Friday, April 10, 2009

Poll Position: Liberals

Yesterday, I looked at the Conservatives. Now, Michael Ignatieff's Liberal Party of Canada.

Since the October 2008 election, no political party has rebounded so strongly in the public opinion polls. The party had had one of their worst results in Canadian history, and now they are on the brink of re-forming government. A lot of this gain can be attributed to Ignatieff, who as a new leader is rewarded with new enthusiasm almost by default. But Ignatieff is also such a different style of leader than Stéphane Dion that the enthusiasm is genuine.

The 26.2% the party received in the election was actually significantly lower than any polling result we've seen since Ignatieff's arrival (with the exception of an Ipsos-Reid poll from December 11). The transformation was almost instantaneous, and during the months of December and January the Liberals flirted with 30%. Starting in February, however, the Liberals have been polling over 30% in every single poll, and have been extremely consistent with results between 31% and 36%. Eight polls between February 5 and March 11 were extraordinarily consistent, with the Liberals receiving either 31% or 33%. The last three polls (March 18 to April 5) have shown a substantial jump to 34%, 35%, and 36%. Most significant is that all three of these polls have put Ignatieff ahead of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the gap extending to even 3-points, the magical number where a statistical tie turns into an outright lead.

Numerous factors have led to this, most importantly the arrival of Ignatieff and the weak performance of the Conservative government since the election. The Liberals need an extra bit of effort to get over the hump of a neck-and-neck race, and I will explain how they can do this later.

First, let's look at the regional performances of the party, starting with British Columbia. The electoral result was catastrophic: 19.2% and a distant third behind the New Democratic Party. Polling numbers have been significantly better since then, but still out of ten polls since Ignatieff's arrival, the Liberals have been three times within 5-points of that result (bottoming out at 14% in an Ipsos-Reid poll from December 11). The majority of polling results, however, have been in the mid- to high-20s, which is where the Liberals had been in 2004 and 2006. The party has topped out at 32% in a Harris-Decima poll of March 8, but some work needs to be done here for the Liberals to truly compete with the Tories. In fact, the greatest competition to the Liberals in BC are the NDP. Nevertheless, the party is projected to win ten of the 36 seats here, which would be a decent performance.

Alberta is a barren wasteland for the Liberals. They received a dismal 11.4% here in 2008 (placing third), but that wasn't even much worse than the 15.3% of 2006. The polling results have been much better than either of these two electoral results, with all but one poll putting the party at over 15%. However, the Liberals have not polled better than 21%, which is still lower than the 2004 electoral result of 22% when Paul Martin won only two seats. The party is projected to win zero seats here, and any effort in Alberta is virtually wasted since the party won't do better than one or two seats at the most.

The Prairies are a slightly more fertile ground for the party. They've been polling significantly higher than the 17.2% result of 2008, with polling since mid-January putting the party at between 21% and 29%. This is still lower than the 2004 electoral result, which shows that the party still has a lot of ground to make up. As in British Columbia, the real fight is between the Liberals and NDP for second place, a fight the NDP won easily in 2008. I'm projecting four seats for the Grits here.

Ontario, the province which has almost single-handedly given the Liberals majority governments, is starting to lean strongly towards Ignatieff. A steady decline from 2004's 44.7% to 2006's 39.9% to 2008's 33.8% has turned around, and the last three polls have put the Liberals at 44%-45% in the province. In fact, since February 3 the Liberals have not polled lower than 37%. Of the last eleven polls, six of them have had the party at over 40%, and only one of them put the Conservatives in front. This is a trend that started early, with the Liberals being put ahead of the Conservatives as early as January 7. It looks as if this trend will continue, and so the 51 seats projected for the Liberals in the province could turn into 60 very soon.

According to the polls, Quebec has been a bit of a triumph for the Liberals. Their dismal 20.7% in 2006 was improved upon slightly by Dion (one of his few victories) with 23.7%. Since Ignatieff arrived, only one poll has put the Liberals at lower than 24%, and eight have put the party at over 30%. Not one single poll has put the Liberals in third place, a position they occupied for most of the period between the 2006 and 2008 elections. A significant re-aligning of politics in Quebec has taken place, and it is back to the old ways: a Liberal/Bloc Quebecois contest. Ignatieff has succeeded in taking on the mantle of THE federalist option in Quebec, a position the party has traditionally held. Things are going very well in Quebec, and I am projecting them to win 18 seats, but there are still some unknowns here. Is the Liberal support limited to the Outaouais and the island of Montreal? The party has limited potential in those regions. It remains to be seen whether Ignatieff can make the leap east of Westmount.

Atlantic Canada is the only region that has remained Liberal since the creation of the Conservative Party. Nevertheless, the party lost a lot of support in 2008, dipping to 35.4%. Since then, the party has been polling very strongly in the region. Indeed, it is their strongest region, with polls putting them at between 36% and 52%. Only two polls put the party at less than 40%, and six have had them over 45%. There seems to be a slight trend downwards, however, since February. Before this time, most polls put the party at between 45% and 50%. Since then, the party has been between 40% and 45% (with one putting them at 36%). Should the Liberals be worried? No, because the Conservative numbers have remained consistent. Liberal fortunes seem to dip only when the NDP and Greens poll strongly, which can merely be statistical aberrations. The party is projected to win 21 seats here, the strongest result after Ontario.

So, quite clearly the Liberals are on the up-swing and should continue the work they are doing. However, Ignatieff has to take on a new challenge. He has managed to install himself as the safe alternative to an unpopular government (the Tories are well below majority favourability). Dion's major flaw was that he could not look prime ministerial, despite the great weaknesses in the Conservative campaign. However, being the safe alternative to an unpopular government can only go so far, and that is why we are seeing the Liberals top out at around 34%. Ignatieff now has to demonstrate why he is the Next Government rather than the Safe Alternative. As soon as Conservative fortunes turn around, and they could, the Liberals would become the safe alternative to a popular government - a position that won't win you an election. Ignatieff has yet to truly show what a Liberal government would look like, and this is his next challenge. If he does this well, we'll see the Liberals jump the important 35% mark and stay there. If he does it badly, the party will drop back to the dangerous 30% region. Not interrupting your opponent as he makes an error can only go so far. Ignatieff can win an election by merely appearing to be the best alternative choice, but he can't win a strong minority and especially a majority without getting people excited about choosing him.

The Liberals appear to be planning for a fall election. For their sake, I hope Ignatieff is planning to do exactly what I suggest over the summer. If he doesn't, we'll see another anti-Harper campaign, rather than a pro-me one. It would be nice to see a positive campaign for once.