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NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (2nd L ) sits to taste assiette de produits du terroir (local plate) at the Vignoble Saint-Gabriel in the Berthier-Maskinonge riding of St-Gabriel-de-Brandon, Quebec on August 8, 2014 .Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

It is a crucial election battleground, with the potential to determine who forms the next federal government.

It is also a political enigma to most people outside it, including even many running the parties' national campaigns.

Because of language and cultural differences, with voters getting their information from a completely different set of media outlets and being moved by issues with little relevance elsewhere, federal elections in Quebec have long felt as though they're happening in a different universe from the rest of Canada (and vice versa).

That was the case before New Democrats went from being a non-factor in most of Quebec to holding the vast majority of its seats, in an election in which many of their candidates there weren't even campaigning. Since then, the province has been in such uncharted territory that many of its own political operatives and experts don't purport to know how matters will play out there between now and Oct. 19.

From talking to those people, however, it is possible to get some sense of the current state of play. Based largely on background conversations with New Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives who are working on the ground in Quebec or have done so previously, here is a guide for the rest of Canada to some of the key dynamics in the province as the campaign unfolds.

The NDP is fighting a three-front war

The overarching question in Quebec is how many of the 59 seats the New Democrats won in 2011 – or the 54 they have now, after a few defections – are able to stay in the party's fold. Polls show them with considerably higher popular support in the province than any other party, after a surge in the first half of this year. But it's not quite that simple, because it doesn't appear the NDP is really going up against each of those other parties provincewide.

The Conservatives are almost exclusively targeting NDP-held ridings in Quebec City and nearby regions. The Liberals are offering their strongest challenge in and around Montreal, particularly in ridings with significant anglophone or allophone populations. The Bloc Québécois will try to win back seats here and there, while threatening to split the NDP vote anywhere with a significant nationalist contingent.

New Democrats acknowledge the multiple fronts make for a challenge. The arguments needed to fight Liberals in left-leaning urban ridings, for instance, might be quite different from what works against Conservatives in more populist places. But more than messaging, the issue is that while the other parties can channel money and volunteers toward relatively small numbers of targets, the NDP is spread more thinly. That's a problem in a province where campaign resources are generally hard to come by.

Campaign organizations are weak

Across the country, parties have become more technologically sophisticated and aggressive about identifying and targeting supporters, raising money and mobilizing volunteers. By all accounts, such efforts lag in Quebec. Among the factors are a political culture in which on-the-ground activities such as door-to-door canvassing have never entirely taken root, a low level of interest in federal (relative to provincial) politics, and an aversion to political activism resulting from a recent history of scandals.

"We had the Gomery commission, we had the Charbonneau commission," says one Liberal organizer, referring to the inquiries into the federal sponsorship scandal and provincial corruption. "Doing politics is pretty toxic in Quebec."

In some cases, there is a disconnect between national parties and their Quebec operations. The Tories have gone through various flavour-of-the-month Quebec organizers, with whom the central campaign is uncharacteristically hands-off, but few have stuck. Jenni Byrne, the Conservatives' national campaign director, makes little secret of having limited interest in Quebec politics.

The Liberals' Quebec organization was decimated by sponsorship-scandal fallout and the civil war between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Justin Trudeau's aversion to engaging old-guard Liberals, including his castoff of Liberal senators, has been problematic where a younger generation is hard to engage. His open-nomination policy is said to have made it tougher to attract star candidates who expect to be courted. Despite several seasoned veterans – including Jean Charest's former chief of staff Dan Gagnier, former provincial Liberal organizer Claude-Eric Gagné and former Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez – playing senior campaign roles, there are complaints the party lacks a single strong Quebec lieutenant of the sort it used to rely on.

The Bloc was essentially dormant for the past four years. And that came after coasting through previous campaigns on the assumption most of its supporters had nowhere else to go.

