Federal election 2021: What the polls are saying at the halfway mark

Stephen Maher talks to Philippe J. Fournier about the challenge now facing O’Toole, the big Quebec factor, and why the Liberals might have one more minority in them
O'Toole and his wife, Rebecca, feed some llamas at a farm in Brantford, Ont., on Aug. 25, 2021 (Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Conservative Leader Erin OÕToole and his wife, Rebecca, feed some llamas as they visit a farm that uses animal therapy to treat mental health issues Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in Brantford, ON,. Canadians will vote in a federal election Sept. 20th.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Philippe J. Fournier, who teaches astrophysics in Cégep de Saint-Laurent, in Montreal, discovered a passion for political prognostication while watching the American presidential election of 2016, when he observed a hardening consensus around a Hillary Clinton victory that he didn’t believe was supported by the numbers. The next year, inspired by a lousy poll story in a Montreal newspaper, he decided to start a blog where he shared projections, models, poll-ratings and election insights. His keen-eyed analysis found an avid audience, and he is now highly sought for his number-crunching and political observations, writing for Maclean’s (where he is a contributing editor), L’actualité and regularly appearing on TV.

I called him at the halfway point of the campaign to talk about where the race is and where it might be going.

Q: We are at the halfway point in this election. Let me start by asking you this: On your web site, you’re projecting 145 CPC to 132 LPC. So at this moment you think that the Conservatives are more likely to have a plurality than Justin Trudeau?

A: That’s what the polls show. At this point in time, because, again, it changes daily. I would say this though—the chances of getting the most seats, it’s 60-40, and 60-40 is very close to a coin toss. There’s little advantage to the Conservatives. If you had a bag with coloured balls and six of them were blue and four of them were red, it’s almost 50-50. But the contrast is that it was 95-5 two weeks ago.

READ: 338Canada: The Conservatives surge, the Liberals slide

Q: That’s the contrast. Two weeks ago, that bag full of balls …

A: There were 19 red balls and one blue ball. And now it’s almost 50-50

Q: I was quite intrigued by your L’actualité column on the most recent Leger poll, which was taken from the 27th to the 30th, on who people think will win.

A: They usually ask, ‘who will you vote for if the election was held today and who do you think is going to win regardless of what your position is?’ And 39 per cent of respondents said Liberals, 28 per cent say Conservatives. Seven per cent say NDP. And 25 per cent do not know. And when we split those results along voting intentions, without surprise, we see that most Liberals believe the Liberals are going to win. Most Conservatives believe that the Conservatives are gonna win. But it’s when you look at the supporters of other parties, such as the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens, what do they think that’s going to happen? And all of them, either a plurality or majority of those voters believe the Liberals are going to win.

And so this is strange for someone who has followed the numbers in the past two and a half weeks, and of course the news cycle, to think that the Liberals would win.

It’s no secret that the NDP, even though they have their problems with the Liberals, they would much prefer the Liberals to win—not everyone, but for the most part. It’s the same for the Greens. Looking at the Bloc is more complicated.

But among those voters, most of them would like the Liberals to have a plurality so that they could be held in check, but they are much more adverse to an O’Toole government than to a  Trudeau government.

Q: Last week I was socializing with people outside my normal bubble, and I asked them about the election and none of them had been paying any attention to it. So it doesn’t surprise me. I suspect that there is going to be some settling, a reassessment once Canadians absorb the possibility of an O’Toole government.

A. I agree. [O’Toole] has had the momentum and he’s presented his platform already. [But] he did it in the first days of the race, when people were not paying attention much. I think there was some smart strategy for the Liberals to wait until September to say, ‘OK, we’ll have a fully costed platform when people go back to school, go back to their routine, the fall routine.’

There’s something to be said for that. It’s that much harder for O’Toole in that last stretch. O’Toole has to stay strong for 20 days.

READ: 2021 Election Platform Guide

Q: The strategic advantage for O’Toole putting out his platform when he did was that it enabled him to get some momentum going, which he badly needed. People were not taking him seriously. Because they were not taking him seriously, he was having a hard time within his own party.

A: That’s true. And we can see also in Western Canada, the numbers are back. We saw a bunch of polls with the Conservatives at 40 or 45 per cent in Alberta, which would’ve meant that the Conservatives have lost 25 points or 30 points since the last election, which I never believed that for one second. But I have the Conservative back up at 55 per cent. That shows an enthusiasm that was not there for the past few months.

Q: I was speaking with a Conservative campaign official today who said they feel good about the overall horse race numbers, because their vote will be much more efficient this time than in the last election. Andrew Scheer ran up huge numbers in Saskatchewan and Alberta, but was not as appealing to voters in Ontario and Quebec. It appears to me that their planning—win the leadership by appealing to social conservatives and then shift the party to the centre to make it more appealing in central Canada—has paid off and seems to show that O’Toole is quite a shrewd politician.

A: I never doubted this because to be that high in politics, to be so close to the prime minister, sometimes you have to be a bit ruthless. I mean, you can’t always be a nice guy. And so when I saw O’Toole running that True Blue campaign, I’m saying that will never work in a general election, but it was clear that he knew what he was doing.

