It’s unsettled, unpredictable and wide open. This election campaign is not only a three-way race – most voters are still up for grabs.

Only 40 per cent of Canadians have picked a party and say that’s the only one they’ll consider. Most voters, three-fifths of the electorate, are still considering voting for two or more parties, or aren’t sure who they might pick, according to Nanos Research data from rolling surveys that provide an insight into potential swing votes. In fact, 20 per cent of those surveyed would still consider voting for any one of three or more parties.

It’s a sign that the relatively tight, nose-to-nose horse race masks a volatile electorate. Voters are still flirting with more than one option, and big swings are possible.

“Although people have leanings, they’re open to changing their mind,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “A campaign is a trial by fire for all the federal party leaders, and what this shows is how much damage a leader can do to his own campaign if he missteps.”

It’s not the same for every party.

After a decade in office, Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have the most devoted group of supporters, who are less likely to see other parties as an option. In fact, even when asked to list a second choice, 31.5 per cent of Conservative voters say they have none – more than the backers of any other party. At its core, Mr. Nanos said, the Conservatives have “an almost unshakeable base” that has stuck with the party through episodes like the Mike Duffy scandal.

But the Tories also have limited growth potential compared with the other two major parties: the pool of people who say they would consider voting Conservative is smaller.

Both the New Democrats and the Liberals have less committed support – and there’s a lot of crossover potential among supporters of the two parties. New Democrats tend to see the Liberals as their second choice, and vice versa.

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between New Democrat and Liberal supporters, who are probably just seeing either of those parties as vehicles to try to stop Stephen Harper,” Mr. Nanos said.

The Nanos Research data also provides some potential clues as to why Mr. Harper’s Conservatives focused their pre-election advertising on knocking back Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, rather than taking aim at the new front-runner, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.

One reason is that weakening the NDP before the campaign would be more likely to help the Liberals than the Tories. Only 12 per cent of NDP supporters list the Conservatives as their second choice, while 40.6 per cent see the Liberals as the best alternative – so if voters leave Mr. Mulcair, the lion’s share can be expected to turn to Mr. Trudeau.

When the Liberals fall, however, the Conservatives can expect to do somewhat better, because 29.2 per cent of Liberal supporters rate the Tories second.

That still leaves Mr. Harper with a tough challenge to win a majority government, however. He doesn’t have that kind of level of support yet, Mr. Nanos noted, and in order to emerge as the clear winner, he needs both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau to do poorly. Right now, besting one of them mostly helps the other. His Conservatives are rarely voters’ second choice.

For Mr. Mulcair, that’s also the best path to victory: he clearly has to target Mr. Harper, the incumbent, but his party is most likely to gain if the Liberals lose support. More than 45 per cent who favour the Liberals see the NDP as second choice, and only 29 per cent would choose the Conservatives. By contrast, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are the most popular second choice, and can gain from either the left or right – so if the Tories decline, the Liberals are likely to gain.

The Nanos data, based on rolling surveys of 1,000 Canadians conducted between June 28 and July 25, is something of a flip side of standard horse-race poll numbers, which show the party the respondents intend to vote for, plus a number of undecided voters. Respondents were asked both who they would consider voting for, and to rank their choices. It shows most voters are still open to a second choice – and will track how voters’ choices solidify during the campaign.

There is also another 6.4 per cent who say they aren’t considering any party, or are unsure how to answer – usually those who are confused or uninterested in politics. “These are the people who are very unlikely to vote,” Mr. Nanos said.

PDF: Who party supporters would back with their second choice

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Aug. 03, 2015 6:07PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Aug. 03, 2015 11:16PM EDT