Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The polls in Alberta as Wildrose implodes

Some momentous and unprecedented events are taking place this week in the Alberta legislature, as the province's Official Opposition splits apart. We will only know the scope of the implosion later today, but the latest reports suggest that leader Danielle Smith and perhaps half of her caucus will cross the floor and sit with the Progressive Conservative government. Wildrose may (barely) hang on to its role as the Official Opposition, but without their charismatic leader their future looks bleak.

But the polls have given little indication that Wildrose was on track for such a catastrophe.

Indeed, it seems the bones of contention may be more personal and related to Jim Prentice's new style, rather than any fear of crushing defeat. Based on what the polls were showing, the PCs would probably have prevailed in a snap election, but Wildrose would have remained as a strong opposition.

Let's take a look at the evolution of voting intentions in the province since the 2012 provincial election. The charts below are mash-ups of all the polls that have been publicly released since then, averaging them out when more than one appeared in a given month.

It really is a two-horse race in Alberta, as the Liberals and New Democrats have been polling some where in the teens for the last four years.

The Tories under Alison Redford had a bit of a honeymoon after the 2012 victory, leading in the polls until the end of the year, when Wildrose inched ahead. From then on until the fall of 2013, the two parties were in a close fight, swapping the lead depending on the poll. Between October 2012 and October 2013, the PCs averaged 34% against 33% for Wildrose.

But when things turned south for Redford, Wildrose stormed ahead, polling between 46% and 50% in March and April of this year. The PCs were at around 20%, and en route for disaster. Redford was out.

With Redford gone and Dave Hancock in as interim leader, the PCs slowly started to claw their way back. From 21% in April they went to 26% in June and 29% in September. They were still trailing Wildrose, but only by a handful of points.

When Prentice came in, the Tories moved ahead - narrowly so in October, and in more convincing fashion in the latest poll out of the province, that of Insights West (November 28-December 1). That survey gave the PCs 35% of the vote, against 29% for Wildrose, 16% for the NDP, and 15% for the Liberals. A series of by-election victories cemented the Tories' return to front-runner status, though also confirming that the PCs are not as strong as they were on election night in 2012.

That would, normally, be a good thing for the opposition. The PCs did hold on to their four seats, but with substantial loss of vote share. A repeat performance province wide would be a boon to the opposition parties. Instead, Wildrose took their four losses to incumbent Tories, two of which were high-profile, as a death knell. Recent events in the legislature simply further poisoned the well.

Defections are one thing. Wildrose has already lost some MLAs. But to have the leader cross the floor is something else entirely. How were the leadership numbers looking?

Smith's numbers were always enviable, and from December 2012 she consistently had better approval ratings than Redford and Hancock. 

Redford's numbers were pretty good after the election, with an approval rating of between 43% and 58% throughout 2012. 

But in December 2012, Smith's approval rating stood at 48%, and remained high throughout 2013. averaging 46% against 40% disapproval. By comparison, Redford's dropped to an average of just 32%, with 59% disapproving of her leadership.

Brian Mason and Raj Sherman, the NDP and Liberal leaders, roughly split the electorate three ways over this time, divided almost equally between those who approved of them, those who disapproved of them, and those who had no opinion. New NDP leader Rachel Notley still needs to be introduced to almost half of the population.

Redford's numbers fell significantly early this year, to an approval of just 20% between February and March. Her disapproval was a catastrophic 69%. Smith looked much better by comparison, and her approval rating soared to over 50% during this time.

Again, Hancock did his best to right the ship, with an approval rating of about 33% over his tenure (his disapproval rating was half of Redford's before she left). 

Prentice has put up some good numbers since he took over, with an approval rating of between 45% and 50% in the three polls that have been published since he became premier. The latest, by Angus Reid Global (December 4-13), gave him an approval rating of 50%, with just 33% disapproval.

Smith's numbers have worsened of late, but they are hardly disastrous. She managed 44% in the first post-Prentice poll, with 38% disapproval. In the latest poll by Insights West, she was down to 38% approval, with 40% disapproval. While down from her Redford highs, those are still numbers she could have worked with. Her move can't be chalked up to an attempt to save her own skin.

It seems we will not know how Smith would have compared to Prentice over the long run. We will have to see what happens with the rump Wildrose caucus going forward. A merger, at this stage, seems unlikely. 

With the most recent numbers from Insights West, Wildrose would have had a good chance of keeping its entire caucus in the legislature, with about 20 seats to 51 for the Tories and eight seats apiece for the Liberals and NDP.

