In these closing days of the 2012 election campaign, two different story lines are playing out on the Liberal leader’s tour.
The first is the script you see, hear, and read about every day: Jean Charest’s campaign is stalling.
The polling numbers are dismal. The editorial boards of most newspapers have turned on Charest (the only unequivocal exception being the Toronto Star, for what that is worth in a Quebec provincial election which will be decided by francophone voters).
There is little hope of catching up with the PQ, which appears to be in the lead, not to mention a surging CAQ, which has been racing up from behind ever since Aug. 1.
This somber narrative appears to be reinforced by some of the actions of the Liberal leader’s campaign tour. Geographically, (and perhaps symbolically), Charest is wrapping up essentially where he began, in the fierce and unpredictable battleground of the Quebec City region.
In the last election, the Liberals fared quite well here. This time, in a telling strategic choice, the Liberals are spending the lion’s share of the last two days of campaigning not only in La Vieille Capitale, but in the riding of Jean-Talon, which covers the tony west-end suburb of Sillery, and part of Sainte-Foy, and where health minister Yves Bolduc is looking to hang on.
Jean-Talon is the only riding in the area the PQ has never won. In fact, no party except the Liberals have won in Jean-Talon since its creation in 1966. That Charest and his strategists feel the need to spend so much time here, with so little time left before election day, reveals their own reading of how their campaign is going.
Charest believes majority is still possible
Nevertheless, there is another narrative playing out on the Liberal hustings. It is the storyline Jean Charest prefers to tell. It is a tale of hope and possibilities, of four more years of Liberal rule under a "majority" government.
A few days ago, Charest went so far as to explain to reporters during a press conference that according to the "information" he has, there is every reason to believe voters will return him to power for a fourth time.
Charest made specific reference to the surprisingly high participation rate in advanced polls. More than 16 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots last weekend. In some ridings, including Charest’s own district of Sherbrooke, it was over 20 per cent.
The Liberal leader is bucking conventional wisdom by painting this high turnout as good news for him and for his party. His take raises an eyebrow, because in past elections, most agree the lower the turnout, the better the odds of a Liberal victory.
As always, Charest is brushing aside polls, insisting they only tell part of the story. He has to believe that, otherwise there would be no more hope left for him and his party, which appear to be trailing behind the others.
It all comes down to voting day
The story Charest tells is founded on the very notion that the polls are, quite simply, wrong.
On a French-language television talk show on Sunday, Charest underscored that the latest survey by Leger (which places the Liberals in third place, behind the Coalition Avenir Québec, and the Parti Québecois) shows nearly one third of respondents say they could change their minds on who to vote for by election day.
That is the cornerstone of Charest’s story of hope and possibilities. It is meant to preserve the image of the Quebec Liberal Party as a real contender, remaining relevant in the minds of all those uncertain voters when they head to the polling station on Tuesday.
Without the appearance of believing he can do it, party supporters would give up on the campaign before reaching the finish line.
And, most importantly, Quebecers would firmly and definitively write off the Liberals as the losers before the ballots are even counted.
Charest’s hopeful appearance is genuine in the following sense: even if every poll seems to point to imminent defeat, it remains true that nothing is actually decided until voters make their final decision on Sept 4.