Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Poll Position: Liberals

With Michael Ignatieff drawing his line in the sand yesterday, what better time to take a look at the Liberals' current status in the polls?

Back in July, I took a look at how the Tories were doing and the last time I looked at the Liberal polling performance was back in April.

On April 8, I was projecting the Liberals to have 31.7% support and to win 106 seats. Today, they are projected to have 32.5% support and to win 114 seats. So, they've improved their position but only slightly. They are still in opposition territory, but are now so close to the Tories that the "margin of error" could put them in front.

When I wrote my last analysis of Liberal fortunes, the party was on the upswing, moving from the low-30s into the mid-30s. But at the time of my analysis, Liberal support plateaued at around 35%, maintaining that level until mid-June. Beginning at that time, the Liberals dipped in support and after the end of June never polled higher than 34%. They plateaued again for about a month at around the 33% level, but have since tailed off into the low-30s, polling between 32% and 28%. Arguably, this is not the time to head into an election but things can change dramatically once attention is turned again to politics.

Let's look at their regional standings.

In British Columbia, the Liberals have remained relatively stable. From April to the end of June, the Liberals were slowly climbing from the low-20s into the mid-30s. Since the beginning of July, however, the Liberals have returned to ground and are now polling in the high-20s. Their fortunes have gone down as the NDP and Green numbers have inched upwards. They are currently projected to win 28.4% of the vote and 12 seats, which in terms of popular vote would be their best performance since 2004.

Alberta has also seen a slight rise and fall of Liberal support, but the variation here is minuscule. They were polling at around 20% from April to the end of July, but since then the party has sunk below 20%. They are polling in the high-teens, and are projected to win 19.3% of the vote and one seat. Again, that would be their best performance since 2004.

The Prairies have a significant variation because of the small polling size, but it appears that the Liberals have been relatively stable, polling anywhere from 15% to 30%. They are projected to win 23.9% of the vote and four seats. This would be their best support level since 2006.

In Battleground Ontario, the Liberals have dropped from their highs in the late-March, early-April period. At that point, the Liberals were polling at 45%. They then dipped a little, plateauing around 42% until mid-June. Subsequently, they slipped below 40% and polled at around the 39% level until early August. At that point, the Liberals slipped to 36%-37% support. They've been in a dead-heat with the Tories, though with a small advantage, since the beginning of July. They are currently at around the 37% mark, about one point ahead of the Tories. I've projected them to win 39.1% of the vote and 53 seats, still below their 2006 performance.

Quebec has been one of the better regions for the Liberals, but again we see a decline from their Spring numbers. In April the party was in a very close race with the Bloc Quebecois at the 34%-37% level, something they maintained until the middle of June. At that point, the Liberals slipped to the mid-to-low thirties, and recently have dropped below 30%. They are still in the high-20s, however, but they haven't had a lead over the Bloc for three months. Nevertheless, they are still in a strong position, and I project them to win 31.1% of the vote and 20 seats, their best performance since 2004.

Atlantic Canada has been the one region where the Liberal lead has been a constant. In April, the party was polling at between 40% and 48%, putting them well ahead of the Conservatives and NDP. They dipped down into the high-30s between May, rose again to the low-40s in early June, then dipped dangerously into the low-30s. At the beginning of July the Liberals were back in the 40s, but saw a drop back into the low-30s at the beginning of August. They've since returned to their high-30s, low-40s position but are finding themselves in closer competition with the Tories and especially the NDP. I project them to win 38.1% of the vote and 20 seats, still below their 2006 performance.

Lastly, I project the party to win 34.6% of the vote in the North and narrowly take all three seats. Conservative and NDP support has dropped too much at the national level.

Since the spring, the Liberals have dropped about three to five points, and have returned back to a close second. The old adage is that the opposition does not do well during the summer, and this could be a case of that. We will have to see how the polling numbers look over the month of September, especially after parliament resumes on September 14. However, with an election campaign liable to start a mere two weeks after that, we won't have too much time to gauge the trends before we plunge headlong into a campaign - where anything can happen.

The Liberals are doing well where they need to: British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, and Atlantic Canada. They even look to pick up a seat or two in Alberta and the Prairies. They aren't in an ideal position to win an election, but they are at a good place to start a campaign. They are close enough to the Conservatives that, with a well-handled campaign, they can over-take and then open up a lead over them. Of course, they are also in a position where, handled badly or faced with a well-run Conservative campaign, they can drop back to 2008 levels.

However, I feel that is unlikely. My gut tells me that the Liberals will not end an election campaign in a worse position than they are presently in: say, 30% and 100 seats. Considering the disastrous 2008 campaign, such an improvement may be worth the effort, at least for the Liberals. If the Tories find themselves in a weaker minority position, parliament will not work any better than it is now.

But increasing Liberal support by three to five points is not out of the question and is hardly improbable. With the vote splitting the way it is, and the NDP likely to be far more comfortable supporting an Ignatieff minority government, that just may be enough to give us some political stability for a little while. I am of the firm belief that minority governments are inevitable until the political situation changes radically, so we have to get comfortable with the idea. Or, more accurately, the political parties have to get comfortable with the idea and begin to work together.