Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poll Position: Bloc Québécois

Since the election, only the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois have seen improvements in their polling results. For the Bloc, there are a few factors that have contributed to this.

The economy has been a major factor and has undermined both the Conservative government and, to some extent, the federalist argument. One of the key events which galvanised sovereigntist sentiment and was followed by a significant change in Bloc polling numbers was the planned re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The controversy brought nationalist issues back into the forefront in Quebec, and divided the country virtually on a Quebec/Canada basis, as the majority of Quebecers were in favour of the cancellation.

Another factor has been the weak performance of the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent, the New Democrats in Quebec. The Conservatives burned their bridges in the province with the vitriol aimed at the "separatists" during the coalition days. Harper's favourability ratings have tanked since then, but it wasn't until the re-enactment affair that the Bloc became the beneficiary. The absence of the NDP has also had some effect, giving the Bloc an extra 1%-3% in the province.

Probably the biggest help has come from the provincial political theatre, where the federalist PLQ government under Jean Charest has become very unpopular. The PLQ has dropped to the low-30s in the polls and the Parti Québécois has risen to 40%. This is undoubtedly a good help to the Bloc.

Finally, there is Gilles Duceppe. Duceppe has been in the House of Commons since 1990 and is both the oldest and most experienced leader in Parliament. He is arguably the best at his job of the four leaders, as he rarely makes a gaffe and is usually in tune with the prevailing sentiment in Quebec.

And now, the polls. The Bloc had lost a little support from 2006 during the last election, dropping to 38.1% from 42.1%. Following the election to the end of January things continued to look troubling, as the Bloc polled between 29% and 39%, placing second in voting intentions in a January 7 Nanos poll.

Things improved rather dramatically at the beginning of February, at the height of the re-enactment affair. The Bloc jumped to 38% from three polls in the low-30s, and this was followed up by two polls placing the party over 40% in Quebec. There was the fiasco of the Strategic Counsel poll on February 8 that placed the Bloc at 22%, below the Greens at 26% (!), but that was just a polling aberration. Two early March polls continued to put the Bloc at over 40%, but this was followed by a slip in the polls throughout the month. From 40% the party went to 39%, then 38%, and then 36% and 35%. It looked as if the bump had ended, but the two latest polls from Leger Marketing and Strategic Counsel have put the Bloc back in the 40% to 42% range.

A CROP poll from March 23 broke down the political situation in Quebec by region. It put the Bloc in a strong position, with 33%, in and around Montreal. Most of that vote support probably comes from the Montérégie and Laurentides regions, as well as the eastern part of the island of Montreal. The Bloc dominates here, but it will be interesting to see how the Liberal up-turn affects Bloc numbers in these regions. In and around Quebec City, the Bloc also had a strong result (30%), which makes them liable to step-in where the Conservatives struggle. The Tories were still in front here (32%), so Duceppe has his work cut out for him. In the rest of Quebec, the Bloc was at 38% and well ahead of its competitors. This is where they get most of their seats.

One must point out, however, that this CROP poll had the Bloc at 35% in the province, which is a few points lower than the recent trend. The Liberals were about right but the Conservatives a little higher than we've seen in the past few weeks, so that probably translates to the Bloc at 35% or so in and around Montreal and puts them in front or tied with the Conservatives in Quebec City.

The Bloc is projected to win 50 seats, more or less maintaining its position since 2006. It is difficult to estimate how the Conservative troubles will effect the political scene in the province. The Conservatives could lose half of their ten seats, but it is unknown to who these former Conservative voters will give their support. One assumes that the nationalists will go the Bloc and the federalists to the Liberals, but it is difficult to figure out exactly who gets what. It seems that the Conservative down-turn has benefited the Bloc to the tune of 2%-3%, with the rest going to the Liberals.

The Bloc is best when it acts with common sense in the House of Commons in quiet times and reacts with virulence when things heat up and Quebec's interests appear to be at risk. Looking at the situation, Duceppe really doesn't have to make any major changes in his strategy. The only thing he should be wary about is whether to target the Conservatives or the Liberals. Michael Ignatieff's inroads need to be curtailed, but if the Tories are ignored they could get back up to 20%. Duceppe is undoubtedly in the safest position of the four political leaders, so while he does have a delicate balancing act to play, he isn't doing it on a tight-rope like the others.