If an election is called this spring, Stephen Harper will enter the campaign as front runner. His party's coffers are flush with cash, he has a five-to-seven point lead over his chief rival and is opposed by a Liberal Party that has so far proven unable to capitalize on what should have been a difficult eight months for the Prime Minister. But his much coveted majority government remains beyond easy reach.
An analysis of the 308 ridings in Canada indicates that, while the Conservatives have a very solid base from which to work, they are still facing an uphill battle in the race for 155 seats. A minority government, on the other hand, is a very safe bet.
The Conservatives have 79 seats that can be considered fortresses, won by margins larger than any overcome in the 2008 election. They are occupied by such government leaders as Jason Kenney, Rona Ambrose, Vic Toews, Stockwell Day, James Moore, Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty, and Stephen Harper. Almost two-thirds of these fortress seats are located west of Ontario, but another 23 are located in the country's most populous province.
Added to these 79 seats are 50 Tory ridings that are unlikely to change hands in the next election. Twenty-two of them are in Ontario, where the Conservatives and Liberals will likely focus their campaigns. But if support drops significantly for the Tories after the writ drops, Winnipeg South, Ottawa-Orléans, and Vancouver Island North, among others, could prove vulnerable.
The 79 fortress ridings give the Conservatives a stronger foundation than most other parties. In previous analyses, the Liberals were found to have 19 fortress ridings and the New Democrats only nine. The Bloc Québécois, with 25 of their 47 seats considered a "fortress," are on about the same footing as the Tories.
But with the 50 secure ridings, this gives the Conservatives a reasonable expectation of winning at least 129 seats, more than Mr. Harper held during his first minority government in 2006. That is almost double the 66 fortress and secure ridings the Liberals can count upon.
The Conservatives are not, however, banking on another minority government and do not want to lose any of the 16 ridings that are vulnerable to being taken over by the opposition. These seats are spread across the country, with five in British Columbia and the Prairies, six in Ontario, three in Quebec and two in Atlantic Canada. A national campaign will have to be waged to keep them in the Tory fold.
Among them are two of the seats won in by-elections that have taken place since the 2008 election. In Montmagny-L'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, Nathalie Arseneault will try to take the seat back for the Bloc Québécois in Bernard Généreux's first general election under the Conservative banner. And after a better-than-expected by-election showing in Vaughan, the Liberals will look to win the seat back from newly-minted junior minister Julian Fantino.
Surrey North and North Vancouver are at risk in British Columbia, as is Saanich-Gulf Islands, where Green Party Leader Elizabeth May will try to unseat Gary Lunn. The Liberals, who finished a close second in 2008 after the NDP candidate dropped out of the race, also have a good base of support from which to draw.
Beauport-Limoilou in Quebec City and Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean in the Saguenay region, currently represented by Conservative MPs Sylvie Boucher and Denis Lebel, will likely see tough fights against Bloc challengers Michel Létourneau and Claude Pilote.
In the West, the New Democrats will look to unseat Kelly Block in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar while the Liberals will hope to ride the wave of their by-election win in Winnipeg North to oust Shelly Glover in neighbouring Saint Boniface.
Egmont and Saint John will be east coast Liberal targets in the next campaign, as will a trio of seats in southwestern Ontario: Kitchener-Waterloo, Kitchener Centre, and London West. In Oak Ridges-Markham and Mississauga-Erindale, two suburban Toronto ridings, former Liberal MPs Lui Temelkovski and Omar Alghabra have been nominated and will try to win back the seats they lost in 2008.
But along with fending off the three opposition parties in these ridings, the Conservatives will be looking to make gains. Thirteen seats stand out as within reach for the Tories.
Three of them are in British Columbia, where two sitting MPs have opted not to run again in the next election: Burnaby-Douglas, represented by NDP MP Bill Siksay, and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, a seat currently occupied by Liberal MP Keith Martin. Troy DeSouza, 68 votes short of beating Mr. Martin in 2008, will be taking another shot at the riding, while the Conservatives have yet to name a candidate in Burnaby-Douglas. Vancouver South, narrowly won by Ujjal Dosanjh in the last election, could also be a seat that could turn Conservative if they are to make some gains in the province.
Two NDP seats in Ontario will likely be targeted: Welland and Sault Ste. Marie. Both won by small margins in 2008, Welland is completely surrounded by Conservative ridings while the Tories will be counting on squeezing between the NDP and the Liberals in Sault Ste. Marie.
Individual personalities will play a large role in three ridings where the Conservatives will be looking for gains. Will Bernard Lord stand for election in Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe, where Liberal MP Brian Murphy barely held off the Tory challenger in 2008? Can the former president of the Montreal Alouettes, Larry Smith, pull off an upset against Francis Scarpaleggia in Lac-Saint-Louis? And what about Helena Guergis in Simcoe-Grey? The former Conservative MP is currently sitting as an independent, and plans to run again.
Assuming the Conservatives are able to retain all of the ridings they currently hold, including the two western seats recently vacated by Jim Prentice and Jay Hill, winning all of the targeted ridings would put them at 158, three more than are needed to form a majority government. This leaves them with very little margin for error.
However, they are in play in another 73 ridings. While winning any of these would be an upset, it is not unthinkable and gives the Conservatives options. Has Wayne Easter's welcome in Malpeque run out? Will the party's long-gun registry vote in September hurt the New Democrats in the Northern Ontario ridings of Sudbury and Thunder Bay-Superior North? Will the Tories' GTA strategy reap rewards in Mississauga South, Eglinton-Lawrence, Don Valley West, or Ajax-Pickering?
Combining all of the ridings in which the Conservatives have a good, decent, or long-shot chance of winning gives them a ceiling of 231 ridings. That is far more than the Liberal ceiling of 154 seats, one short of a majority, or the 76 seats of the NDP.
But while the Conservatives would be entering a spring election from a position of strength, it will still take a lot of successful campaigning for Stephen Harper to win a majority government. While the potential is there, it would require a lot of things to go right - and election campaigns rarely go as planned.
This is the fifth and final installment of a five-part series analyzing the electoral chances of each of the five federal parties: past analyses featured the Greens , the Bloc Québécois , the New Democrats , and the Liberals .
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com