Tuesday, April 23, 2013

35 years of polling

There was a flurry of polls released just prior to Justin Trudeau's leadership victory last Sunday, but since he took over it has been virtual silence. Forum ventured out with a post-announcement poll that, putting the Liberals at 43%, has to be considered on the high side. Unfortunately, no other pollster has waded into the pool since then, so we don't know if Trudeau was indeed giving the Liberals that much of a boost.

So if we can't find any recent polls, let's find some really old polls.

When I was poking around the various public opinion poll archives that exist, I came across a table that compiled all of the voting intentions polling from Environics stretching back to 1978. I used the data for my article today for The Globe and Mail looking at leadership boosts. Check it out.

But let's take a look at this polling from Environics stretching back 35 years. Note that I calculated the share of decideds only in the chart below, corrected what appeared to be a few transcription errors in the chart, and used my own monthly averages after 2010. The chart is not calibrated to give equal space to equal time, but it is close enough.
Environics federal polling, 1978-2010 (Click to magnify)
And there you see the vagaries of public opinion over a handful of decades.

What is most striking about these numbers to me is that the political landscape of the 1990s and 2000s that we have come to consider as the norm in Canada were actually pretty anomalous. The race was a close three-way race for much of the 1980s and the very early 1990s, making the current situation more reminiscent of those days than anything particularly new.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Liberals were way ahead of the pack. They weren't Canada's dominant party only because of a split of the vote on the right, either. The very pale blue line combines the support of the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Canadian Alliance parties throughout that period, and only at the end of 1993 before the PCs bottomed out was the combined support for these parties anywhere close to where the Liberals were (true, the race was closer during elections but outside of them the Liberals were coasting).

It is interesting to see that the recent surge in NDP support is nothing that this country has not seen before. The New Democrats were routinely polling above 20% in 1981-1982 and continuously between 1985 and 1992 - a very long period of time politically. The New Democrats were second in the country, or at least tied for it, for a brief time in 1982 and then from around 1986 to 1992, when the New Democrats were leading nationally in a few individual polls in 1987, 1990, and 1991.

The chart does suggest, however, that opinion was much more fluid in the 1980s than it was throughout most of the period starting in the 1990s and since. In a relatively short period of time the Liberals or PCs would surge or drop 10 to 20 points or more. The Tories were under 30% at the end of 1979, and then rose all the way to over 50% by 1983, while the Liberals were at 50% in 1980 before slipping to 20% by 1984.

It demonstrates how every party has had its day in the sun and its catastrophic drops.

The New Democrats were gaining consistently after 1984 until they moved into first in 1987, while they dropped from first in 1991 to fifth and under 10% in 1993. They slowly gained from then until their boost in 2011.

The Liberals were up-and-down under Pierre Trudeau and then John Turner, before gaining again under Jean Chrétien and dropping under Paul Martin. Much of the damage was done at that point of time, it seems, in large part due to the Gomery Inquiry. Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff could only give the party fleeting blips of support before dropping again.

And then there are the Tories, struggling before Brian Mulroney became leader, struggling again just before his first mandate was over, and then dropping like a stone shortly after his 1988 election victory as the Reform Party ate into their support. The Progressive Conservatives in the 1990s they were vying for runner-up status in the mid-teens with the Bloc Québécois, New Democrats, and the Reform/Canadian Alliance parties. The Canadian Alliance took off a little when Stockwell Day was named leader, but they never really challenged the Liberals.

Only after the merger of the parties did the Conservatives become competitive, and by 2006 they were leading in national voting intentions, something they have not yet given up for any long period of time. But their recent polling is among their worst as a united party. The last time they dropped this low was around the time that Reform and the Bloc started pulling their coalition apart.

I think this chart shows how difficult it is to predict anything beyond a few months into the future with any accuracy. The creation of the Bloc, and then its destruction at the hands of the NDP, was unexpected. That the Liberals would poll well over 40% and easily lead a crowd of small parties for a decade could hardly have been seen in the days when the New Democrats were pushing the Liberals into third in the late 1980s. That the Progressive Conservatives would be reduced to two seats within a decade of polling at almost 60%, and that they would eventually be taken over by a Western protest party, would have seemed like some fantastical alternative history.

So how might Justin Trudeau do in 2015? A better question, considering the peaks and valleys of this chart, might just be how he will do next month. And then we'll see.