Philippe J. Fournier doesn’t want to sound cynical. “But the reason we are having elections in the fall is because the liberals want to have a majority,” says the analyst of political polls from 338 Canada. “This will be the focal point of the election.”

With parties out of the starting points of Canada’s 44th federal election, many eyes will be on Fournier, an astrophysicist by training, has applied his skills to election modeling with remarkable competence. Since 2018, it has successfully called seven elections (six provincial, one federal), identifying the winners of the seats with 90% accuracy.

Fournier is a contributing editor to Maclean’s, and we will write three columns per week for ourselves throughout the electoral campaign. We spoke to him about the best and worst case scenarios for each major party, the potential impact of a fourth wave of COVID on the election, and the odds of a liberal majority.

What numbers are you seeing now?

The numbers in Ontario and Quebec are very similar to 2019. Liberals continue to lead in both provinces. The Bloc Quebecois is in good shape, although it is not a leader. And the Conservatives, despite Ontario’s Erin O’Toole, have been unable to increase their support in Ontario..

Can the Liberals Get a Majority?

Right now, it appears that the Conservatives have no chance of winning. I mean, your campaign is important and it could very well change. But right now, if the election were to take place this week, the Conservatives would have no chance of winning unless all the polls are wrong. Not just a little bad, but very bad.

So right now there are only two scenarios: a liberal minority or a very thin liberal majority.

If the numbers in Quebec and Ontario are roughly similar to 2019, which is the case now, the Liberals could win maybe five more seats in Quebec at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. Maybe they can win one or two more in Ontario. But that does not lead to the majority. Liberals will need more seats from western Canada.

Where could Justin Trudeau be the most vulnerable?

Looking at the numbers right now, he’s not weaker anywhere compared to 2019. I’d say the Bloc Quebecois could be a problem for him. That could be a blind spot. But the conservative prime ministers in Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta haven’t really done very well, and the numbers really show it. “The Resistance” is not really helping Erin O’Toole.

What figures surprise you the most?

The NDP at this point is a surprise. The party is averaging 20 percent coast-to-coast, even though Jagmeet Singh has terrible numbers in Quebec. When you’re not doing well in the second most populous province and you’re still at 20% across the country, that’s pretty good. One caveat though: the NDP averaged about 18 percent in the last election and got 16 percent of the vote. That two-point gap cost them maybe a dozen seats. So the NDP is doing well right now in the polls, but it’s just theoretical support. It has to become a real support with the ballot boxes marked.

What do you think are the best and worst scenarios for the NDP?

Based on your numbers right now, and I’m talking realistic scenarios, the top support for the NDP is winning 45 to 50 seats. Perhaps they could secure their only seat in Atlantic Canada and their only seat in Quebec. They then won six seats in the last Ontario election, and they could easily double that. They could do very well in British Columbia, especially since British Columbia Prime Minister John Horgan won the majority.

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The worst that could happen to Jagmeet Singh from the start would be for the Conservatives to suddenly become competitive. If the race between Erin O’Toole and Justin Trudeau toughens, suddenly many Canadians could vote for the Liberals to block the Conservatives. We have seen it many, many times in the past.

But the worst case right now looks like the outcome of 2019. If you remember 2019, Jagmeet Singh was dancing to the podium on election night. However, re-winning just 24 seats would be a disappointment for the NDP.

The Green Party has also received a lot of news coverage lately, not very favorable. What are your prospects?

At the height of SNC-Lavalin history in 2019, we had polls showing Greens between 10 and 12 percent across the country. But it did not materialize. Now his infighting isn’t really helping his numbers. Right now, they would be very happy to win the two seats they already have. Fredericton is likely already lost to the Liberals. Elizabeth May’s seat should be safe. Paul Manley is the favorite for his seat, but he’s very close. But there is no growth potential for the Greens at this time.

And the Bloc, which performed well in 2019?

