent to 31.2 per cent support for the Parti Québécois. The Liberals are expected to win between 16 and 21 seats on the island, compared to between five and 12 for the PQ. The presence of Québec Solidaire, with 8.4 per cent support in Montreal, complicates matters for Pauline Marois.

The PQ has a stranglehold on the eastern parts of the province, where they are projected to take 49.5 per cent of the vote, while the western regions are sub-divided between the PQ (in heavily francophone regions like Abitibi-Témiscamingue) and the Liberals (for example, in the Outaouais).

An increase of support for the CAQ could shake things up considerably, however. A swing of only five points to the CAQ could double their projected seat haul, making their influence in a minority legislature all the more important. And this kind of surge in support so early in the campaign could give Mr. Legault the kind of momentum he needs if he is to come out on top on Sept. 4.

But despite the generally good week of headlines for the CAQ leader, Mr. Legault has a long hill to climb before he can seriously hope to replace Jean Charest as Quebec's premier. Both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois have a solid base upon which to draw and held a significant lead over the CAQ when the campaign began, giving them some wiggle room. If the first week of the campaign gives us a taste of how the next four will play out, the election will be decided day-by-day, riding-by-riding, and voter-by-voter.

The projection aggregates all publicly available polls, weighing them by sample size, date, and the polling firm's accuracy and track record. The seat projection model makes individual projections for all 125 ridings in the province, based on the regional shifts in support since the 2008 election and including the application of factors unique to each riding, such as the effects of incumbency. The projection is subject to the margins of error of the polls included as well as the unpredictable nature of politics at the riding level.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at