Canadians who are determined to prevent Stephen Harper from winning a fourth term must soon decide whether they prefer Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau as the alternative. In making that decision, voters in Quebec are pivotal to voters outside it.
Perhaps the most underreported news of this election campaign was Mr. Trudeau's announcement this week that "there are no circumstances in which I would support Stephen Harper to continue being prime minister of this country." Mr. Mulcair said the same thing, only more colourfully. "There isn't a snowball's chance in hell," as he put it, of the NDP propping up the Conservatives.
So that's it. A Conservative minority government, no matter how large its plurality of seats, will be defeated on its Throne Speech – if it comes to that – and replaced by a government led by the leader of the second party. Unless the Conservatives win a majority, whoever comes in second on Oct. 19 will be prime minister.
So, parked voters, who do you want the next prime minister to be? Before you decide, consider this:
Going into Thursday night's debate, hosted by Radio-Canada, the NDP maintained a strong lead among francophone voters in Quebec, despite some signs of flagging support elsewhere in the province. This means the party could hold on to most or all of the 54 seats they now have. This is potentially lethal news for Mr. Trudeau. Why? Do the math.
While the Liberals dominate vote-poor Atlantic Canada, they are virtually extinct in the Prairie provinces and will have trouble making gains in British Columbia, if the polls there are to be believed.
That leaves Quebec and Ontario. The NDP currently dominates in the former and the Conservatives in the latter. There are only two ways for the Liberals to gain enough seats to at least come in second, giving Mr. Trudeau a shot at the prime ministership.
The first is for the party to break out of the Montreal region, taking several dozen seats from the NDP. The second is for them to win the Battle of the 401 – the Southern Ontario ridings, from Windsor in the west to the Quebec border in the east, connected by that highway.
Since there is no sign of anything like a 401 sweep in Ontario for the Liberals, then backing the NDP may be the best strategy for voters in English Canada seeking to oust the Conservatives, since the NDP already have a strong contingent of seats in Quebec. That's why the voting decision of Quebec voters is so important to the voting decision of anti-Harper voters outside Quebec.
On debate night, Mr. Mulcair appeared to focus more on the socially generous part of his platform – money for child care and health care – and less on balancing the budget. Clearly, that message was tailored for francophone voters, who traditionally have supported greater government spending.
Mr. Trudeau circled back, over and over again, whatever the ostensible issue under discussion, to his plan to tax the rich, give the money to the middle class and spend tens of billions on infrastructure. He clearly hopes these are messages that will resonate with francophone Quebeckers currently attached to the NDP.
Mr. Harper, once again, usually refrained from engaging his opponents, preferring to speak directly to the camera. As he has throughout this campaign, the Conservative Leader chose simply to offer himself as a steady, reliable alternative to the other leaders, hoping that red-blue and orange-blue switchers come home. Now that a Conservative minority government appears out of the question, Mr. Harper can only hope that a great many voters sitting on this triangular fence decide to get off on the Tory side.
Most polls continue to show a three-way tie. The election is now four weeks away. Those parked voters are going to have to get a move on. It's time to choose – and in choosing, to keep a very close eye on Quebec.