If late opinion polls are any guide — and the most very recent, courtesy of Galaxy in today’s Herald Sun, credits Labor with a lead of 52%-48% — Victorian voters are preparing to ditch a first-term government for the first time since the Labor split of the mid-1950s.

The odds being offered by Centrebet imply a Labor win probability of about 90%, which seems well in line with the expectations of both sides of politics. However, that leaves the government with one chance of victory in 10, and while that isn’t much chance, it’s still better than none. Certainly it’s enough to leave nagging doubts lingering in the minds of Labor operatives, and to sustain desperate hopes in the hearts of the Liberals.

In any case, the election count tomorrow evening is sure to be compulsive viewing for politics enthusiasts come what may. To those unfamiliar with the finer points of Victoria’s electoral terrain, what follows is an attempt to cut through the murk by identifying five key seats to watch.

This is certainly not to suggest that the election will come down entirely to these particular seats. But each can be identified as a bellwether in one sense or another, and knowing their specifics will put you a long way towards being able to make sense of the count as it unfolds.

Ripon

There is no path to a Coalition victory, or even to reasonably respectable defeat, that doesn’t run through this seat in Victoria’s west. Labor’s Joe Helper, who was among the surprise winners when Jeff Kennett was swept from power in 1999, is taking his personal vote into retirement, and the Coalition has been substantially strengthened by the redistribution.

What makes it a canary in the election night coal mine is that it is a largely rural district, which means its many small booths will report results long before meaningful figures are available from the suburbs or the regional cities. If it isn’t clear more or less immediately that Ripon is moving into the Coalition column, Labor can open the champagne, and Coalition staffers can start looking for work.

Carrum

As anyone with so much as a passing interest can tell you, the crucible of the election is the four “sandbelt” seats in Melbourne’s south-east: Bentleigh, Carrum, Mordialloc and Frankston. All are served by the Frankston rail line, the troubled performance of which powered an electoral backlash that proved fatal to the Brumby Labor government in 2010.

Any one of the four might have passed muster as the sandbelt-seat-to-watch, but Carrum gets the nod because of indications from the Liberal camp that it is, if nothing more, their least forlorn hope of the four. As such, victory in Carrum would look to be a precondition of the Liberals piecing together the knife-edge victory that survives as their best case scenario. If that can be accomplished, they can dare to dream about other seats like Bentleigh, where a surprise Galaxy poll result a fortnight ago gave them a slender lead.

Wendouree

The issues that finished off the Brumby government were largely specific to Melbourne, and only a handful of the 12 seats that changed hands were to be found outside the metropolitan area. Accordingly, the Liberals’ game plan going into the current campaign was to compensate for possible losses in the suburbs by knocking over regional marginals that held firm last time around.

Ballarat offered an especially tempting target, being home to two Labor-held marginal seats, and having the aforementioned seat of Ripon located right next door. It is now universally recognised that the Liberals have little to no chance against Labor’s Geoff Howard in Buninyong (known pre-redistribution as Ballarat East), but they might still cling to hopes of seeing off Sharon Knight in Wendouree (hitherto Ballarat West), where fortuitous adjustments in the redistribution have given the seat a tiny notional Liberal margin.

Yan Yean

Located on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe, Yan Yean has wild card status by virtue of the area’s explosive growth in the four years since the 2010 election. New housing estates at Mernda and Doreen have brought to the electorate many thousands of new voters, few of whom would be able to tell you much about Danielle Green, the seat’s Labor MP of 10 years’ standing.

What’s more, the new voters are of a type which, a few years back, might have answered to the not-entirely-appropriate name of “Howard battlers”: moderately affluent, mortgage-paying, Anglo-Australian young families, with breadwinners more likely to hold trade certificates than university degrees.

If the Liberal Party’s campaign against Labor profligacy has hit the mark anywhere (and that would seem to be a big “if”), that might mean trouble for Danielle Green, and a desperately needed win for the Liberals.

Melbourne

Over the past decade, Victoria has delivered the Greens a series of frustrating election nights in their strongest mainland state.

Their hopes of ending their state lower house drought will have been boosted by Adam Bandt’s success in winning re-election in the federal seat of Melbourne last September, despite what seemed at the last state election to be the fatal encumbrance of having the Liberals direct preferences against them. Bandt’s federal seat coincides almost precisely with the state seats of Melbourne and Richmond, which are the focus of Greens hopes together with the somewhat longer shots of Brunswick and Northcote.

For a number of reasons, Melbourne itself is probably their best shot. The redistribution has helped, with inner-city population growth causing the electorate to lose areas of Labor strength around Flemington. This has left it with a youthful, student-heavy demographic that feels little connection with the historic social cleavages that define the major parties.

The Greens candidate in Melbourne, Ellen Sandell, is a less divisive figure than Richmond candidate Kathleen Maltzahn, whose campaigning on prostitution places her at odds with the more libertarian streak on the Left, and has had the Sex Party campaigning and directing preferences against her.

Peter Fray

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