338Canada: The Conservatives can’t crack Liberal support

Philippe J. Fournier: Despite Liberal failures, the party’s numbers are holding while the Tories haven’t solved their Ontario problem

The First Nations’ barricades have quietly come down in the past week and, despite the inflamed rhetoric used by several prominent politicians over the course of the past month, it appears the federal government may have managed to weather this particular storm—just in time to face what seems to have grown into a global pandemic, with the COVID-19 virus spreading across the world’s borders.

Whether the government’s handling of the various First Nations’ territorial claims has been negotiated and handled appropriately has been the topic of myriad editorials and opinion columns in the past month. But has the federal Liberals’ response to the crisis changed the political landscape across the country? Several polls were conducted and published in recent weeks to take the pulse of Canadians on the matter. Here is a short recap:

  • Last week, Nanos released its (usually paywalled) federal numbers showing the Conservatives on the rise for the first time since the October election with support of 36 per cent of decided voters to the Liberals’ 33 per cent. It must be stated, however, that the regional numbers were not all that convincing for the CPC: the party still trailed the Liberals by several points in Ontario and remained a distant third in Quebec. As it should have become clear to CPC strategists in last year’s election, running up the score in Alberta can only take a national party so far. Without revealing paywalled content, the gap between the CPC and LPC has narrowed this week according to Nanos’ tracker (to which you may subscribe here);
  • Campaign Research has measured a literal tie at 30 per cent apiece between the Liberals and Conservatives, meaning both parties may have lost ground among voters since the election. Campaign has the Green Party of Canada at 11 per cent, almost double its 2019 election score and a handful of points higher than other pollsters. We will see soon whether this is a blip or a trend for the GPC, but we have seen high numbers for the Greens in between elections before. See Campaign Research’s poll report here
  • On Wednesday, Léger released its latest numbers for The Canadian Press and has numbers roughly similar to Campaign, with the Liberals still barely in the lead with 32 per cent, a narrow two point lead over the Conservatives. Perhaps the most curious regional number in Léger’s poll was the Bloc Québécois taking first place in Quebec with 37 per cent. Additionally, Léger asked its panel who would make the best leader for the CPC. According to the poll’s results, Peter Mackay holds a crushing lead over his many rivals: among all respondents, MacKay leads the field with 25 per cent of support, while Erin O’Toole came a distant second at a meagre four per cent. Among Conservative supporters, MacKay leads O’Toole 38 per cent to nine per cent. However, we should stress that Léger was in the field before Jason Kenney’s stunning endorsement of O’Toole for CPC leader. The Alberta premier being arguably the most prominent conservative politician country means his endorsement could potentially boost O’Toole’s profile. See Léger’s report here.
  • Finally, the Angus Reid Institute released its latest federal horserace numbers, as well as approval numbers of the country’s premiers and of the Prime Minister. According to ARI, Justin Trudeau’s approval rating has dropped 10 points in the past month, and currently sits at 33 per cent. In stark contrast with other polling firms, which all show a more-or-less tied race between the Liberals and Conservatives, ARI has the Conservatives leading the field with 34 per cent nationally, a full eight points ahead of the Liberals. The ARI regional numbers also show the Conservatives leading in every region of the country outside of Quebec (yes, even Ontario and Atlantic Canada). Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, ARI’s “House Effect” regarding its LPC numbers has been analyzed extensively over the past months and years. 

We crunched these numbers in the 338Canada electoral model. Here are the national popular vote projections:

[On the graph above, the numbers indicate the 338Canada weighted averages and the coloured bars, the 95 per cent confidence intervals.]

The Conservatives and Liberals both stand roughly at 33 per cent nationally, a deadlock that hasn’t moved much overall since the election. According to these numbers, the Liberals may not have been hurt significantly over their handling of the First Nations protests, nor have the Conservatives been able to gain measurable traction from them.

In Quebec, the Bloc québécois and the Liberals are statistically tied for the lead. There were some disagreements among polls however: whereas Léger and Angus Reid showed the BQ first in the province, Campaign Research and Nanos still measured a close race between the BQ and Liberals. Here are the federal vote projections for Quebec:

In Ontario, the Liberals enjoy a six-point lead on average over the Conservatives. Let’s recall that last October, the Liberals won the popular vote in Ontario by almost nine points. For the Conservatives to become favourites in time for the next general election, they will have to significantly close that gap:

Out west, British Columbia remains the most closely contested province with the Conservatives holding a narrow edge over the Liberals, but the NDP and Greens together gather more than a third of voting intentions. Here are the weighted averages for British Columbia:

Here are the national seat projections as calculated by the 338Canada model:

The Liberals win on average 145 seats and the Conservatives, 125. However, given the variance in recent polling data, the seat projection confidence intervals remain wide, and those of the LPC and CPC still overlap significantly.

Also, one may have noticed the NDP has recently polled at higher levels than its disappointing 2019 result: 19 per cent from Campaign, 20 per cent from Léger, and 21 per cent from ARI, which explains the NDP’s modest gains in the seat projections.

With the Bloc on the rise in Québec and the gap narrowing between the two main national parties, a majority government of any stripe would be highly unlikely with such numbers. The Liberals would remain roughly 3-to-1 favourites, but a modest swing against the LPC in Canada’s two most populous provinces could completely flip those numbers.

With the Conservatives’ leadership race well underway, we will follow closely how these numbers change over the next few months. MacKay’s pledge to take down the government as soon as he’s elected CPC leader may have been catnip to some Conservative supporters, but the reality is that, according to the numbers: 1) the CPC has not much improved its standings since last fall, and 2) the government has yet to trip on its own laces in any significant and measurable way. Moreover, even if the NDP and the Bloc wanted to go back to the polls in the fall—and that remains a big if—would MacKay really want to risk his own leadership and launch a general election on such uncertain ground?

For the sake of comparison, last year’s SNC-Lavalin saga hurt the Liberals and boosted the CPC numbers much more than the First Nations’ blockades did last month. In any case, Jagmeet Singh and Yves-François Blanchet are the ones holding the keys to the next general election—not the CPC leader, whomever ends up winning the party’s leadership next June.


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