But what if the electorate moves in the same way as the Wildrose caucus, with half going to the Tories? In that case, the Tories would win a landslide, with 76 seats to six for the NDP and five for the Liberals. Wildrose would be shut out. But those Liberals who went over to the PCs to block Wildrose in 2012 might revert back to their old party - not enough to change the government, but the Liberals would likely return to Official Opposition status in this scenario. It would likely be, though, a smaller and weaker opposition than the one Wildrose had - before today.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Polls show Liberals still leading, but by how much?

Two polls published over the last two days show the Liberals still leading in national voting intentions. But the surveys by Léger and EKOS Research differ significantly over the size of that lead - as well as whether it is shrinking or growing.

First, the numbers themselves.

Léger, in the field between December 8 and 11 and reporting for Le Devoir, found the Liberals to have 38% support, up two points from where the party stood in Léger's previous survey of November 3-6.

The Conservatives were down one point to 32%, while the New Democrats were unchanged at 19%.

Support for the Greens was down one point to 6%, the Bloc Québécois was up one point to 4%, and support for other parties was unchanged at 1%.

None of these shifts would be outside the margin of error of similarly sized probabilistic samples.

EKOS, in the field between December 4 and 12 for their new poll published by iPolitics, gave the Liberals 31.8% support, down 1.7 points from the previous survey of November 4-6.

The Conservatives were up 0.6 points to 30.8% and the New Democrats were down 0.5 points to 20%.

The Greens were down 1.9 points to 7.8%, the Bloc was up 1.5 points to 5%, and support for other parties was up two points to 4.6%.

Only the shifts for the Greens and others would be outside the margin of error.

The differences between these two polls are well within the margin of error for the Conservatives, New Democrats, and Bloc, and just about within the margin of error for the Greens. So those discrepancies can be easily explained away by standard sampling error.

But the differences between the Liberals and support for other parties is harder to explain. About three points of the discrepancy between EKOS and Léger for the Liberals cannot be explained by the margin of error, and about 2.6 points for 'other' parties. That those numbers are very close may not be coincidental, as EKOS routinely has support for other parties to be significantly higher than other firms. Throughout 2014, for example, 'others' have averaged 3.3% support in EKOS's IVR polling, compared to 1.1% for everyone else.

Discrepancies like these, however, can often be chalked up to methodological differences. EKOS is conducting its poll via interactive voice response, whereas Léger did its poll online. The two modes of contact may inherently produce slightly different results. The focus, then, should be on the trends instead.

Here there is a little more clarity. Over the last three Léger polls, all three major parties have been very steady. The Liberals went from 37% in October to 36% in November, before ending up at 38% here. That is a statistically insignificant wobble. The Conservative numbers have been 32%, 33%, and 32% - very stable. And the NDP has registered 21%, 19%, and 19% support over that time.

It is a little more complicated with EKOS. In the time span that Léger did those three polls, EKOS has done four. Three of them were on virtually the same dates, but the first was done online. The last three were done via IVR. It wouldn't be appropriate to look at the trends by mashing together those two very different modes of contact.

So if we just look at the IVR polls by EKOS conducted since the end of October, we see similar stability to Léger: 33%, 34%, and 32% for the Liberals, 28%, 30%, and 31% for the Conservatives, and 21%, 21%, and 20% for the NDP. Trend-wise, at least, Léger and EKOS are not in complete disagreement.

But Léger is showing a very different sort of margin between the Conservatives and Liberals, growing from three points to six points in this poll. Considering the stability in the numbers, we could say that the margin is simply moving back and forth with the wobble. But EKOS's trend is more towards convergence, with the gap being about five points at the end of October, four points at the beginning of November, and now one point. If those trends continue, the Liberals will be overtaken. On the other hand, if Léger's trend continues the Liberals will continue to lead comfortably.

Adding to the confusion this morning is a new poll by Forum Research, which I only noticed after I had updated the averages (it will be added tomorrow). The poll gives the Liberals 41% to 33% for the Conservatives and just 17% for the NDP. This would suggest Conservative stability, a Liberal uptick, and consistent NDP decrease. But Forum's one-day flash polls are perhaps more vulnerable to showing wonky results.

Returning to Léger and EKOS, however, the two polls do tell us something. The parties' support appears to be relatively stable, solidifying the newer, more competitive race that has taken shape since the summer. And the NDP remains stuck in third place without any sort of momentum.

