10/01/2015 05:27 EDT | Updated 10/01/2016 05:12 EDT

Federal Election's National Polls Masking Big Movement In Quebec

OTTAWA — It's not as dramatic as Canada's annual spring break-up — or a high school break-up, for that matter — but pollsters say the logjam that has characterized national public opinion surveys for much of the federal election campaign may be starting to split with barely two weeks until voting day.

National horse race polls by a variety of public opinion research companies since mid-September have suggested softening NDP support and a rise in Conservative support, with the Liberals also appearing to benefit now that the formerly front-running New Democrats are consistently placing third.

The relatively stable national numbers, pollsters add, are obscuring big cracks in Quebec, where four party leaders will gather Friday in Montreal for the campaign's final French-language debate.

"Things have certainly been knocked loose," pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research said in an interview.

"Quebec is the only place with significant movement," noted pollster Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid, adding Ontario remains a tight three-way race.

An emotional debate over forcing Muslim women to bare their faces during citizenship ceremonies — a policy that has affected all of two observant niqab adherents since 2011, according to government figures — is widely credited with boosting Conservative fortunes and hurting the NDP, especially in Quebec.

"It appears the Conservatives have scored a palpable hit with their hard line this past week on the niqab," Forum pollster Lorne Bozinoff said in a release Thursday.

"It resonates clearly in Quebec, and has even enlivened the Bloc Quebecois from near electoral death."

Whatever the influences, after weeks of remarkable gridlock that had all three major parties essentially boxed together within polling margins of error, the modest national movement is driving a new media narrative that threatens to write NDP Leader Tom Mulcair — and his Quebec-based national caucus — out of the race.

"NDP can kiss its chances goodbye," opined a Globe and Mail headline this week above a Lawrence Martin column.

"The NDP's Quebec problems didn't start with the niqab," said the Toronto Star headline over a Chantal Hebert vivisection.

Senior NDP campaign advisor Brad Lavigne says the niqab issue hurt, but will be left behind as the party refocuses its message on getting rid of Stephen Harper.

He points to the party's $9-million fund-raising haul in the quarter that ended Tuesday — the biggest quarter ever for a Canadian federal party — as evidence of NDP popularity and says a major Mulcair offensive in support of Quebec's supply managed dairy industry begins this week as talk of a Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement comes to a head.

Still, it's the potential for a knock-on effect from that poll- and media-driven narrative that has New Democrats concerned.

When Parliament was dissolved, 54 of the NDP's 95 MPs hailed from Quebec and the province was considered the beachhead for the party's shot at its first national government.

Pollster Christian Bourque of Leger360 says NDP support in Quebec was between 45 and 51 per cent in the early weeks of the campaign. Over the past 10 days, the party is closer to 30 per cent in most polls, with the Liberals, Conservatives and a revitalized Bloc in the low to mid 20s.

That could leave the NDP vote, said Bourque, "spread like powdered sugar across the province," opening four-way races up to regional forces and clearing the way for local Conservative and Liberal wins.

"Riding projection models will go sort of crazy" if the NDP falls to 30 per cent provincially, he said.

In the 2011 election, the orange wave in Quebec in the final days of the campaign influenced voters in Ontario and B.C., said Bourque.

"Could we see a similar shift going in the opposite direction this time around? I think we need to look at that hypothesis now."

The NDP's Quebec poll numbers raise the stakes in a major way for Friday night's TVA-sponsored French-language leaders' debate, the last before the Oct. 19 vote.

Bricker of Ipsos said Quebec is where all the action's taking place. He likened the seemingly benign national polling stalemate to watching an animal get attacked from beneath by piranhas while swimming across the Amazon River.

"That's what's happening here. And it's just that ugly. And it's happening in one place," said Bricker.

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