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Opinion Who can calm middle-class fears? We’ll find out in a year

If, as is often said, a week is a long time in politics, how long is a year?

Twelve months from now, Canadians will be in an election campaign if Prime Minister Stephen Harper follows his own legislation for a fixed four-year cycle, which would mean voting on Oct. 19, 2015.

Oceans of idle chatter have been spilled lately speculating on the unknowable, such as whether Mr. Harper will remain to fight the election, whether he might pull the plug early and, of course, who will win a year from now.

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Nobody knows the answer to these questions, but that doesn't stop gum-flapping by talking heads. In British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta, the party that was supposed to win when the campaign began wound up losing. In New Brunswick recently, a big Liberal leader melted into a small one. Election campaigns count in swaying all but the committed, and what with so many people disconnected from politics these days, that can be a lot of voters.

Having said all that, if pollsters Nik Nanos and Frank Graves are correct, Mr. Harper has a hard political road ahead – and not just because his party has been trailing for many months in voter preference polls. Many of the underlying factors that push voter preference are running against the Conservatives.

For example, in Mr. Nanos's numbers, asked which person had "the qualities to be a good political leader," Liberal Justin Trudeau scored 63 positive, 26 negative, compared to 51-24 for New Democrat Thomas Mulcair and 53-41 for Mr. Harper.

Asked who would make the best prime minister, Mr. Trudeau topped Mr. Harper 35 to 28, a reversal of their respective standing some months ago. A telltale question – for which party would you not consider voting – had 33 per cent saying Liberal, 45 per cent NDP and 53 per cent Conservative. Flipping the question around produced 59 per cent saying they could consider voting Liberal, 45 per cent NDP but only 39 per cent Conservative.

The Liberals, on these numbers, clearly have a much larger pond in which to fish for voters than the Harper Conservatives. But – there are always buts in these matters – Conservatives know who and where their voters are (courtesy of massive data banks) and how to motivate them.

They have more money than the Liberals. Of perhaps critical importance, Mr. Harper is a more experienced campaigner than Mr. Trudeau, who didn't help himself much with a very weak speech about Iraq on Thursday to the Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa.

Conservative voters tend to be older, and older Canadians vote far more than those under 40. Even if the Conservatives' potential pond is smaller than the Liberals', the voting fish in the Conservatives' pool are more likely to bite.

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Mr. Nanos's numbers point to difficulties for Mr. Harper, whereas pollster Frank Graves's analysis (revealed at the Canada 2020 conference) hints at irredeemable trouble.

Mr. Graves's numbers suggest that Canadians, far from drifting to the political right, have actually swung the other way such that a "new progressive wave" is unfolding.

By his analysis, Mr. Trudeau's cliché is right: It's all about the anxieties of the middle class. By a staggering 74-17 margin, Mr. Graves says Canadians think the middle class is shrinking. By an almost 2-1 margin (47-27), Canadians describe themselves as "liberals" rather than "conservatives." If a "big shift" has occurred, it is toward progressive rather than conservative approaches. If that analysis is correct, the Conservatives have a lock on their core vote, but not much room to grow.

By large majorities, Canadians favour what the Harper government opposes: legalization of marijuana (57 per cent favourable), larger government (57 per cent), a focus on crime prevention rather than punishment (42-14), foreign aid over defence (40 to 16 per cent) and mandatory voting (56 to 31 per cent).

If middle-class anxiety is indeed the bull's-eye of politics, and if middle-class voters fear that the future will be worse than the past for them and their children, there is a Conservative narrative that lower taxes and less government will bring them relief from those anxieties, while the Liberals and NDP will counter that government can be a better elixir for their concerns and fears.

The outcome of next year's election will fundamentally depend on the outcome of that debate, which the Conservatives are currently losing.

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