Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Conservative support reaching historic lows

As Conservatives gather in Calgary for the start of the party convention on Thursday, Tory fortunes have reached a nadir since Stephen Harper won the 2006 election. If an election were held today, the Conservatives could potentially be dealt their worst electoral showing in decades.

The convention comes at an awkward time. On the one hand, it forces the party brass and Harper to face the group whose opinions, according to Mike Duffy, motivated this entire sorry affair: the base. On the other hand, it gives the Prime Minister the platform to make a stand or amends, to lay out how this issue is going to be handled from here on out. We will find out during Harper's address to the convention whether he will take advantage of the opportunity.

He certainly needs to do something, as the Conservatives have never been at such a consistently low level of support since they came to power in January 2006. And, in certain regions of the country, one has to go back to the mid-20th century to find similarly low numbers achieved at the ballot box.

The chart below plots each poll that has been publicly released since April 2005, when Paul Martin's Liberals were in power. As you can see from the chart, the current spate of polling is the lowest it has been since before the 2005-2006 election campaign.

Click to magnify
Aside from a few individual polls here and there, the Conservatives have never polled under 30% since they first came to power. You see that a large number of polls have recently been under the 30% mark, compared to their more usual levels of between 30% and 40% support that they have registered between elections. (As an aside, I had recently seen some discussion to the effect that the Conservatives generally poll poorly, and around 30%, between elections. This chart shows that to be demonstrably false - their current level of support is unusual for the party.)

The recent downward trend is also unprecedented in its consistency and duration. The chart hints at peaks and valleys in Conservative polling here and there, but the rises and falls tend to be spread out over a short period of time. Losses are made up and gains are lost like a rolling wave. But since the 2011 election (you can see where the 2006, 2008, and 2011 elections were by the bunching-up of poll results) the party has been on a very steady decline. It has never been so sustained.

But just how bad is the current trough the Tories find themselves in? Perhaps those peaks and valleys between 2006 and 2011 were due to the heightened tension of the minority climate, whereas there is little opportunity for release now with a majority government in power. That could be the case, but that does not detract from the fact that, if an election were held today with results similar to the current poll aggregate, the Conservatives would put up some of their worst numbers ever.
Current polling averages
Their current average of 29.3% is particularly low. If we look at the electoral results of their predecessor parties (the PCs, Canadian Alliance/Reform, and the combination of these), we see that the party in its various guises has never taken this little of the vote in an election since 1945. Then, the Progressive Conservatives under John Bracken took just 27.6% of the vote. That is a particularly unimpressive low watermark: Mackenzie King's Liberals had just guided the country through the Second World War.

In the Prairies (40.5%), Ontario (34%), and Quebec (13.8%), the current level of polling support for the Conservatives represents their worst electoral result since the 2004 election, when Martin's Liberals were re-elected with a minority government and Harper was leading his party through a campaign for the first time.

In British Columbia and Alberta, the Conservatives have never done as poorly as 30.1% and 54.3% support, respectively, in an election since 1968, during Pierre Trudeau's first campaign as Liberal leader.

And in Atlantic Canada, I was not able to find a worse performance than 20.7% since 1867. The region has traditionally been a strong one for the Conservatives and their predecessor parties. The PCs, for example, were still a strong player in the region in 1997 and 2000.

This makes it difficult to brush off the current Conservative troubles as a matter of course for a mid-mandate government (the Liberals, for example, always seemed to poll much better while they were in power than when they were asking Canadians to re-elect them on the hustings). The Conservatives do have the benefit of two strong parties dividing the vote to the left of them, but that is a mixed blessing. Two strong alternatives means voters have two decent choices if the Conservatives begin to turn off more of their supporters. While the vote swing has often between between the Liberals and the Tories in central and eastern Canada, in the West the 'Prairie populism' has often swung the vote between the Conservatives and the NDP as well. That has the potential to be a very destructive combination for the party if things continue to go badly.

Of course, the next election is two years away. That is more than enough time for any government to turn things around and win re-election. However, Canadian political history is full of examples of governments limping to the finish line, never having been able to find their second wind before finally being put out of their misery. Which of these two fates awaits Stephen Harper and his Conservative government?

32 comments:

  1. Hi Eric - this is not directly on-topic, but might turn out to be: Are you aware of a period in our electoral history where we have turned over our first ministers so frequently? With Nova Scotia, and now Nunavut's election results, we will now have only 2 of 14 first ministers who have served a full term. That strikes me as very low, and perhaps relevant, but I may just be unaware of some part of our history...

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    1. If the new Premier in Nunavut ends up being Paul Okalik again does it still count? He served two full terms previously.

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    2. I do think it is fairly irrelevant, to be honest - we just ended a period where we had a generation of multiple-term first ministers, and now we're entering a new period.

      But to answer your question Ashley, I think the most comparable period would be the late 60's/early 70's, when several governments were turned over. That's when Barrett won in BC; Lougheed in Alberta; Thatcher then Blakeney in Sask; Schreyer in Manitoba; turnover between Robarts and Davis in Ontario; the brief UN interlude between Lesage and Bourassa; Hatfield in NB; Regan in NS; and Moores taking out Smallwood in NL.