But the differences in the numbers themselves have enormous consequences. If these were the final polls of an election campaign, we'd have a long night ahead of us.

With EKOS, the Conservatives would manage to win a plurality of seats, taking 138 to 125 for the Liberals. The NDP would be reduced to 60 seats, while the Bloc would benefit from vote splits to take 13 seats in Quebec and obtain official party status again.

With Léger, however, the Liberals would win the plurality of seats with 146, the Conservatives taking 134 and the NDP just 55. The Bloc was not high enough in Léger's poll to be in a position to win more than a seat.

These seat numbers tell different stories. In the EKOS scenario, Stephen Harper might try to stay in office and govern with a minority. The opposition might then topple the government, but would need to work together to convince the Governor-General to give them a chance to govern rather than sending Canadians back to the polls (which could be the other outcome). The role of the Bloc would be marginal, but the party would be 'back' and regain much-needed funds and staff.

In the Léger scenario, convention would allow Justin Trudeau to head-up a minority Liberal government that would likely rely on the NDP to survive. Unlike the EKOS scenario, the Liberals and NDP would not necessarily have to formalize any sort of agreement, which might be more palatable to their bases. Harper likely steps down and a leadership race ensues, delaying any threat of an election, while the Bloc is marginalized further and might just cease to exist.

And all of this is with a few percentage points of difference, showing just how significant minor shifts can be when the race gets close. If things continue this way, particularly if the NDP can regain some ground, 2015 is setting up to be one of the most exciting elections in recent memory.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What's the threshold for a minority or majority government?

The current federal polling averages give the Liberals 34.5% support against 32.1% for the Conservatives. Yet, the Conservatives are projected to win 133 seats with those numbers and the Liberals just 128. What kind of margin do the Liberals need to win a plurality of seats? How close do the Conservatives need to make the race in order to come out ahead? And what do they need to win a majority?

Let's take a look at this for all three parties. But first, a few words about how I came to these calculations. I started with the current averages and then uniformly lowered or raised each party's support in each region of the country. I based my adjustments on EKOS Research's last 'second choice' poll as follows:

For every one point gained by the Conservatives, 0.7 points were subtracted from the Liberals and 0.3 points from the NDP (in Quebec, the Bloc was subtracted 0.1 point and the NDP 0.2 points). For every one point gained by the Liberals, 0.6 points were subtracted from the NDP, 0.3 points from the Conservatives, and 0.1 point from the Greens (in Quebec, the Bloc was subtracted 0.1 point instead of the Greens). For every one point gained by the New Democrats, 0.7 points were subtracted from the Liberals, 0.2 points from the Conservatives, and 0.1 point from the Greens (in Quebec, it was 0.6 points from the Liberals, 0.3 points from the Bloc, and 0.1 point from the Conservatives).

We'll start with the Conservatives, who have the most efficient vote of the three parties.

The gap might currently stand at 2.4 points, but it could theoretically widen to as much as 4.1 points and the Conservatives would still narrowly come out ahead in the seat count. With 31.1% of the vote against 35.2% for the Liberals, the Conservatives could win 129 seats against 127 for the Liberals.

The party won a majority governing in 2011 with 39.6% of the vote, but it could manage the feat with a little less. With 38.1% support against 30.3% for the Liberals and 20.7% for the NDP, the Conservatives could reach the magic 169 number and form a majority government. The Liberals would take 102 seats and the NDP would win 64.

This assumes, roughly speaking, that the Conservatives have 63% support in Alberta, 45% support in the Prairies, 42% support in Ontario, 38% support in British Columbia, 30% support in Atlantic Canada, and 22% support in Quebec. This is with a uniform swing of the vote, though. The Conservatives could probably win a majority with even less of the vote if, say, they took a greater share in British Columbia and a lot less in Quebec.

Now to the Liberals, who find themselves needing more votes than the Conservatives to come out ahead in the seat count, or to obtain a majority government.

With the Conservatives now above 30%, the Liberals would need about 36% support to ensure a plurality of seats. With that much support, the Liberals could win 131 seats to 130 for the Conservatives if they are at 31.6%. The NDP, at 21.6%, would win 73 seats.

To reach the majority threshold, however, the Liberals need the NDP vote to drop much further. With 41.5% support to 29.9% for the Conservatives, the Liberals would take 172 seats and leave 118 for the Tories. The NDP, down to 18.3% of the vote, would take 44 seats.

