Thursday, January 22, 2015

The electoral record of "un-elected" premiers

The electoral calendar for 2015 was already going to be dominated by the federal election in October. But quickly the calendar is getting more crowded, as three provinces could find themselves in the midst of a provincial election campaign in a matter of months. The reason? A trio of "un-elected" premiers looking for a fresh mandate of their own.

I use the term "un-elected" with caution. It doesn't represent how our system works. We elect representatives who may be a member of a party, the leader of which becomes the premier if he or she has the confidence of the legislature. In practice, though, most Canadians don't see things this way. Who leads a party has a great influence on their vote.

Three provinces have or are about to have "un-elected" premiers at the helm: Alberta (Jim Prentice, who became premier on September 15), Newfoundland and Labrador (Paul Davis, who became premier on September 26), and Prince Edward Island (Wade MacLauchlan, who will take over the governing Liberals in February). Davis is supposed to call an election this year, while rumours are swirling about snap calls this spring by both Prentice and MacLauchlan.

Recent history suggests that a snap call might be a good idea.

I looked at the electoral track record of "un-elected" premiers over the last 50 years. By my count, there have been 35 of them. Their record is mixed, with 19 having secured re-election when the next election was held and 16 of them being defeated. That's a winning record of 54%, compared to the 70% winning record of incumbent premiers over the same period.

Of course, this is not entirely an accident. A premier is more likely to stay in office if he has a chance of re-election. Many times, a premier has resigned to avoid an impending defeat, leaving their replacement to either refresh the party and give it a chance or take one for the team. This alone will make the record of "un-elected" premiers look worse than perhaps it should.

Nevertheless, here is how the track record of "un-elected" premiers looks over the last 50 years. I've ranked them by the amount of time they spent in office before facing the electorate for the first time as party leader. You'll notice that the longer they waited, the worse their chances got.

This, too, may not be an accident. A newly sworn-in premier who thinks he or she has a chance to win will be more likely to call an election, whereas one who thinks defeat is inevitable will delay and hope that their chances get better (on average, they have waited 418 days).

So, perhaps it is better to look at these results not as a guide to electoral chances, but as a guide to why a premier may be delaying an election call (or planning a quick one).

The fate of "un-elected" premiers can be split into three groups.

The most successful called an election within 188 days, or roughly six months, of becoming premier. Those who did, and there have been 11 of them since 1965, won eight times. Brian Tobin and Tom Rideout, both from Newfoundland and Labrador, were the quickest to pull the trigger. Both faced the electorate within 30 days. Tobin won a majority, but Rideout was defeated.

The next group of premiers called an election within 198 and 486 days of becoming premier. They had a much more mixed record, winning seven times and losing five times.

The last group of premiers are those who waited as long as they could. They likely faced the greatest hurdles, calling the next election between 535 and 1126 days of becoming premier. They include premiers like Ernie Eves, Bernard Landry, and Christy Clark. And they had a losing record, winning four times and losing eight. George Isaac Smith of Nova Scotia waited longest, holding off for more than three years before meeting defeat in 1970 (though just barely).

So what does this tell us, if anything, about the three provinces that could hold elections this year?

For Jim Prentice, it would appear he would be best off if he calls an election for March 22 or earlier. The cards are lining up for something along those lines. He gets into more uncertain territory if he waits for the period between April 1, 2015 and January 14, 2016. His odds get much worse if he calls it after March 3, 2016.

Paul Davis is looking like he will have little luck no matter when he calls the vote, but his chances would be best (historically speaking) if he calls it for April 2 or earlier. If he waits until 2016, his already bad odds will get worse.

Wade MacLauchlan is taking over a Liberal Party in PEI that is well position for re-election. But he has some time. If we place the beginning of his premiership on February 21, when the Liberal leadership acclamation will be held, the most advantageous window for him closes on August 28, 2015. Between September 7, 2015 and June 21, 2015 his odds get worse, and then get much worse after August 9, 2016.

It is a bit of self-fulfilling prophesy, though. The numbers are looking good for Prentice, so he is likely to call an election this spring. That puts him in the winners' group. The same likely goes for MacLauchlan, who has done nothing to quiet talk of a snap election. Davis, on the other hand, looks like he is waiting as long as possible. That will likely put him in one of the losers' groups. But if he does lose, it won't be because he is waiting. He is waiting because he might lose.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Approval ratings of five Prime Ministers

Trawling through the archives, I came across a compilation of approval ratings polling by Environics, stretching from 1985 to 2009. Something like that is just too interesting not to share.

The polls show some pretty clear patterns, at least after the tumultuous tenure of Brian Mulroney. Canadians have tended to be pretty satisfied with their prime ministers over the last two decades. But disapproval ratings inched upwards as time went on, until the prime minister either stepped aside or was forced aside by voters.

In the chart below, the darker trend line refers to approval ratings. The lighter one represents disapproval ratings.

