Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poll Position: Conservatives

When there aren't any polls to report on, I'd like to analyse how each federal party is doing in the polls, and what it means. Today, we look at Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Two parties have been particularly hit by the rejuvenation of the Liberal Party under Michael Ignatieff: the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While there hasn't been any sharp decline in Conservative support since Ignatieff's arrival, there has been a slow and steady attrition of Conservative numbers since December.

The electoral result of 37.6% in October was a high-watermark for the Tories, but it is impossible to know how much of that increase can be attributed to a strong Conservative campaign rather than a weak Liberal one under Stéphane Dion. In the immediate aftermath of the election and especially the coalition fiasco, Conservative numbers skyrocketed into the 40%+ range. With the departure of Dion and the arrival of Ignatieff, the Conservative support levels fell back down to earth. On December 11, Ipsos-Reid gave Harper a 45% to 26% lead over the Liberals. On January 7, Nanos Research had the Liberals one point ahead of the Conservatives with 34%.

Since then, the trend has been sloped downwards. Until early February the Conservatives were polling solidly in the high-30s, but since then the Conservatives have polled at 35% or higher only three times out of ten. The most recent results have been most worrisome, with three consecutive polls placing the Conservatives below the Liberals as well as two March polls of over 1,500 people showing the same result.

It's clear that the Tories are losing ground. The economy is undoubtedly one of the major factors, but it is also apparent that the Conservatives have been having a bad few months. The message, when there is one, isn't getting through and Ignatieff has managed to appear steady and strong - mostly by keeping himself out of trouble - in contrast to a sometimes erratic Conservative strategy.

It comes as no surprise that through this downward spiral the Conservatives have remained strong in the western part of the country. In British Columbia, the Conservative lead has been as large as 24% (February 5, Ipsos-Reid). Since the beginning of February, three out of the five polls have put the Conservatives at more than 45%, and the two dissenting polls still gave the Tories a decent lead in the high-30s.

Alberta is, of course, a dark Tory blue, with all but one poll in 2009 putting the Conservatives at over 60%, one of the March polls even putting them at 70%. This is nothing unusual, however, as they had 64.6% of the vote in October.

The provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are also strong for the Conservatives, with four polls in March placing them at between 44% and 56%. This is within their 2008 result of 51.1%, and neither the Liberals nor the NDP have been challenging the Conservative stranglehold on the Prairies.

It is no wonder that Harper is projected to dominate with 73 of the 92 seats west of Ontario.

Ontario is another kettle of fish, however. The Conservatives made a breakthrough here in October with 39.2% of the vote, and polling through to the end of January gave Harper a substantial lead here. Things started to turn in January, however, as we saw here the first poll (Nanos, January 7) putting Ignatieff in front. Since then, the Conservatives have been on a steady slide from the 40% in January to the high-30s in February. March put the Liberals consistently ahead of the Conservatives, and four of the last five polls have put the Conservatives at 35% or less. This is significant, as Harper had 35.1% in 2006 and only 31.5% in 2004. Ontario has so many seats that the Conservatives need to do something to regain traction. They're currently projected to win 45 of the 106, but in the next few months that could easily dip into the 30s and deprive Harper of government.

Last year, Harper was supposed to get that majority government in Quebec. It didn't happen, as the Tory vote dropped from 24.6% in 2006 to 21.7% in 2008. The Harper Honeymoon in Quebec was certainly ending, and now it is completely over. Favourability ratings for the Prime Minister are rock-bottom in Quebec, and the Conservative support levels are there with him. This has not even been a recent trend, as early as December 12 the Conservatives were rated at 15% support. Things haven't changed since then, as the Tories have been anywhere from 10% to 21%, and only one poll out of 20 have had the Conservatives at 20% or over. Only four have had them at over 19%. In the mid-teens, I can only project Harper to retain six of his seats. If they drop to the low teens, that number will drop as well. A majority government has long since been lost in Quebec. A minority government could be lost as well.

Finally, along with Quebec, Atlantic Canada has been the troublesome spot for the Conservatives. Danny Williams' "Anyone But Conservatives" campaign helped bring the Conservative vote down from 35.8% in 2006 to 28.8% in 2008. Recent polling has put the Conservatives in the same range, though a few points this side of 30. With the recent squabble over Brian Mulroney, the Conservatives under Harper seem to be cutting more of their ties with the old Progressive Conservative wing of the party. This will only hurt matters in the Maritimes, one of the few regions PCs could be elected following the 1993 debacle. The Liberals are up here, and there is no reason to believe the Conservatives will be able to improve upon even their dismal 2008 performance here. They're projected to take 8 of the 32 seats here - and will be lucky to get them.

Taking all of these factors into account, the Conservatives are the party with the most to lose in any upcoming election. Their numbers are down east of Manitoba and it could cost them the government. They are still projected to form a moderately strong minority, but if these trends continue this will change in the coming months. Something needs to be done if the Conservatives want to retain the reigns of government. Galvanising their base in the West is not the way to do it, Harper has maximised his potential there. Cutting off the eastern Canadian nose to spite the western Canadian face is not an election-winning strategy, particularly against an electable opponent like Ignatieff. Harper needs to rebuild the burnt Quebec bridges, make peace with the Progressive Conservatives, and centre himself in order to re-gain a competitive position in Ontario.

As an observer of Conservative behaviour and strategy since October, I have serious doubts that Harper will be willing or able to do these things.