Of course, the Liberals could also benefit from the Conservatives dropping much further below 30% than this, but we're working from current polling levels.

Regionally, the majority threshold awards 59% of the vote to the Liberals in Atlantic Canada, 45% in Ontario, 40% in the Prairies, 39% in Quebec, 38% in British Columbia, and 30% in Alberta. Here again, there could be a more efficient way to reach the majority threshold by, say, taking more of the vote in Ontario and a lot less in Alberta and the Prairies.

Finally, the New Democrats. Because of their advantage in Quebec (akin to the Conservatives' advantage in the West), the NDP can reach the plurality threshold with less of the vote than the Liberals, But they need more of it to reach majority territory.

In a tight three-way race, the New Democrats could win the most seats with 33.5% of the vote, pushing the Conservatives down to 29.9% and the Liberals to 26.8%. The Greens also need to be lower than for the Liberals and Conservatives, and the Bloc down to 15% in Quebec. With these numbers, the NDP would take 124 seats to 123 for the Conservatives and 90 for the Liberals.

At the majority threshold, the NDP needs to be at 42.5% of the vote nationwide. The Conservatives would be at 28.1%, but the Liberals need to sink to about the same level of support they had in 2011, with 20.5%. The Greens need to do worse than 2011, while the Bloc vote is cut in half. With these numbers, the NDP takes 172 seats to 100 for the Conservatives and 65 for the Liberals.

The NDP would take 49% of the vote in Quebec, 46% in British Columbia, 41% in the Prairies, 40% in Ontario, 40% in Atlantic Canada, and 34% in Alberta. The NDP's support is more uniform than the other parties, with the six regions differing by no more than 15 points. That range is 29 points for the Liberals and 41 for the Conservatives.

What about the Greens and the Bloc? Their immediate goal should be to achieve official party status, or 12 seats. The Bloc can reach that level quite easily due to vote splits with around 21% support in Quebec, if the NDP drops to 27% and the Liberals to 32%.

For the Greens, it is much more difficult and, to be honest, the model gets a little wonky once we start trying to extrapolate for this party. But the Greens would win their 12 seats with 18% support nationwide, with the Conservatives at 31%, the Liberals at 29%, and the NDP at 16%.

But just how plausible are the thresholds for the major parties? We've seen the Liberals and Conservatives at the plurality level in many polls recently, but the majority threshold has been harder to achieve.

(Note: the numbers above don't add up to the total number of polls because in some cases no party would have reached the minimum thresholds. For instance, if the Liberals were at 34% and the Conservatives at 31%. Obviously, some party would win a plurality in those cases but the numbers above are in terms of the threshold, which can be considered the level of support where winning a plurality/majority would be very likely.)

There have been 175 federal polls conducted since the 2011 election, and 42 in 2014 alone. The Conservatives have hit the plurality threshold in 93 of those polls (53%), but only in nine of them in 2014 (21%). The party reached the majority threshold in 11 polls, but the last time that happened was in January 2012, almost three years ago.

The Liberals have been above the plurality level in 37 polls since 2011 (21%), but 22 of them have been in 2014 (or 52% of those held this year). The majority threshold has only been hit three times, however, and all in polls by Forum Research (the firm that routinely has the party highest). Only once was that majority threshold reached in 2014.

For the New Democrats, the plurality threshold was reached in 19 polls since 2011 (11%), but these were all in the period between March and September 2012. The party never hit the majority threshold in polls conducted since the last election, and perhaps never before that either.

This little exercise does show how difficult it will be for the parties to secure a majority government in 2015. The Conservatives clearly have the easiest path, but it has been a very long time since the party has been that strong in the polls (and that was at a time when the future of the Liberals was still in question and the NDP was leaderless). The Liberals could conceivably reach the majority level if the campaign goes very well for them, but it would be a tall order. A majority for the NDP seems out of the question.

A plurality for any of the parties would be easier to achieve, of course, with the Conservatives having the easiest route. The Liberals could pull more seats out of fewer votes than estimated here if their support proves to be more efficient than expected in places like Quebec. Nevertheless, they likely need to win by a relatively comfortable margin to come out ahead in the seat count. The New Democrats have it within their reach if the Liberals falter on the campaign trail, but it would require virtually all of that lost Liberal support to go their way, rather than towards the Conservatives.

At this rate, I'd bet on no party obtaining a majority in 2015 - but that is about it.