The battle for second place could be crucial

If the election were tomorrow, there is little doubt Stephen Harper and the Conservatives would win the most seats. Yes, some polls show the Liberals first and even increasing (mostly Nanos who has the biggest lead for the Liberals, although Leger and Innovative also have the Grits ahead) but the poll average still shows the Tories ahead. And if you account for the systematic underestimation of the incumbent parties in the polls, you have that the CPC is ahead. Moreover, the popular vote isn't what matters. What really matters are seats. And the Conservatives right now are just more efficient at it.

Let put this clearly: the only way there is currently a race for first place finish between Liberals and Tories is if Justin Trudeau is 8-10 points ahead in Ontario. Nanos used to show exactly this (not this morning though), but there again, the poll average doesn't.

This means that the real battle is for second place between the Liberals and New Democrats. And while some could see it as trivial, it's anything but. The reason being that the Conservatives aren't in a position right now to win a majority. And I don't really see it happening on October 19th. Of course, people were saying the same in 2011 and we all know how it turned out.

Let's assume for a moment that the Tories win but don't get a majority. Stephen Harper is thus asked to form the government. He tries and most likely fails to pass the Throne Speech. We can't really foresee either the Liberals or NDP supporting another Tory minority. Also, for this column, let's forget about scenarios where Harper doesn't actually recall parliament for months.

If Harper is defeated on a motion of confidence, he'll ask for another election. But it's not guaranteed he'd get one, not so close to a general election. In this situation, whoever finished second is most likely asked to try. I personally believe that we'd be in a really messy scenario where no one really knows what would happen. I also believe the General Governor would require some guarantees from Mulcair and Trudeau that they could indeed work together. But aside from those "details", whoever finished second would most likely be asked first.

In other words, the difference between finishing second and third could be the distinction between being prime minister by Christmas or not.

Right now, I have the two parties really close to each other. The NDP has a small edge thanks to Quebec. If this party keeps dropping in this province (and Nanos actually shows the NDP close to being behind the Liberals in Quebec!), third place finish will become guaranteed.

The current odds are 61% for the NDP and 36% for the Liberals - and yes there is about a 3-4% chance of a tie. This is again if the election were tomorrow. But it's not. We could try to guess the trend and what will happen in the last two weeks. However, I'd rather look at it from a different point of view.

First of all, let's look at how many guaranteed ridings the NDP and Liberals each have. By guaranteed, I mean currently projected with a 100% chance. Why? Because these ridings are currently completely safe. So it'd take some massive shifts in voting intentions between now and Oct. 19th to change that.

Right now, the NDP has 16 and the Liberals 23. The NDP used to have a lot in Quebec but the comeback of the Bloc has changed this. At the same time, maybe 100% is too much. Let's look at the number of ridings with a chance of 95% and above. This time, we get 63 NDP and 58 Liberals.

Out of these 63 ridings for the NDP, 30 are in Quebec. For the Liberals, it's only 9 out of the 58 total. There again, it shows the dependence of the NPD on Quebec. I'm not saying this as a bad thing though. A seat is a seat, no matter where it comes from. It's simply important to realize that the NDP's chances most rely on this party finishing first in Quebec. As long as they stay above 30%, they are helped by the electoral system. But the trend really doesn't look good.

Below you have the probabilities of the NDP finishing ahead of the Liberals as a function of the number of NDP seats in Quebec.

As you can see, Thomas Mulcair needs 45 seats if he wants to have more than a 50% chance of finishing second overall. Anything less than this and his chances are decreasing fast. In other words, if his party doesn't win 45 seats in this province, finishing ahead of the Liberals in the total number of seats becomes complicated.

Finally, maybe the best way to look at the current race between the Liberals and NDP is to look at ridings where the two parties are in a race. By race, I mean ridings where the winner has a lead of less than 5 points. And there, the number is surprisingly small: 16! That's right, there are currently only 16 ridings where either the Liberal or NDP candidate is leading by 5 pts or less over the candidate of the other party. What this means is that the NDP and Liberals are fighting each other very indirectly. The NDP needs to stay high in Quebec against the Bloc while the Liberals are fighting the Tories in Ontario. Still, 16 ridings are enough to tip the scale one way or the other.

If the election were tomorrow, I'd bet on the NDP finishing second. On October 19th? I honestly don't know. Trend clearly indicates the Liberals have the momentum but things can still change.