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The Globe and Mail

The two-day NDP surge that sank the Liberals

Michael Marzolini, Chairman and Founder of Pollara and Liberal Party pollster, in his Toronto home.

Della Rollins for the Globe and Mail./della rollins The Globe and Mail.

Two days.

Liberal Party pollster Michael Marzolini points to two days in April when they lost the campaign.

Two days in which NDP Leader Jack Layton's numbers surged - and never stopped, sucking up all of the oxygen in the campaign to the point that Canadians weren't paying attention to anything the Liberals said or did.

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It must have been a sign that during that same week fire broke out in Mr. Marzolini's Toronto home. Early one morning, Mr. Marzolini smelled smoke as he paced in his office, going over the numbers and cross-tabs, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

He grabbed an extinguisher and managed to put out the fire.

He wasn't so lucky with the Liberal campaign.

March 26

Michael Ignatieff was about seven points behind the Tories in Mr. Marzolini's polling when the campaign began. But the pollster wasn't worried. As the campaign developed a rhythm, he was seeing a positive trajectory for the Liberal Leader.

"Everything was climbing and so was the vote," he recalls.

By all accounts, the Liberals were running a good campaign - no gaffes, big, enthusiastic crowds at the rallies and a leader who rolled up his sleeves and strode across the stage, microphone in hand, totally unscripted. In contrast, Stephen Harper was criticized for campaigning in a bubble.

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The gap between the two parties was narrowing quickly. "We could have seen the Liberals surpass the Conservatives, not by a heck of a lot," Mr. Marzolini says. "Only a few more points to go and then the debate hit."

April 12 and April 13

The Liberals were counting on the English and French debates to push their numbers ahead of the Harper Tories. Big crowds at rallies are great but Mr. Ignatieff could meet only so many people. And those Tory attack ads, accusing him of being an out-of-touch elitist who was "just visiting," had defined who he was for so many Canadians.

Mr. Ignatieff needed to change that perception.

"A lot of it was left up to the debates," Mr. Marzolini says.

The strategy didn't work.

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"We knew that the debate wasn't a great success," he says. "And it wasn't so much that he lost it but that Jack Layton won."

Over the next week, Mr. Marzolini watched as Mr. Layton's "impression levels" skyrocketed. He noted the connection the leader had made with ordinary Canadians. "This man is the new Don Cherry," he thought.

Mr. Layton, who had run in three previous federal campaigns, had successfully reinvented himself. In focus groups, participants were now telling Mr. Marzolini, "I like the new guy."

Meanwhile, Mr. Ignatieff's numbers were flat lining.

April 19 and 20

"It was basically a two-day major surge … It was a completely new ballgame after that," Mr. Marzolini says.

The positive impressions of Mr. Layton had gelled - and turned into real voter support for the NDP Leader. Mr. Marzolini first saw this phenomenon on Tuesday, April 19. His polling was well ahead of that of the media pollsters as he saw this NDP surge in Quebec begin to spill over into the rest of Canada.

In Toronto - the traditional Liberal fortress - Mr. Marzolini was seeing the NDP moving in on Grit seats they had once held. By Wednesday it was even worse. "It appeared that we had a good fight on our hands."

The NDP never looked back - its numbers kept rising.

This, however, scared the centrist and small-c Conservative voters, who began to worry about an NDP minority government. And so the pollster began to see something else - the vote had begun now to surge toward the Conservatives. In the 416 area code, Liberal strongholds such as Ken Dryden's riding appeared to be threatened by the Tories. It wasn't just the NDP anymore.

"It was two parties cannibalizing the third," Mr. Marzolini observes.

His polling reports were sent regularly to Peter Donolo, the leader's chief strategist on the road, and Gordon Ashworth, the veteran campaign manager. He says Mr. Ignatieff was aware of what was going on.

But there was no panic, he says.

April 24 to May 1 - The last week of the campaign

"We tried to recover. Did we ever say 'we can't?' You never admit defeat," Mr. Marzolini says.

The Liberal ad team was particularly nimble, turning around ads quickly in an effort to counter the NDP and Tory surges. But nothing connected.

On election day, Mr. Marzolini nailed the popular vote for each party but it was unclear how it would translate into seats. So much was still at play. There were the wild cards, such as the value of incumbency and of being a leader. Would those factors push his Liberals over the top in some ridings?

That question was answered Monday night. Being a two-term incumbent and Liberal Leader was clearly worth nothing - Mr. Ignatieff lost his seat to a Tory.

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