Polls prove it: The Tories are in trouble

by John F. Conway

John ConwayPolling season is just over and reports from a variety of June polls contain nothing but bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Now before you dismiss the following analysis because of the polling disasters in the 2012 Alberta and the 2013 B.C. elections, consider this: polls are snapshots of voter intentions at one frozen moment in time which is then reported and discussed for days after media release. The best polls during elections are rolling polls, which sample continuously and report results frequently. That way you get an up-to-the-minute frozen snapshot of party standings, as well as a trend line indicating the direction of the evolving support for each party. You can bet the B.C. NDP and Liberals were doing their own internal rolling polls right up to election day. They knew what was happening.  That’s why Liberal Premier Christy Clark’s smile got bigger and bigger as election day neared. And that’s why NDP leader Adrian Dix, prematurely anointed by the media as premier-in-waiting, got more frantic and actually began issuing clear policy statements in the final days of the campaign. Dix’s strategy of trying to sneak into power without making any clear promises appears to have backfired, and he tried to remedy the situation too late in the game.

Now to the June smorgasbord of polls. The CTV/Ipsos-Reid poll (June 21 to 25) put the Liberals three points ahead of the Tories, with all three parties within five points of each other (Liberals, 33; Tories, 30; NDP, 28). Only 30 per cent of Canadians agreed that Harper’s Tories deserved re-election. A mid-June poll by Leger Marketing put the Liberals eight points ahead of the Tories (Liberals, 37; Tories, 29; NDP, 21). Leger also reported that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau beat Harper on the best prime minister score (27 to 23). Harris-Decima confirmed Trudeau’s lead as best prime minister. A mid-June Nanos poll gave the Liberals a five-point lead (Liberals, 34; Tories, 29; NDP, 25). Aggregated polls comparing September 2012 and May 2013 reported a fall of six points for the Tories, a rise of an astonishing 18 points for the Liberals and a fall of eight points for the NDP (2012: Liberals, 22; Tories, 34; NDP, 31/2013: Liberals, 40; Tories, 28; NDP, 23).

Despite the variations in numbers, together these polls indicate Harper’s support has fallen significantly. The usual suspects, Tory spin doctors and pro-Tory media types, insist this is but a brief blip, largely due to the Senate mess. They conveniently ignore the trend line.

Tory support has been gradually but remorselessly dropping since Harper’s majority victory with 39.6 per cent in 2011. The downward trend began well before the Senate scandal went public. Nor has the scandal resulted in accelerating downward momentum (that might change when all the sleaze is laid out in full public view).

Harper’s decline has resulted from growing public concern, and increasing push-back from those in the line of fire, as the details of the two omnibus budget bills are implemented. More and more people are worried, and more and more are outright angry. Furthermore, the economy is limping and some of Harper’s key free trade deals, to which he tied his reputation as prime minister, appear to be in trouble.

Harper’s ace in the hole has always been the widespread public belief that he is good at managing the economy. Now there are nagging doubts.

The polls also suggest Trudeau may turn out to be a formidable adversary, contrary to the initial assessment of Tory strategists. Tory attack ads on Trudeau have clearly failed (expect a barrage of even more nasty ones). Trudeau’s support has grown quite remarkably to the point where he is now competitive with Harper and pulling ahead of Mulcair. Trudeau’s showing can no longer be simply dismissed as a honeymoon blip, since it has become a clear trend.

National polls are not useful in assessing election outcomes unless the gap between contending parties is large. When the polling numbers are close, it’s anyone’s game. Canadian elections are won on the ground in the regions. Each region is a separate battleground and the regions differ markedly in the number of seats at stake.

But the regional polling numbers also suggest Harper faces a potential catastrophe.

Harper won in 2011 by cobbling together an unprecedented electoral coalition between the West, rural Canada, and suburban Ontario. He wrote off Quebec. The West delivered in spades — 72 of the West’s 92 seats went to Harper, with majorities of over 50 per cent in Saskatchewan and 60 per cent in Alberta. He picked up 14 of 32 seats in Atlantic Canada. He got just five seats in Quebec, and picked up two in the North. He won the election because the rural/suburban coalition in Ontario paid off: 73 of 106 seats with 44 per cent of the vote.

If you look at the recent polling numbers on a regional basis, Harper’s problems become clear.  For this comparison Nanos numbers are used. The West remains solid: 54 per cent on the Prairies and 31 per cent in B.C. His numbers in Saskatchewan and Alberta remain rock solid —  over 50 per cent in Saskatchewan and 60 per cent in Alberta. This strong popular support inflates Tory support in the national poll, but will not result in any more seats. The Tories have fallen in Quebec, suggesting they could lose two of their five seats. Tory support in Atlantic Canada has collapsed to 22 per cent, indicating a significant loss of seats in that region.

But the key is Ontario. In 2011, 44 per cent of Ontario’s popular vote netted the Tories 73 seats and a majority victory. Tory support has plummeted to 29 per cent, suggesting huge losses.

In other words, the polling numbers at the regional level indicate defeat for Harper. As of the last Nanos poll, Trudeau’s Liberals enjoyed 40 per cent support in Atlantic Canada, 35 per cent support in Quebec, and 41 per cent support in Ontario. Of course, the NDP remains competitive in all regions, and is the second party in Atlantic Canada and Quebec in a battle with the Liberals.

If an election had been held on June 30, 2013 the result would probably have been a minority government led by Justin Trudeau.

But that was then, a brief snapshot of a possible outcome in a volatile electorate. As we all know, popular support can shift dramatically in response to economic events, a stumble in leadership, sheer incompetence, and fresh scandals.

Harper has read the polls. He will fire incompetent ministers or those who are just haplessly unable to resonate with the public. He will add some new, younger faces. He will fire up the Tory “Attack Trudeau And Mulcair” industry, and we will be deluged with attack ads. He will step up government-funded ads glorifying Harper’s Canada. He will put the never-ending Conservative election campaign into full gear.

One thing he won’t do: he will not change his determination to finish the job reconstructing a new right-wing Canada. Stephen Harper is a principled ideologue and a shrewd political operator. You underestimate him at your peril.