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Jeffrey Simpson

That bang? It could've been Stephen Harper shooting himself in the foot Add to ...

Within seconds of the long-gun registry vote in the Commons, this being the era of the blog, a conventional wisdom began to congeal that the Conservatives had lost the parliamentary battle but would win the electoral war.

By the next morning, the conventional political wisdom was all over the newspapers and the Web: The Conservatives would turn their narrow Commons defeat into a political victory by targeting those New Democrat and Liberal MPs in rural or semi-rural ridings who had voted to keep the controversial registry. They would be as vulnerable as ducks flying over registry-hating hunters in the fall.

This wisdom was therefore instantaneous, apparently ubiquitous, certainly debatable and quite possibly wrong.

That the Conservatives will target certain registry opponents is a given. They already have hit selected opposition party MPs with attack ads in their ridings. That Conservative headquarters will use the registry issue in fundraising from their core supporters is also obvious. The party might gain in a few rural ridings, since the electoral map is wildly tilted toward rural Canada, to the detriment of cities and suburbs.

Polls are a bit all over the map on how Canadians feel about the registry, so they should be treated with great caution. More important, despite instant analyses that assume Canadians follow developments in Ottawa and draw immediate political conclusions from those developments, the opposite is the case.

That said, Harris/Decima's latest poll for The Canadian Press showed 48 per cent of respondents thought it a "bad idea" to abolish the registry, while 38 per cent believed scrapping it was a "good idea." Said the polling company, "more than half believe the gun registry does some good and should be kept." By contrast, an Angus Reid survey revealed that 46 per cent of Canadians want to end the registry, while only 40 per cent wanted to save it.

What can be said - indeed, about the only reasonable thing that can be said - is that the country remains divided over the registry, with Western Canadians, rural dwellers and men more likely to oppose it, and Quebeckers, urban dwellers and women more likely to favour it.

Undoubtedly, the registry is deeply unpopular among many Conservative voters. But these people were going to vote Conservative anyway. They're the core of the party's support, but there aren't nearly enough of them to give the Conservatives a majority government.

Since the last election, remember, the Conservatives have gone backward: from an 11-point lead over the Liberals in the last national vote to a statistical tie in all the polls. The reasons are many, but the essential thread is clear: The government and the party have done nothing to expand their base of support and, instead, have shrunk back into the core.

What the gun registry vote mostly does, therefore, is strengthen the Conservatives where they are already overwhelmingly strong, and possibly give them a good issue in some NDP and Liberal-held ridings in rural or semi-rural areas. But for every one of those opposition-held ridings where keeping the registry might serve the Conservatives well, there are just as many where their stand is a political liability.

For example, support for the registry is strongest in Quebec. There, the Conservatives were already on life support, with the latest Nanos poll giving them a derisory 15.6 per cent and Harris/Decima an even worse 12 per cent.

Even before the gun registry vote, almost all of the 11 Conservative MPs in Quebec faced defeat. If the registry becomes an issue in Conservative-held ridings - and you can be sure the Bloc Québécois and Liberals will try to make it one - most of those Conservative seats are even more certainly lost.

In certain suburbs, people tend not to own long guns but do worry about crime, especially if gangs are around. It's not at all clear that scrapping the gun registry will be popular there, yet these are the kind of swing ridings the Conservatives need to win.

Similarly, it's been clear for a long time that the Conservatives face a gender gap, which means that their failure to attract more female voters consistently hurts their ambitions to expand their base and therefore win a majority government. Spending so much political capital on ending the gun registry - rather than proposing modifications to it - will hardly help them among women, except perhaps in rural families.

There's no getting around the incontrovertible and uncomfortable fact for the Conservatives that the chiefs of police and the RCMP both want the registry maintained.

Presumably, Conservatives do indeed think that they know better how to fight crime than the chiefs and the RCMP. If the parties that voted to keep the registry drape themselves in support from the chiefs and the RCMP, whom voters might actually believe know something about combatting crime instead of talking about it, that might be another reason to question the immediate conventional wisdom about the political consequences of the registry vote.

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