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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in Victoriaville, Que., Friday, September 11, 2015.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Paul Fairie is a University of Calgary political scientist who studies voter behaviour.

The Conservatives' polling troubles run deeper than merely placing in third in most of the surveys released so far in September. There is also considerable evidence that the current governing party has less room to grow than either the Liberals or New Democrats.

From the Nanos three-day tracking poll for Sept. 8, 9 and 10, the national numbers show a competitive three-way race, with the Liberals and Conservatives each polling at 31 per cent, and the New Democrats polling at 30 per cent.

While any governing party polling in range of third place is eye-catching enough, the real problem for the Tories can be seen in questions probing vote choice a little deeper. When respondents are asked in the Nanos survey which parties they would even possible consider voting for, 50 per cent indicated that they might vote NDP, 49 per cent might vote Liberal, but just 40 per cent said the same about possibly voting Conservative.

Thinking about this as a ceiling for support, the Liberals and New Democrats could grow by 18 and 20 percentage points respectively, but the Conservatives can grow only by nine percentage points. To return even to the level of support they won in 2011, the Conservatives would have to win all of the voters possibly considering voting for them at the moment.

A very similar pattern can be seen in the responses to Nanos's question about second choice. A very large proportion of current NDP and Liberal supporters indicates that their second choice is the other party, yet few of these voters suggest that their second choice is the incumbent Conservatives. Exactly the same result can be seen in the latest poll from Ipsos.

The interchangeability of support between Liberal and New Democratic supporters is something that simply does not exist among Conservatives. According to both the Ipsos and Nanos polls, almost half of current Conservative supporters simply do not have a second choice.

In some ways, this is a promising sign for the Conservatives, indicating that they have the strongest core support, the least likely to switch to another party. Yet, at the same time, it is turning out to be more difficult for them to attract new support from either the Liberals or New Democrats than it is for the other parties, which suggests that this strong core has little room to grow.

What about the elusive undecided voter? Voters from this group are always a source of great hope for parties trailing in the polls, which feel like these voters are up for grabs. Sometimes they can be decisive. For example, in the 2012 Alberta provincial election, they tipped the balance to give the victory to the Progressive Conservatives rather than Wildrose, which led polls among decided voters for the entire campaign.

However, the polling evidence for this election suggests that the Conservatives should hold out little hope for gaining too much support among this crowd. The latest poll from Abacus Data found that 46 per cent of undecided voters who voted in 2011 supported the Conservatives, which would suggest fertile ground for Conservative vote growth. But just 5 per cent of these current undecided voters thought that it was important to keep the Conservatives in office.

All of this suggests a problem for the Conservatives: The current mood of the electorate has put them in a close three-way race with little room to grow. The electoral landscape is also unprecedentedly competitive, with each of three different parties having a genuine chance to win.

This leaves the Conservatives' with a difficult, though not impossible, task: They have to convince current Liberal or NDP supporters not only that the Conservatives are a better choice than these voters' first choices, they also have to make these voters feel like the Conservatives are a better choice than their current second choices, too. The task is easier for both the Liberals and New Democrats, who can easily pick up votes from one another should one falter.

On top of this, the Conservatives have to persuade undecided voters to again vote Conservative, a choice they don't seem favourably disposed toward currently.

Of course, there are still five more weeks left in the campaign, which certainly leaves plenty of time for the situation to change, particularly with upcoming debates and campaign strategy changes.

However, the Conservatives' path to victory is a tricky one because they will have to persuade basically every voter who might possibly vote for them to do so.

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