The best scenario right now for the Bloc Quebecois would be to win the most seats in Quebec. How many seats? It could be 40. It could be 42. They haven’t won the most seats in Quebec since 2008. That would be a minor victory for them. Right now, they are behind the Liberals by about seven or eight points. But the NDP is not gaining ground in Quebec, so the Bloc Quebecois would really like to win some of the NDP’s votes.

The worst case scenario for the Bloc Quebecois would be if the Liberals took off to win perhaps 45 seats in the province.

The Conservatives, like the party that ranks second to dissolve, should aim to win the most seats in this election. How realistic is that right now?

My most recent update gives them a two percent chance of winning the most seats. Do you like those odds? Probably not. For this to happen, the polls would have to be wrong or Erin O’Toole would have to have a great campaign and the Liberals would have to have a terrible campaign.

We have figures not only of voting intentions, but also of appreciation to the leaders. And Erin O’Toole has the worst numbers, over and over, of various polling firms. He is not even highly regarded by the supporters of his own party. O’Toole has a negative net impression on Alberta. That is amazing to me.

To his credit, Mr. O’Toole is trying to bring the party closer to the mainstream. This is the right strategy for him. You could lose 15 points in Alberta, and if you gain five points in Ontario compared to two years ago, there would be a net seat gain. But here’s the thing: he lost support in Alberta, and he’s gaining nothing in Ontario.

When you have a leader who is so unpopular, tear down the roof of your party. So they would be happy to repeat the 121 seats of 2019.

And for the liberals, is their best scenario a strong majority?

Let’s say polls underestimate liberals by a modest margin, maybe two points, then they could win 190 seats, topping their seat count in 2015. That’s the best case.

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But the best or worst scenarios are not as likely as the intermediate scenarios, which have liberals right on the threshold of the majority. If they get, hypothetically, 168 seats, then they could rule as a majority. The opposition would have to be unanimous to bring them down. Or they could win maybe 175 seats and then they would have to treat their backbenchers really well to make sure no one becomes independent or crosses the court.

Right now they are in the driver’s seat. They lead in the three most populous provinces: Ontario, Quebec and BC. They still have a stronghold in the Canadian Atlantic. And they are expected to make some modest progress on the grasslands. Add this up, you are very close to most.

But the Liberals barely achieving a minority remains a possibility. If the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP do very well and the conservatives hold firm, we could see a reduced minority for the liberals.

As for the Maverick Party or the People’s Party of Canada, do they have a chance to win just one seat?

With Maverick Party, we have seen divergent numbers. The Angus Reid Institute has them at about six percent in Alberta, while other pollsters have at about one to two percent. But it is a new party and they are not part of all the polls, so there is significant uncertainty with the Maverick Party.

When we look at the available numbers, the Maverick Party is voting better where the Conservatives are already invincible. In some Alberta constituencies, the Conservatives got 75 percent of the vote. So even if they go down to 60 percent, the Maverick Party might finish second, but it wouldn’t make a dent in the seat count. Right now, I don’t give too much importance to the Maverick Party.

PPC, however, is doing better lately. They need a threshold of four percent, on average, to be in the debate. That is what we will see: will Maxime be in the debates? Bernier also has a chance at Beauce, his trip south to Quebec City. He lost by nine points two years ago. It was not an overwhelming loss, but it was a decisive loss. Could he beat Beauce this time? It is not the favorite, but it is possible.

Other than that, it is impossible to see the PPC take over because no other PPC candidate in 2019 won more than six percent of the vote, aside from Maxime Bernier. They would need to ride with a star candidate to join Bernier and we haven’t seen him yet.

Finally, now that a fourth wave is underway in Canada, what impact do the COVID numbers have on federal level polls?

When COVID arrived, Prime Ministers and Justin Trudeau increased their numbers. For some, of course, it went down again. But if you are a liberal leader going to a third term and you have a 50 percent approval rating, go for it. Stephen Harper didn’t have a 50 percent approval rating when he won his majority.

But it will also be a story about where those waves come from. If they come to Alberta, for example, I would say that the prime minister of Alberta will be blamed more than the prime minister.

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