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Canada just kicked off its election season. Here's what you need to know.

- August 4, 2015

Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, speaks with a reporter after a Bloomberg Television interview in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (Patrick Doyle/Bloomberg)
What just happened in Canada?
On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Canada’s governor-general to dissolve parliament. As is customary, the request was granted. Election Day has long been set for Oct. 19, and most observers expected parliament to be dissolved mid-September. So the 2015 campaign has officially begun five weeks earlier than expected.
Harper’s Conservative party won a modest majority in 2011. The second largest party, and the official opposition, is the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Thomas Mulcair. In third place is the Liberal party, led by Justin Trudeau, son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. A handful of seats are held by other parties.
Why did Harper dissolve parliament now, when Election Day is more than two months away?
It works to the financial advantage of Harper’s Conservative party. In Canada, campaign expenditures are limited by law. What the limit is depends on the length of the campaign: the longer the campaign, the more the parties can spend.
By starting the campaign now, Harper has made the campaign longer than usual. In fact, it will be the longest Canadian campaign — 78 days — since 1872.
The Conservatives’ advantage is that they have the largest campaign war chest, and can thus spend up to the limit that this longer campaign would entail. Canadian law restricts the size of donations and bans corporate and union donations. The NDP and Liberals are not as effective as the Conservatives at reaching small donors, and have no realistic prospect of closing the financial gap.
Will the Conservative Party’s financial advantage matter? 
Recent history doesn’t provide a clear answer. The one study of ad impact in Canada suggests that simply airing more ads isn’t a ticket to victory, but the study dates from 1988.
Research into U.S. campaigns suggests that the effects of TV ads are short-lived, which implies that parties and candidates should husband their resources until the end of the campaign. That’s what the Liberals and NDP have signaled that they will do.
But the Conservatives may simply use their financial advantage to drown out the rivals in the last month. Neither in the United States nor in Canada, have we seen a national race with such a resource imbalance.
Who’s the likely front-runner, and why?
There are three major players in the race, each appealing to a different constituency. The Conservatives have a solid base among fiscal and social conservatives. The NDP is the party of organized labor and the social democratic left. As these parties have grown the system has polarized, in the sense that the policy gap between the two chief contenders is greater than when the Liberals were the first or second party. From 1896 to 2006, the Liberals were presumed to be the nation’s leading party, but since 2004 the party has been in something of a free fall; now they are struggling to define a position in the center. The Bloc Québécois, which stands for secession for Quebec, could make a comeback; if it does, the votes will come from the NDP.
Current conditions suggest a delicate balance. Canada’s economic performance in the last decade was good in comparison to other leading developed democracies, but the country is now in a recession. The opposition parties will attempt to instill the perception that the Conservatives have mismanaged the economy, while the Conservatives will emphasize their record as prudent managers. Canadians are divided over foreign policy and national security. Polls suggest that Harper is seen as the best person to be Prime Minister, but not by much.
In short, the underlying fundamentals don’t suggest a clear frontrunner. What is more, four times in the last 30 years, Canadian political campaigns have seen large numbers of voters changing their minds about what party to support, and why. This could be another such year.
What do the polls say? 
At the moment the election seems up for grabs. The accompanying figure aggregates information from all published polls since Jan. 1, 2014. (Note that the polls are not weighted by sample size or by any imputation of the polling firm’s quality. For a more aggressive approach to aggregation, see Canada’s answer to Nate Silver: Éric Grenier and The Three Hundred Eight.)
canadaUntil recently, most polls put the Conservative party well below its 2011 share. The Conservatives have been slowly gaining since early 2014, however, with occasional dips back down. Now support for the party sits somewhere in the low 30s.
Shifts between the Liberals and NDP have been stunning. After Justin Trudeau’s victory in the Liberal leadership race in 2013, the party catapulted from third place to the front of the polls. Its lead faltered in mid-2014 and seriously declined in 2015. The party lost supporters to Conservatives as doubts were raised about Justin Trudeau’s mastery of foreign policy. Since January, Liberals’ losses have been mainly to the NDP, as younger voters in particular have come to doubt his commitment to civil liberties.
Those NDP gains picked up after the party won Alberta’s provincial election on May 5. That was a shock, as Alberta is generally considered to be Canada’s most conservative province, not fertile ground for the NDP. Now it appears the NDP is being taken more seriously by voters as a viable alternative to the Conservatives.
Should we believe the polls? There is reason to be skeptical. Election forecasts failed spectacularly in Alberta in 2012 and British Columbia in 2013.
Polling for federal elections has also been inaccurate. In 2011, for instance, although the polls picked up voters’ shift from Liberal to NDP, the mean prediction for the Conservatives was four points too low, such that the Conservatives were projected to win only a plurality of seats; in fact, they won a majority. To make matters worse, Canadian pollsters may be starting to “herd”—that is, to massage their numbers so as not to stand out from other polling firms. The industry as whole may thus be slow to react to important shifts in vote intentions, or perhaps even to miss them altogether.
What policies are at stake?
If the Conservatives lose power, Canada will be less likely to engage in military action abroad. Domestic policy will shift left, although how much an NDP or Liberal government can spend may be limited by the tax cuts that the Conservatives have passed over the past four years.
Both opposition parties claim to want to change the electoral system. The NDP wants to shift to a Proportional Representation formula, where parties get roughly the same share of seats as of votes. The Liberals prefer the Alternative Vote, Australia-style, where voters cast preferential ballots and the winning candidate must have an outright majority.
If the NDP and Liberals control a majority between them, they should be able to carry a non-confidence motion against the Conservative government.
The next question would be whether a new center-left government would be an outright coalition or a minority government supported by the other party.
But what if the Bloc Québécois does surge, and takes enough seats from the NDP to deny the Liberal-NDP combination a majority? Would the Bloc support Harper, whom they profess to hate? But then, if polls signal a swing to the Bloc, voters outside Quebec might rally to the Conservatives, much as just happened among UK voters outside Scotland in reaction to the surge of the Scottish National Party.
Richard Johnston is professor of political science and Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation at the University of British Columbia. 
NOTE: Due to an editing error, the original graph mislabeled the Conservative and Liberal parties.