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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Chrystia Freeland and local candidates tour the factory at Valbruna ASW Inc. during Trudeau's election campaign tour in Welland, Ontario, on Sept. 6.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

If you want to understand the particular kind of trouble that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau finds himself in, take a look at an old poll: election night, 2019.

On that night, the Liberal Party secured 33 per cent of the popular vote, one percentage point less than Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, but enough to form government, thanks to Liberal strength in Ontario. Jagmeet Singh’s NDP was at 16 per cent.

Now consider the Nanos Research tracking poll for The Globe and Mail and CTV over the past two weeks. For most of that period, the Conservatives have been at 34 per cent or 35 per cent, more or less where they were on election night.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have ranged between 30 per cent and 33 per cent – at or below their result in 2019. The only major party whose numbers have improved beyond the margin of error is Mr. Singh’s NDP.

Throughout this election campaign, voters have not switched from the Liberals to the Conservatives. Voters have switched from the Liberals to the NDP.

The great Liberal strength has become the great Liberal weakness. As a centrist party, it is able to woo voters from both the left and the right. But when it gets into trouble, it risks bleeding votes in either direction. In this election, Liberal votes have mostly been bleeding to the left.

“In this week’s debates, Erin O’Toole has the potential to stumble,” says Darrell Bricker, chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs, whose polling results broadly align with those of Nanos. “But the person who can do the most damage to Justin Trudeau is Jagmeet Singh.”

This is not to understate Mr. O’Toole’s accomplishments. Three weeks ago, Nanos reported that only 18 per cent of Canadians preferred him as leader. Mr. Trudeau was twice as popular. Mr. O’Toole, having won the party leadership by appealing to its right-wing base, had pivoted to the left, angering core supporters. The Liberals appeared to be on the cusp of winning a majority government – or so they must have thought when Mr. Trudeau called a snap election.

But voters did not welcome this election. And the Conservative platform, released at the beginning of the campaign, includes many progressive planks: increasing spending on health care, putting a price on carbon, even banning puppy mills. On Monday, Mr. O’Toole committed to increased support for low-income workers. The Conservative Leader is a calm, friendly, unthreatening presence on the campaign trail.

Trudeau: The Conservatives oppose mandatory vaccinations and would limit abortion rights!

O’Toole: Puppies!!!

As a result, over the course of the past three weeks, Mr. O’Toole’s popularity has steadily improved, and Mr. Trudeau’s has declined, to the point where the two are essentially tied as the leader Canadians prefer.

But there is little evidence that large numbers of voters are abandoning the Liberals for the Tories. Instead, Liberal voters appear to be drifting leftward.

To reverse that drift, Mr. Trudeau must rely on an old trope: that a vote for the NDP is a vote for the feared Conservatives. Over the weekend, he accused Mr. O’Toole of being a stooge for the gun lobby. But Mr. O’Toole doesn’t appear all that scary, and he quickly reversed himself on gun control.

Mr. Bricker believes that “Jagmeet Singh has become the most effective litigator of the Trudeau record,” accusing the Liberals of failing to deliver on promises such as pharmacare, of employing half measures in the fight against global warming, of placing business interests over those of workers.

As the Liberals and the NDP fight over switchable progressive voters, says Mr. Bricker, “O’Toole is almost a bystander.”

Mr. Trudeau still has almost two weeks to persuade Liberal/NDP switchers that they must back his party to keep Mr. O’Toole from becoming prime minister. The leaders’ debates could change the game.

But with Sept. 20 fast approaching, Mr. Trudeau must find a way to get out of the squeeze he finds himself in. And he’s running out of time.

(The Nanos tracking poll consists of 400 interviews each day, using cellphones and landlines, with three days’ data as the basis for the poll. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

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