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The best - and worst - Harper, Ignatieff and Layton can expect from an election

When opposition leaders, and some would argue the Prime Minister as well, made the decision last week to send Canadians to the polls in May, electoral calculations undoubtedly played a role in determining whether or not the parties were willing to head for the hustings. But if the month of polling leading up to last week is any guide, only the Conservatives could base their decision with any real hope for a successful campaign.

The best and worst seat projections calculated by ThreeHundredEight.com for each poll released throughout March before last Tuesday's budget give us an idea of the high and low watermarks each of the three national parties could have reached in the immediate pre-campaign period. Accepting that the next six weeks could radically change the Canadian political landscape, the following seat ranges provide an indication of where each party stands as they enter the campaign.

The Conservatives have been polling very well over the last two months, and a worst case scenario would still see the Tories winning 123 seats, due primarily to poor performances in British Columbia, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. While ostensibly giving Stephen Harper his third election victory, he would be narrowly outnumbered by a combination of Liberal (89) and New Democratic (38) MPs. A loss of 20 seats for the government against gains of 12 and two seats, respectively, by Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton's parties would make it difficult for the Prime Minister to hold on to power. Nevertheless, his worst-case scenario still gives him a shot at forming another minority government.

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The Tories' best-case scenario, on the other hand, would put the Conservatives in a majority position. With almost half of their caucus coming from the four western provinces and a gain of about 10 seats in Ontario, the Tories could have won as many as 169 seats in an election held just before the budget. Both the Bloc Québécois and New Democrats would have lost a handful of seats, but the Liberals would have borne the brunt of the Conservative onslaught, being reduced to only 63 seats in the House of Commons.

But it could have gotten even worse for the Liberal Party. While for the most part polls have put the Liberals in the high-20s throughout the month, several had the Grits as low as 23 per cent, and a few regional poll results would have been catastrophic in an election scenario. In fact, with a drop of 10 seats in Ontario and a loss of half-a-dozen MPs on the East Coast, along with a smattering of defeats from British Columbia to Quebec, the Liberals could have been reduced to as few as 56 MPs in a March election. In this scenario the Conservatives also win a majority government, but the Bloc Québécois, at 53 seats, would be within a whisker of becoming the Official Opposition. The NDP, meanwhile, would have remained stable at 36 seats.

But it isn't all doom and gloom, as the Liberal best case scenario would have had them making significant gains, particularly in British Columbia and Ontario. With a few additional pick-ups in the other parts of the country, the Liberals could have won as many as 99 seats in a March election, a gain of 22 overall. However, the Conservatives would have still won the most seats with 130. But with the NDP's 33 MPs, options would be on the table for Mr. Ignatieff.

And some sort of working arrangement with the Liberal Leader is the best that Jack Layton can hope for. Though a best case scenario would see the New Democrats winning 45 seats, a historic best, with gains in British Columbia, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada, any scenario that has the NDP gaining seats tends to come at the cost of the Liberals. In this particular scenario, the combination of Liberal (73) and NDP seats would still put the two parties 18 members short of the Conservative total, while the worst case scenario of 21 NDP seats would hand the Tories the slimmest of majorities.

The polls upon which these projections are based were conducted before the Conservative budget was announced, before the opposition decided to oppose it, and before the upcoming release of party platforms, televised debates, and inevitable campaign hiccups. But now that their starting positions have been pinned down, let the games begin.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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