Campaigns matter, hugely, as we are observing again.
The Liberal Party entered the formal campaign in third place but will almost certainly finish first on election night. Liberals won the campaign, hands down.
Large voter shifts during campaigns have shaped provincial outcomes too: in Alberta with the victorious NDP, in Quebec with the Liberals, in British Columbia with the Liberals. Even in New Brunswick, the campaign turned a looming Liberal landslide into a narrow win.
Last July, the respected firm Léger Marketing reported the Conservatives and NDP tied for first place in vote intentions with 32 per cent apiece. Justin Trudeau's Liberals were well behind at 25 per cent. The poll reported the Conservatives in first place in Ontario; the NDP was well ahead in Quebec. Now the Liberals are comfortably ahead nationally, including in Ontario, and are competitive with the NDP in Quebec.
Also in July, Innovation Research found that 27 per cent of Canadians thought NDP Leader Tom Mulcair represented the best hope for "positive change" compared with 20 per cent who thought Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was the best hope. Three months later, in early October, those numbers had switched with Mr. Trudeau favoured by 27 per cent, Mr. Mulcair by 21.
Nanos Research found in July that 50 per cent of voters "might consider" voting Conservative, but now only 38 per cent might be so inclined. The NDP "might consider" dropped from 56 per cent in July to 42 per cent today.
Preferred prime minister? Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has held relatively steady: 26 per cent in July, 29 per cent today. Mr. Mulcair has tumbled from 28 per cent in July to 20 per cent today, while Mr. Trudeau has risen to 33 per cent from 25.6 per cent.
By every matrix – fixed vote intention, possible vote intention, preferred leader, agent of change – the NDP cratered in the campaign while the Liberals rose. This campaign therefore produced a big shift – except for one constant.
The Conservatives went nowhere in the campaign, except perhaps slightly backward. They had lost during their four years in power about a quarter of their share of the popular vote from the 2011 election. They had planned to win them back, tried all kinds of enticements, but they failed.
Conservatives have their voters – their core – and that's it. Their core isn't large enough to win again. Even some Conservatives are sufficiently disillusioned that they won't vote at all, or will throw a vote somewhere else. When Rob Ford and his brother Doug are organizing a late rally for the party in Toronto, and the federal party thinks this is just fine, the messaging is clear: The party is down to its hard core.
You don't need polls to tell which way the political winds are blowing. Just watch at the end of any campaign where the leaders are going.
Mr. Trudeau is now spending most of his time in Conservative and NDP ridings. Mr. Harper is speaking in ridings his party already holds. Mr. Mulcair's itinerary looks like a man trying with increasing desperation to plug holes in NDP dikes. In sports terms, Mr. Trudeau is playing offence; the other leaders are playing defence.
The only glitch in the Liberals' march was the news that its campaign co-chair Daniel Gagnier had sent a memo to a client, TransCanada Corp., advising the company how best to influence a new Liberal government. This was an unpardonable error for someone with previous careers of exemplary service in the public and private sectors. Mr. Gagnier lost his ethical bearings, resigned his political post, and gave the Liberals headlines they would like to forget.
Otherwise, the Liberals capitalized better than the NDP on the mood for change. Mr. Trudeau proved to be more popular than Mr. Mulcair. Liberals grabbed "progressives" who might have voted NDP. They also had some appeal to moderate Conservatives who could no longer abide the Harper government.
The campaign and the leader made Liberals feel good about their party again, a feeling that had disappeared some time ago. The inordinate length of the campaign that the Conservatives believed would benefit them helped the Liberals slowly build momentum.
In one of politics' many ironies, the Conservatives' sustained denigration of Mr. Trudeau drove down expectations to such a low level that by not making any mistakes and sticking to script, the Liberal Leader quieted enough doubts about his abilities to win the campaign.