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Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks to reporters at a café for the homeless during a Quebec provincial election campaign stop in Montreal on March 15, 2014.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The NDP is sitting on the sidelines of Quebec's election, but the race could hold the key to their fortunes. If Quebec politics becomes polarized around the prospect of another referendum on sovereignty, the New Democrats will be threatened.

After almost three years as the Biggest Federal Party in Quebec, the NDP still has relatively weak roots. And when it comes to the old battles between separatists and federalists, it's a pale presence. That's why the NDP's Quebec breakthrough will be in deeper danger if Pauline Marois's Parti Québécois wins a majority government.

In Quebec, the NDP is the Thomas Mulcair Party. It won a lot of seats under the late Jack Layton, but Quebeckers still don't have strong sense of the party, other than Mr. Mulcair. That's especially true when it comes to national unity. The fact that Quebeckers see other parties, the Liberals and the Bloc, as the vehicles for those debates could end up as an NDP weakness.

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Last week, pollster Léger Marketing asked Quebeckers who they see as the best defender of national unity. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau came first, with 27 per cent. Mr. Mulcair placed second, at 21 per cent – not bad, considering he was well ahead of Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard.

But his party, the NDP, trails. Only 14 per cent see the NDP as the party to defend national unity in Quebec, far behind both Mr. Trudeau's federal Liberals and Mr. Couillard's Quebec Liberals. (Stephen Harper's Conservatives, unpopular in Quebec, trail all.) In short, when Quebeckers think of federalists, they think Liberal, not NDP.

That's partly to do with history, but let's remember who the NDP are supposed to be now: the dominant federal party in Quebec. They won 59 of the province's 75 seats, crushing the Bloc Québécois, Liberals and Tories. That made them the Official Opposition, and it's supposed to make them a big force in Quebec.

But they haven't consolidated. They are still near the front of a three-way race in the province with the Bloc and the Liberals, the polls say. But they now garner about 28-per-cent support, compared with 43 per cent in the 2011 election. André Lamoureux, a political scientist at the University of Quebec at Montreal who studies the NDP, noted its membership of roughly 12,000 Quebeckers is far behind the weakened Bloc's 35,000. "It doesn't have the character of a mass party," Mr. Lamoureux said. "It hasn't ensured a solid base."

It has a relatively popular Quebecker as leader, but few other high-profile spokespersons. One Quebec broadcaster complained privately that apart from Mr. Mulcair and Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP can't offer a decent TV guest.

And when it comes to the old battle between separatists and federalists, the NDP doesn't score. Pollster Jean-Marc Léger, the president of Léger Marketing, said most Quebeckers don't really see the NDP as part of that debate. They see them in other political frames, like the left-right spectrum.

That was good for the NDP in 2011, when federalists and sovereigntists alike saw them as an acceptable choice. One reason Mr. Mulcair is staying carefully neutral in the provincial election campaign is that the party's 2011 supporters are on all sides. Polls make it clear most Quebeckers don't want to talk about a referendum, so why wade in?

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But those things tend to change when Quebec politics polarizes around sovereignty.

Just ask the leader of the CAQ, François Legault. His party calls for a "truce" on that debate. But it's facing a squeeze right now, as the Quebec election campaign has turned to talk of a referendum. When that happens, Mr. Legault admitted, voters tend to revert to old homes – sovereigntists to the PQ and federalists to the Liberals.

The same squeeze faces the NDP in a federal election if Ms. Marois wins a majority, and a referendum is on the horizon. Mr. Mulcair can argue, as he has, that his party beat the sovereigntists in 2011. But if push comes to shove in national-unity debates, Quebeckers still see Mr. Trudeau's Liberals as the federalist champions. Sovereigntists are likely to see the Bloc as the real thing. The NDP has to fear that its Quebec roots won't be deep enough to stay standing between them.

Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.

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