COMMENTARY: Why a national tie in the popular vote isn’t really a tie

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A national tie in the popular vote doesn’t actually mean a tie in the outcome of the election.

While much energy is spent dissecting the potential impact of backroom shenanigans, old photographs, passports and airplanes on Canadians’ voting intentions, this causes us to lose sight of the underlying currents that will actually determine the outcome of the election. These kinds of superficial distractions tend to produce a momentary blip in public opinion and then gradually fade away by the time it really matters on election day.

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In attempting to understand the dynamics of this campaign and in interpreting the perpetual popular-vote tie in which the two front runners find themselves, there are three things that Ipsos is paying close attention to in the final two weeks of the campaign.

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First is the 905 — shorthand for the area surrounding the city of Toronto. Yes, here we have a Toronto-based pollster touting the importance of the Greater Toronto Area on the election outcome. How original. But the proof of its importance is in the numbers: Ipsos counts 33 seats in this relatively compact subregion of Ontario, roughly equivalent to the number of seats in the province of Alberta (34), more than Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined (28) and on par with the entirety of Atlantic Canada (32).

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In the 2015 federal election, about half of those ridings were won by a margin of less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, meaning that these are swing ridings and not safe seats for the incumbents, most of whom are Liberal.

Moreover, many ridings in the 905 are not loyal to one particular party. Rather, the entire region is a bellwether, swinging back and forth between the Liberals and the Conservatives from election to election and disproportionately determining who will be prime minister.

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When looking at Ipsos’ polling to examine the popular vote within the 905, the Liberals have a modest lead. Even with a narrow lead, the Liberals are likely to lose some of the seats they gained in 2015. If the Tories improve within the region, even by a few points, then many more seats will swing blue. There are simply too many competitive seats to lose sight of the fact that this region will likely make or break political fortunes on Oct. 21.

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The second thing we’re watching for is vote splitting. While the Liberals were the primary beneficiary of vote splitting during the Chrétien years on account of the schism between the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party, the Conservatives still largely benefit from a fragmented progressive vote, despite the presence of the People’s Party of Canada. This is only exacerbated by a strengthening Green Party, which is poised to siphon away even more votes this time around, primarily from the Liberals and NDP.

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In some ridings where the Green party is especially strong but not strong enough to win a plurality of the votes, this could make the difference between the Conservative candidate winning or the Liberal candidate winning. Most federal elections are not terribly close, and so a few stolen votes usually don’t have much impact on the outcome at a national level.

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However, this race is closer than any we’ve seen in more than a decade, particularly where it counts the most. Even if a few ridings go blue due to vote splitting when they otherwise would have gone red, this could end up costing the Liberals dearly in a close campaign.

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Finally, differential turnout — or the extent to which certain demographics of voters show up to vote — is key. In 2015, voter-turnout rates increased by more than seven percentage points overall. However, most of this increase was driven by young voters.

For example, in 2011, only 39 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 voted. In 2015, that rose to 57 per cent, an increase of 18 percentage points. By comparison, turnout rates among those 65 to 74 only increased by four percentage points. In short, young people were enthusiastic about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and decided to exercise their franchise when most chose not to in 2011.

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Ipsos polling shows that if only people aged 35 and older voted, the Conservatives would easily form the government. Therefore, the strength of that Conservative government, majority or minority — or whether they have a chance at forming government at all — is dependent on whether people under the age of 35 decide to vote.

Since younger Canadians disproportionally support Trudeau, it is ultimately up to them to decide whether they are enthusiastic or not about seeing the Liberals re-elected. If they are, they’ll vote; if they don’t, they’ll Netflix and chill. Recent polling suggests that resolve among Liberal voters is starting to strengthen.

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When trying to understand how to translate the national popular vote into a tangible election outcome, focus on the impact of these factors: voting intentions in the 905, vote splitting among progressive parties and voter turnout among millennials. These three things will primarily determine who the next occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office will be.

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Sean Simpson is vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs, Global News’ polling partner.