That likely leaves the New Democrats the best-organized party, if mostly by default. Party president Rebecca Blaikie, a Manitoban, has overseen efforts to build the Quebec ground game they didn't have (or need) in 2011. And although it's been a source of controversy, the NDP's use of parliamentary mailings to correspond with Quebec voters and collect information on them has been among the advantages of holding most of the province's seats.

(Some) New Democrats have put down roots

Few of the NDP's Quebec MPs have gotten themselves into trouble over the past four years, which is remarkable considering many had never seriously intended to hold public office. But NDP officials concede it's been a struggle to persuade some of them that they need to actively work their ridings in ways that will help them get re-elected.

That message mostly took with the young MPs, who initially seemed most unsuited to their new life. The likes of Ruth Ellen Brosseau (who famously spent part of the 2011 campaign in Las Vegas) and the so-called McGill Five (in school while their names were on the ballot) have worked diligently to raise their profiles in their ridings. It's been a tougher sell with some older ones and the NDP has used competitive nominations to replace a handful of them with new candidates.

There are signs that, even for the hardest workers, building local organization has been a struggle. Other than Leader Thomas Mulcair, Quebec lieutenant Alexandre Boulerice and former interim leader Nycole Turmel, they have all struggled to raise money, with most still having barely enough in the bank to fund minimal local campaign activities. "It's safe to say they're still maturing," an NDP official says diplomatically of the party's Quebec riding associations.

Still, even having active associations marks a major evolution from four years ago, and in much of the province, it is better than other parties can say for themselves.

The Conservatives' focus is much narrower than it used to be

Stephen Harper's past dreams of a provincewide breakthrough were repeatedly dashed, most memorably in a 2008 election in which his Conservatives were blindsided by the backlash against their arts-funding cuts. This time, other than taking a run at exiting Liberal MP Irwin Cotler's Montreal seat, he's limiting his hopes to 10 or 15 ridings in Quebec City and nearby regions such as Saguenay.

Asked why those seats might be fertile ground for the governing party, Quebec political types tend to cite the popularity and influence of right-wing talk radio. While that might oversimplify things, it speaks to a strain of conservative populism that's different from the Quebec typically seen to favour big government.

Leading the Conservative efforts is Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, whom both Tories and their rivals describe as Mr. Harper's strongest Quebec lieutenant to date. A former mayor of Roberval, Mr. Lebel has been particularly adept at building ties with municipal politicians in his party's target ridings – reflected in the recruitment of high-profile candidates such as Victoriaville Mayor Alain Rayes.

The effect is that if things break their way, the Conservatives could at least double the five Quebec seats they won in the past election, without their 16.5-per-cent share of the province's popular vote going up that much.

The Harper hate is deep (but abstract)

In Quebec ridings the Conservatives are essentially writing off (that is, the vast majority), antipathy toward the Prime Minister seems to be an unusually strong motivating factor for voters.

"The dislike of Harper doesn't stem from any single issue," says Hugo Cyr, the dean of political science and law at the University of Quebec at Montreal. "It's the result of a succession of small and not-so-small disagreements with him on the country's direction, ranging from his love of the monarchy to his positions on the environment, the importance of culture and our military role in the world. In other words, many Quebec voters cannot recognize themselves in him."

While Mr. Cyr is affiliated with the NDP, even Conservatives privately agree with much of that assessment. Unlike in Ontario, Mr. Harper has never been able to overcome the perception that he's an outsider who's not in sync with Quebec's values; if anything, in much of the province it seems to have gotten worse.

As a result, which of the other parties is capable of replacing the Tories in government seems to be even more of a consideration for non-Conservative voters than it is elsewhere in the country.

The Liberals were pitching winnability, now they're counting on emotion

Until earlier this year, the Liberals seemed to be benefiting from the premium placed on who could beat Mr. Harper. Their implicit message to Quebeckers, backed up then by opinion polls, was that they had a realistic chance of winning power and the NDP did not.