And how do you propose a carbon tax during the Conservative leadership campaign? He would’ve lost badly, would have been laughed at—oh, sorry, not a carbon tax, a carbon pricing mechanism, but we both know it’s a carbon tax. You have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

You have to not necessarily lie outright, but you have to bend, you know, he has to please the crowd, you have to talk to your people. And so I think O’Toole did that very much. If any Liberal leader does this, he doesn’t have to stretch himself that much. I mean, you really have to stretch yourself a lot to be at the same time a red Tory, a fiscal conservative and a social conservative. That’s a huge tent over there, a much bigger tent than whatever the Liberals are.

Q: I think our history shows that it’s a more difficult coalition to keep together than the Liberal coalition, which I think of as beginning in downtown Montreal and extending to Toronto and outward from there.

A. Absolutely. But the Conservatives, when they fight amongst themselves, it can get really ugly. We’re singing the praises of O’Toole right now, but let’s say he loses. Do you think they’re going to be very patient with him?

Q: I think if he wins 20 per cent more seats than Andrew Scheer, whether he wins government or not, I think parties tend to say, well, we’re a little closer.

A: Twenty per cent would mean 24 seats more. If he has 145, he probably wins the most seats, but then again, he has to win the confidence of the House.

Q. You wrote recently that you still see he has a narrow path to becoming Prime Minister. During the pandemic older voters shifted from the Conservatives to Trudeau, likely impressed by his pandemic performance. And in the course of the campaign,  they’ve shaken loose.

A: The Liberals had a lead among the 55-plus year olds. And I’m looking at this new Leger published yesterday. I see 55 and over, O’Toole 39-33. So yes, traditionally there were Conservatives, they were there in 2019 for Andrew. During the pandemic, they slightly shifted to Liberals, but I think there was a recoil when Trudeau said ‘I have good numbers. I can go into an election,’ not realizing that he had good numbers because there was no election.

Q: This brings us to the question of the decision to call the election. The Liberals could not have recognized that the decision to call an election would be seen in the way that it has been seen by those people?

A: The Liberals started losing on Day 2 of the election. And that’s what’s so fascinating, by following the numbers day by day. They lost on average two seats per day. It looks like it has reached the bottom, it looks like it stabilized now, but calling the election was really not well perceived. It was really, really bad. I’m sure if he could call a Mulligan [he would] say, ‘you know what, Governor General, cancel that!’

Q: The TVA debate is tonight. O’Toole’s going to get his opportunity to make his case to two million Quebecers. It really is an opportunity for him to make the case in a way that will only really happen once likely. He has a lot riding on that, doesn’t he?

A: I know maybe English Canadians did not follow this debate that much in 2019, but it was just as impactful in Quebec as the 1984 Turner-Mulroney debate. I mean, it was a knockout. The debate started at 8 PM. It was 8:05 and Andrew Scheer was already cornered by three other leaders on abortion. And he could not come up with a satisfying answer and he bungled his French and we could barely understand what he was saying. And from that point on … the Conservatives started nose-diving in Quebec. It was a myriad of factors that caused this, but Andrew Scheer lost Quebec that night.

Q: It opens up the possibility if O’Toole does well enough, and I’m not expecting this, but if he does well enough, if his numbers start to really move up in Quebec, you could see a completely different election. But does he have a ceiling in Quebec?

A: Jack Layton didn’t have a ceiling. I’m not saying that he will do the same thing, but we have to remember that Quebec can be very volatile if they like someone.

Q: I know that you like to play poker. You’re not afraid to make a wager. If you were going to wager right now, what would you call? I know what your model says, but you also know that there’s some things that are going to happen.

A. I for sure would bet minority, unless we see a complete meltdown from one side or the other. It’s really hard to get a majority in Canada when the Bloc Quebecois is healthy and the NDP is not doing so bad. If I had to pick, I think a very, very close result, maybe favouring the Liberals. It’s just that Justin Trudeau usually does better when he’s the underdog. He’s feisty. He was the underdog in ‘15 and ‘19. After the blackface photos came out, we thought he was done. He was trailing in the polls and he came back. So I feel like maybe the Liberals have one more minority in them. But I look at the numbers right now and I see Ontario is tied. I would say a razor thin minority for the Liberals would be my call, but then again, I don’t predict the future. I go with the numbers. What do you think?

Q: I think they’re getting a haircut but hang on. That’s what I would guess, but there’s a lot of things that could happen between now and election day.

A: Three debates and I’m sure some opposition research that we’ll see also dropped.

Q: I have to say the Liberal campaign has been surprisingly maladroit.

A: I would say so.

Q: These people have won a couple of elections. They’ve been running the country. They ought to know what they’re doing.

A: You have to also remember that unless, excluding the parenthesis that was Joe Clark, six years in power is not that much. Stephen Harper was there for nine and a half. Chretien-Martin were there for 13 years. Nine years for Brian Mulroney then Trudeau the father was 15 years, except for that eight months. So six years in government is really not that much. So we’ll see.