Click to magnify
Mulroney's numbers are the most dramatic. For almost the entirety of his time in office, more Canadians (often many more) disapproved of him than approved of him. But in 1988 his numbers surged just enough to secure re-election, before his ratings tumbled down once again.

When Environics' polling starts, in June 1985, Mulroney was enjoying a post-election honeymoon with an approval rating of 61%. But that soon collapsed, to 43% in November, 34% in September 1986, and 23% in May 1987.

From there, he started to rebound. By the end of 1987 he was back up to 28%. By the spring of 1988 he was at 34%, and in October 1988 he was at 36%. The following month, his party won re-election with 41% of the vote.

And again Mulroney experienced a honeymoon, with his approval rating soaring to 60% in March 1989. It did not last long, falling to 45% in June of that year and 29% in December. But unlike his first term, Mulroney did not rebound. By the end of 1990, his approval rating was just 17%. By mid-1991, it was only 12% with an incredible 83% of Canadians saying they disapproved of the prime minister. It did not get much better until he stepped aside in June 1993, when his approval rating was 15%.

Here we can see the roots of the disastrous showing of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. The party's numbers did rebound under Kim Campbell, but in the end the party captured just about as much of the vote as the proportion of Canadians who approved of Mulroney when he stepped down.

Overall, Mulroney averaged an approval rating of just 27% and a disapproval of 65% during his time in office. In his first term, his approval rating averaged 36%. In his second term, it was just 22%.

Campbell was in office long enough for only one of Environics' polls, and it was a good one for her: 48% approval to 31% disapproval. But her party was drummed out of power in October 1993.

Jean Chrétien took office, and had the same kind of numbers as Mulroney did when he won re-election in 1988: an approval rating of 62% and a disapproval rating of just 14% in December 1993.

But Chrétien proved much more popular than Mulroney, and from the 1993 election to September 1995 his approval rating hovered at 61% or over, topping out at 66% in December 1994. His disapproval rating, however, increased: to 23% at the end of 1994 to 29% on the eve of the Quebec referendum.

Though his side won that campaign, that it came so close to losing may have cost Chrétien. In December 1995, his approval rating was down to 53%, with disapproval jumping to 38%. His numbers would stick to this level for another year.

For the first time as prime minister, Chrétien's approval rating dropped below 50% at the end of 1996 and in early 1997. It did not bode well for the 1997 election, and the Liberals just eked out another majority.

Chrétien experienced another honeymoon at this point, with his approval rating rising above the 50% mark until it hit 61% in early 1998. It wobbled back and forth between 50% and 64% until early 2000, when it briefly fell to 36%. That was his lowest result ever. Perhaps it was anomalous, as his approval rating jumped back to 55% a few months later.

By 2003, however, Chrétien's welcome was beginning to wear out. His approval rating fell to between 42% and 45% that year, as his disapproval rating reached majority status for only the second time during his tenure. He was gone by the end of the year.

On average, Chrétien boasted some impressive numbers. During his entire time in office, he averaged an approval rating of 54%, against 37% disapproval. But here again we see that time takes its toll: his approval rating averaged 58% in his first term, 54% in his second, and 50% in his third. By then, his disapproval rating was averaging 46%, compared to 31% in his first term.

Paul Martin improved upon Chrétien's numbers when he took over. His approval rating was 53% at the beginning of 2004, increasing to 56% by the summer. In 2005, however, his numbers began to sink. His approval rating was 48% at the beginning of that year, drooping to 41% in the spring (and disapproval jumping to 56%, higher than anything Chrétien managed). There was a small uptick over the summer of 2005, and it was time for another election. But in this case Martin would come up short.

Over his short tenure, Martin averaged an approval rating of 49%, with disapproval at 46%.

Stephen Harper, like Mulroney and Chrétien before him, enjoyed a honeymoon after winning the 2006 vote. His approval rating was 61% after that victory, with disapproval at just 27%. His approval ratings dropped to 53% by the end of the year, as his disapproval ratings shot up almost immediately, to 42%.

Things held steady in 2007, with his approval rating hovering between 49% and 57%, with disapproval between 37% and 47%. But in 2008, Harper's approval rating dropped below 50%, and by the spring the country was split down the middle on the prime minister. By the end of 2008, his disapproval rating had hit a majority of respondents.

Apart from an early 2009 poll (which saw Harper's numbers go back to 50% after winning the 2008 election), that is where the story ends. That is unfortunate, since it is useful to have these numbers coming from the same polling firm.

The latest approval ratings from EKOS and Forum pegged Harper's approval rating to be around 36% which, aside from the anomalous Chrétien poll, would be the lowest by any prime minister since the Mulroney years. But we may be comparing apples to oranges here.