Improbably, despite Quebeckers typically paying little heed to other province's politics, Alberta's election played a big role in undermining that argument. The stunning surge to power of New Democrats in Alberta, perceived to be the most conservative place in the country, seemed to send a signal that maybe the NDP could win nationally, as well. "There was a psychological barrier that disappeared," one senior New Democrat says. "It was like, 'Oh my God, maybe it's possible.'"

The ensuing buzz also helped the federal NDP move ahead of the Liberals in the polls nationally and far ahead in Quebec. While that initially seemed like it might be a blip, the erosion of the Liberals' winnability argument helped make it stick.

Forced to move on, at least for now, the Liberals are offering a different spin. In recent conversations, their Quebec candidates and operatives suggested that Quebec voters' desire to forge personal connections with politicians (epitomized by their embrace of Jack Layton in 2011) will work in their favour this time. Mr. Mulcair may be respected because of his time in provincial cabinet, they say, but he is hardly the loveable happy warrior that his predecessor was – and Mr. Trudeau can trump him on charisma and charm, once Quebeckers start looking more closely at their options. "We've seen it many times in the past," says Mr. Rodriguez, the former Liberal MP who is seeking to return to Parliament this election. He seems to have higher hopes for a provincewide breakthrough than members of the Liberals' central campaign team who acknowledge they're out of play in many regions. "Justin has everything that it takes to conquer the heart of Quebeckers."

The Bloc is a headache for the NDP, and not just in Quebec

Gilles Duceppe's surprise return to the helm of the Bloc Québécois, after leading it to near-extinction in 2011, has not been altogether triumphant. As New Democrats have taken pains to point out, even some of those previously sympathetic – columnists for the nationalist-friendly Le Devoir, for instance – have chided him for complicating efforts to oust the Conservatives. After an initial bump in Quebec polls after he came back, the Bloc went back under 20 per cent.

But Mr. Duceppe still commands a lot more attention than his replacement for the past four years, Mario Beaulieu. He is using it to try to persuade past supporters who defected to the NDP four years ago that the New Democrats aren't sufficiently standing up for Quebec. And it won't be easy for the NDP to respond in ways that reassure those voters, without causing problems for itself in the rest of the country.

Already, vehement Bloc opposition to the Energy East pipeline that would run through Quebec has helped cause Mr. Mulcair to back away from his support for it, potentially upsetting voters in Alberta and elsewhere. Even more fraught could be attacks on cultural-identity issues such as the wearing of the niqab, which Mr. Duceppe may step up the more desperate his party gets.

The worry for the NDP is not just its official response, but also how rookie MPs facing their first real pressure from the sovereigntist party react. The Liberals, whose national campaign strategy involves accusing the NDP of delivering different messages to Quebec and the rest of the country, will be watching closely for examples of those MPs veering off message.

Beware of sleeper issues

Current government policies that get mentioned as potentially bigger sticking points in Quebec than elsewhere include the phase-out of Canada Post's home delivery and the raising of the retirement age to 67, both of which the NDP promises to reverse. National-unity issues always lurk, particularly with the Liberals trying to make hay of the NDP's commitment to repeal the Clarity Act and set a "50-per-cent-plus-one" threshold in a sovereignty referendum. At the local level, New Democrats and, to a lesser extent, Liberals have been trying to drum up opposition to tolls to be imposed on Montreal's rebuilt Champlain Bridge.

None of these, nor even Energy East or the sensitive cultural issues around secularism versus religious accommodation, leap out as big federal vote movers.

But it can't be emphasized enough: Very few people in Quebec closely follow federal politics between elections. And voters there have proven before that once they tune in, they can be full of surprises.

By the numbers


Total number of ridings in Quebec at dissolution. Three more ridings have been added for this election because of riding redistribution.


Quebec seats held by the NDP


Seats held by the Liberals


Conservative seats


Seats held by the Bloc Québécois


Seats held by Forces et Démocratie


Number of independent seats

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