Canada Election 2015: NDP Lead, Experts Warn Of Poll 'Danger'

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THOMAS MULCAIR
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair delivers a speech on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 15. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick | CP
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OTTAWA - And they're off! Again.

The House of Commons rose for the summer recess on Friday, signalling the end of the 41st Parliament and the start of a summer-long steeplechase that will culminate with the official federal election call and a sprint to the Oct. 19 national vote.

The race for the keys to 24 Sussex Drive began, of course, many months ago — if indeed it ever ended after the May 2011 election that finally gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper his majority Conservative government.

With exactly four months to go until e-day, the three main parties — Conservatives, NDP and Liberals — scatter from Ottawa in a field that has taken on a new complexion.

And that brings its own new dynamic for how the unfolding race is covered.

A series of public opinion polls beginning in mid-May have now coalesced to put the New Democrats and Tom Mulcair at the front of the pack, with Harper's Conservatives slowly losing ground in second place and Justin Trudeau's previously buoyant Liberals huffing along in third.

"It's the (polling) consistency that gets the attention of the chattering classes and the media," pollster Donna Dasko, a former senior vice-president at Environics, said in an interview.

Recent national polls have put NDP support as high as 36 per cent and the Liberals as low as 23 per cent, with the Tories somewhere in between — a virtual mirror-image reversal of public opinion samples from as late as March of this year.

The new dynamic was vividly illustrated by the coverage of two major speeches in the last week of the parliamentary sitting.

Mulcair's economic speech on Toronto's Bay Street on Tuesday was widely portrayed in the media as a "government-in-waiting" play to salve any lingering concerns of the financial establishment.

Trudeau, meanwhile, presented a big democratic reform package that was framed as a "desperate" campaign "re-set" due to slipping poll numbers.

Swap Mulcair and Trudeau's positions in the public opinion surveys — as they were at the end of March — and the motivations and impact of the same two speeches this week might have been framed entirely differently.

"I always like to see contrarian analysis but you don't tend to see that," said Dasko. "Analyses go in waves — and the new wave is that Tom Mulcair is doing well and Trudeau is doing badly and Harper is doing badly."

Those passing waves create interest in politics, says Dasko, which is a positive thing, but they're not predictive. She cites the collapse of support for Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow last summer, a polling reverse that could not be linked to any particular event.

Kelly Toughill, director of the school of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, said that looking at the "horse race" rather than candidates' ideas has become a journalistic tradition.

"The underlying issue is whether the competitiveness of the race —and focusing on the potential outcome — is actually influencing our ability to help people get the information they need to make that decision," she said.

Context is important, said Toughill, and reporting survey results is newsworthy, but polling is also "one of the cheap and easy ways" for reporters to pad a narrative.

April Lindgren, who teaches journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and formerly reported for the Globe and Mail, said polls are a handy device "to make a story look more scientific."

"The danger is you take those poll numbers and you end up just finding evidence that reinforces the perception."

Well-documented polling miscues — think of the last provincial elections in B.C. and Quebec, or Alberta's 2012 campaign — show that reporters must beware poll-driven frames of reference, she said.

This summer's partisan crowd sizes and reaction, which parties are getting or losing good candidates, who's reaping donations and other factors will all go into the media hopper for reporting political fortunes.

Lindgren recalls the 2003 Ontario election campaign when Liberal Dalton McGuinty, riding high in the polls, visited a farmyard for a photo op. A bedraggled white kitten made a beeline for the premier-to-be, who picked it up for a priceless campaign visual.

"If things have really tanked, it seems nothing goes right. If things are going well, everything works your way," said Lindgren.

For now, at least, the kittens are running to Mulcair.

Follow @BCheadle on Twitter

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