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Strategy time: What the Conservatives need to do to win

For the Conservatives, keeping their seat total high on election night is going to depend on making up for likely losses in some parts of the country, say political experts.

Focus on Quebec, Greater Toronto Area, political watchers say

This story is the third in a series on what political strategists say each of the main political parties needs to do to win the election. Today, it's the Conservatives; yesterday, it was the Liberals; the day before that, it was the NDP.


For both the NDP and the Liberals, the definition of "winning" this election is pretty obvious: capture more seats than either of the other guys.

But it's a slightly different proposition for the incumbent Conservatives.

Current seat projections suggest they could form a minority government, but given the acrimony between them and the opposition parties, it's unlikely that a narrow Conservative victory would survive a confidence vote in the House of Commons.

(View updated polling numbers and seat projections on our Poll Tracker)

In order to avert a potential Liberal-NDP partnership of some sort — or, heaven forbid, another election — the Conservatives probably need a minimum of 160 to 165 seats, says Eric Grenier, founder of ThreeHundredEight.com, a site dedicated to political polling and electoral forecasts.

They don't necessarily need the 170 required for a majority, Grenier says, "but if they're close enough, it will be hard for the other parties to gang up." 

Keeping the Conservative seat total high is going to depend on making up for likely losses in some parts of the country, says Grenier, looking at the current trends.

The Conservatives won 166 seats in the 2011 election and held 159 when Parliament was dissolved in August.

Grenier estimates the Conservatives will drop 10 seats in Atlantic Canada and five to 10 in B.C. from their 2011 totals.

They are also polling at a lower rate in vote-rich Ontario than they did four years ago.

Micro-targeting

Put another way, in order to win, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper "needs to find an additional five, six people out of a hundred to vote for him," says Elly Alboim, a political consultant and head of strategy at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.

 Alboim says the Conservative strategy in the final sprint is likely aimed at appealing to two distinct pools of undecided voters "who have been holding back."

The first pool, he says, are "people who exhibit some level of anxiety about the economy or security and think he [Harper] is the safer hands."

The other pool is a cluster of people who will coalesce around certain hot-button issues "like snitch lines and citizenship revocation and niqabs," Alboim suggests.

The Conservative leader "will be operating generally on fear and anxiety and suggesting both that he's safe hands and that he holds values that [these voters] find important."

One of the areas of growth for the Conservatives could be Quebec.

While the NDP took 59 seats there in 2011, Tom Mulcair's defence of a Muslim woman's right to wear a niqab in citizenship ceremonies runs counter to the overwhelming public opinion (93 per cent) of Quebecers.

This is one of the few issues where the Conservatives and the Quebec electorate are more or less in sync, and it could yield some seats for the Conservatives in certain traditionally conservative areas of the provinces, says Alboim.

Indeed, Harper seems to be doubling down on the issue, telling the CBC's Rosemary Barton last week that if re-elected, the Conservatives would consider banning public servants from wearing facial coverings.

Suburban Toronto

Even so, taking additional seats across Canada is going to be a tall order for the Conservatives, says Alice Funke, publisher of a PunditsGuide.ca, a site that analyzes data on federal elections and ridings.

She says they are likely to lose seats to the Liberals in the Winnipeg area and to the Liberals and NDP in some of the Tory bastions in urban Alberta.

One of the keys for Harper will be to make gains in the ring around the Greater Toronto Area, says Funke.

She says it may be possible for the Tories to take advantage of some voter dissatisfaction in the 905 ridings with the provincial Liberal government's new sex education curriculum, which offends some social conservatives and may rub off on federal Liberal chances.

But Funke says the Conservatives have to tread delicately when it comes to campaigning on divisive religious and human rights issues such as the niqab ban and C-51, the anti-terrorism legislation, as some GTA ridings have large Muslim populations.

"That is a community that is feeling very, very insecure at the moment," says Funke.

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