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Conservatives will need a heavy dose of caffeine or a stiff Scotch whisky to get through the first hour of election night.

After that first hour, things will improve for Conservatives as results spill in from elsewhere. Those returns in the first hour or so from Atlantic Canada, however, are likely to range between bad and brutal for the governing party.

Yes, about a month remains in this already interminable election campaign. But the Conservatives' numbers have been so poor for so long in Atlantic Canada that it's very hard to see any recovery. As such, the 13 seats the Conservatives won last time – compared with 13 for the Liberals and six for the NDP – are likely to shrink drastically, perhaps down to three or four.

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That the Conservatives are down so far, however, sets up a dynamic that will play itself out in many other ridings across the country: Which other party should voters support?

As an example, take Fisheries Minister Gail Shea's Egmont seat in western Prince Edward Island, the only Conservative seat in the province. She's being challenged by strong candidates from the NDP and Liberals.

Ms. Shea seems personally popular, but according to a recent Corporate Research Associates (CRA) poll of the Atlantic region, only 18 per cent of Islanders prefer Stephen Harper as prime minister and 23 per cent say they will vote Conservative. Those are heavy burdens for Ms. Shea or any Conservative candidate.

What does a voter do in Ms. Shea's constituency who wants to be ABH (Anybody But Harper)? If the ABH vote splits evenly, Ms. Shea could scrape through, beating her opponents by only a few percentage points. If the ABH vote swings even moderately to either the NDP or the Liberals, she would probably lose. There are dozens of ridings across Canada where the ABHers will determine the outcome.

That the NDP is even competitive in PEI, and elsewhere across Atlantic Canada, represents real progress for the party. More than a decade ago, the NDP was a distant third everywhere in the region.

Despite the region's lower economic standing, and dependence on the federal government, the self-described party of the underdog never made much headway. The old political culture of Liberal and Tory did not give ground easily.

Now, the NDP in various parts of the region is either a first choice or a second choice behind the Liberals, a party with a long history in all four provinces. The Conservatives, by contrast, are in poor shape everywhere, except maybe some English-speaking ridings in New Brunswick.

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The CRA poll, taken throughout August and into early September, is somewhat out of date. Like all polls, CRA's should be taken with a grain of salt, but its sample size for the region is 1,521 people, whereas national pollsters would sample only 100 to 200 people. CRA's margin of error is therefore much lower: 2.5 per cent nine times out of 10.

CRA shows the Conservatives at 22 per cent in the region, running third in three provinces and second in New Brunswick. The fight throughout most of the region is therefore between the Liberals and the NDP, which might explain why this week both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are in the region. (Mr. Harper dropped into Charlottetown recently for three hours to make yet another "announcement" of more spending, trying to save Ms. Shea's seat.)

Mr. Mulcair's popularity has risen in all four provinces over the past six months, according to CRA, a reflection of the party's improved showing nationally. Mr. Trudeau's popularity, by contrast, has slumped. He now runs behind his party in all four provinces. Forty per cent of Atlantic Canadians electors said they would choose the Liberals; 29 per cent preferred Mr. Trudeau as prime minister.

With only 32 seats, Atlantic Canadians can sometimes feel overlooked in national elections, a sentiment expressed in a recent editorial in the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper. True, arithmetic is what it is. The new parliamentary ridings for Ontario, Alberta and B.C. will reduce Atlantic Canada's share of the seats in the Commons.

Still, in an election this close, a swing of 10 or more seats in Atlantic Canada could mean the difference between a small minority government for the Conservatives or one of their opponents.

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