It certainly fits into the trend of a gradual decline in fortunes the longer a prime minister stays in office. But that rate of decline differs. Over his three terms, Chrétien's approval ratings dropped by eight points. Over Mulroney's two, it fell (on average) by 14 points. From start to finish, though, Mulroney plummeted by 46 points, Chrétien by just 17. Martin was down by about 10 over some 18 months.

So this chart may tell us little about what to expect going forward, but it does stand as an interesting historical document.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Breakthrough or outlier?

A new poll suggests that the Conservatives have moved into the lead in national voting intentions, opening up a four-point edge over the Liberals. Is this poll a sign that the Conservatives are in the midst of a breakthrough as this election year begins, or is it an outlier poll that will soon be corrected by a regression towards the mean? And does the poll really put the Conservatives on the 'cusp of a majority'?

The poll in question was conducted by Ipsos Reid for Global News between January 6 and 11, interviewing 1,915 Canadians. The poll had an over-sample in Alberta (which would been corrected by weighting, of course), making the other regional samples more like a national poll of some 1,200 decided voters.

The Conservatives led in the poll with 35%, a gain of two points over Ipsos's previous survey of November 10-December 1. That moved them ahead of the Liberals, who dropped three points to 31%.

Only the decrease for the Liberals would be outside the margin of error of similarly sized probabilistic samples. But the Liberals have dropped in two consecutive Ipsos polls, from a high of 38% in September. The Conservatives have been trending upwards, up four points since then.

The New Democrats have been very stable, unchanged at 24% (they have been at either 23% or 24% in Ipsos's last six surveys).

The Bloc Québécois was up one point to 6%, while 4% supported other parties (including the Greens). The number of undecideds in the entire sample was 17%.

Is this a potential outlier poll? The Conservatives have not registered 35% support in any poll since February 2013, two months before Justin Trudeau became Liberal leader. That was also the last time the party had a four-point lead (over the NDP in this case).

The poll also had some surprising results on the gender split. It found the Conservatives ahead among men, at 37% to 33%, which is to be expected. But it also found the Conservatives five points ahead among women, with 34% to 29%. That is unusual. As my piece for the CBC explored this week, the Liberals have averaged a nine-point lead among women in polls done over the last month (and that was with an average lead of three points overall). Even if we do swing those averages by seven points to reflect Ipsos's overall lead, we still get nowhere close to a five-point advantage among women.

And the Conservatives have traditionally not had such uniform support between the sexes. By my estimate, there was a 10-point discrepancy between Conservative support among men and women in the 2011 election. For the Liberals to score worse among women than among men is also contrary to virtually every poll done in recent memory.

Ipsos did show a statistically significant drop in support among women, as the Liberals plummeted five points (and the Conservatives gained four) since their last survey.

The score for the Bloc Québécois in Quebec is also noteworthy, as the party was placed in second with 25% support. That is their best performance in any poll since March of last year, some 50 polls ago. But there has been nothing whatsoever happening in Quebec that could explain such a boost. The only statistically significant regional shift occurred in Quebec, with the Liberals dropping eight points to 24% - explaining much of their national decrease.

However, whenever a poll comes out that raises some eyebrows, the reaction should be caution and patience rather than skepticism. We'll have to wait and see if Ipsos is the first to capture something we need to keep an eye on. Certainly, the last few weeks have been tumultuous. What first looks like an outlier can be the first to capture a trend, like that CROP poll in the 2011 federal election that was the first to show the NDP in front in Quebec.

And this is not the only poll to show the Conservatives in such a good position. Angus Reid's mid-December poll put the Liberals and Conservatives in a tie at 34% apiece. Abacus Data's pre-Christmas poll put the Conservatives ahead by one point, with 34% to 33% support. In the context of those two surveys, a 35% to 31% split does not look unusual.

The claim that it would put the Conservatives on the cusp of a majority government, as Ipsos Reid has made, is more unusual. Adding 30 seats to the electoral map does not change the math so drastically that the traditionally required 38% to 40% support for a majority government has suddenly been cut to just 35%. I recently looked at the thresholds required for a majority government, and the Conservative number still came in at 38%.

By my reckoning, the Conservatives would instead win about 145 seats, falling 25 short of a majority government. It is difficult to see how the Conservatives could pull a majority out of these numbers when, for instance, they trail in British Columbia and are still down so much in Atlantic Canada. A swing of about 12 points in favour of the Liberals in Ontario, compared to the 2011 vote, cannot be compensated for by 15 seats (in regions the Liberals would expect to make most of their gains).

The Liberals would win about 101 seats with these numbers, with the New Democrats taking 78 and the Bloc Québécois returning to official party status with 13 seats. They benefit greatly from vote splits, more than tripling their seat haul from 2011 despite a mere two-point gain in the popular vote.

I don't think people should get carried away with the idea of an impending Conservative majority just yet, but the Ipsos poll does suggest the Conservatives could be en route to improving their re-election chances by leaps and bounds. The next polls will be revealing.