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    3. Ashley,

      At the moment it appears only 2/14 first minister have served a full term but, this is partly the result of the timing of the question. Redford, Clark, Harper, MacNeil and Sellinger hold majorities and are likely to serve a full term, ditto for Dunderdale. So depending of when one does the count determines the answer.

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  2. Sun News is reporting that the latest Ipsos poll (Oct 25-28, I assume the same one CTV reported parts of last night) has the Conservatives in *third* place at 29% behind the Liberals and NDP, tied at 31%. That's got to be a first… ever?!?

    http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/sunnews/politics/archives/2013/10/20131029-072918.html

    Dom

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    1. We should wait to see what Ipsos-Reid actually reports for their voting intentions numbers, Akin calculated the VI results from the Senate crosstabs.

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    2. When Broadbent was NDP leader in the late 80's ('87 perhaps?) the NDP was first in the polls. My recollection is hazy but given this is about the same time period as the GST I assume Turner and the Grits held second and the Tories under Mulroney third.

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    3. In 1987 : For the first time ever, the NDP has more support from Canadians than either the governing party or the Opposition -- 37 per cent to the Liberals' 36 per cent and the Tories' 25 per cent.

      http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/parties-leaders/ed-broadbent/ndp-tops-the-polls.html

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    4. and also see Éric's post :

      http://www.threehundredeight.com/2013/04/35-years-of-polling.html

      Do I read that correctly, Éric, that in 1991 a poll showed the NDP in first with Liberals in second, Reform third and CPC in fourth?

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    5. Thanks for the historical info, folks. I can only assume that 1991 poll was *before* Bob Rae's provincial government singlehandedly dashed the federal NDP's hopes and precipitated their worst result ever in the 1993 election. ;)

      Dom

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    6. I think there were several factors... Bob Rae, for one, and Chrétien and McLaughlin being named leaders of their parties - boosting the Liberals, and dropping the NDP.

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  3. I think the Senate scandal is the end of Harper. If he is smart he will resign shortly for the good of the party. If he's not smart he loses to the Liberals in 2015. This should make Peter very happy.

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    1. Not a terrible assessment.
      I think Harper will go down swinging.
      The election is two years away. How many people fuss about robocalls. (Remember when that was the big scandal two years ago?)

      Lot's of things can change. The Tories have a lot of cash and a lot of big plans for 2015, including a surplus that I'm sure they'll flaunt.

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    2. Aside from my happiness Earl I also think it would be good for the country !!

      Possible a little less emphasis on exporting raw resources instead of processed items ??

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    3. I agree with you Giant. Harper won't pass up a chance to run against a Trudeau.

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  4. The problem Giant is the supposed ability or power that Harper has wielded and his supposed ability to control and the current Senate scandal is destroying that at a high rate.

    Now the vote on the censure is delayed to Friday afternoon at the earliest !! Got a strange feeling it may not go even then??

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    1. The censure motion is a decision for the Speaker and the Senate at large. Other than informal persuasion the PMO does not have the ability to interfere. The Senate creates their own order paper.

      From my perspective I do not think the motion will pass since, there are probably a lot more senators who skirted Senate rules in one way or another. It should be noted claiming the more expensive home was a common practice among senators going back many years-which the Senate, a self-regulating body, turned a blind eye to.

      I think a number of Tory senators will resign from the party and abstain or vote against. Senators have an independent streak at times and they know that shirt of judicial interference or a motion from the Senate itself they can not be removed from the upper house.

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  5. Éric,

    In my judgment, this is a tale of two Stephen Harpers: Harper's instinct and personality incline toward going into 2015 with all Conservative guns blazing at the opposition. However, the man is also a shrewd pragmatist. That raises the odds slightly of him not sticking around but I remain in The Friendly Giant's camp.

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    1. But it's the _Harper Government_, it's Harper who has taken it upon himself to assume virtual sole executive power. This is not something he is going to relinquish unless forced to. Margaret Thatcher didn't volunteer to leave her position as PM/head of the Conservative Party.. there was a lot of disconent in the Party, and a group of senior Tories finally forced her out for the good of the Party.

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    2. chimurenga,

      I won't bore you by repeating a related answer I posted ce soir on Warren Kinsella's website. If you choose to take a look, let me know what you think.

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    3. There is a big difference between the Iron Lady and Harper: Thatcher had a philosophical split in her party on Europe that created distinct factions with reputable leaders, the same can not be said of today's CPC. For the record Thatcher won the leadership vote in 1990 but, was persuaded by party grandees to relinquish the leadership.

      I agree Harper is not likely to resign due to the present fiasco unless it can be shown he acted illegally. By throwing Nigel Wright under the bus I think it pretty clear Harper and his brain trust are discrediting Wright in preparation for more damning revelations by his former chief of staff. If Harper goes down he'll fall with all guns blazing.

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  6. Although the polls appear grim for the Tories they are equally problematic for the NDP. As Eric notes historically voters swing between the Conservatives and Liberals in the East whereas they fluctuate between Tories and Dippers in the West. As the aggregate shows the NDP (if polls are to be believed) is third out West and Ontario. The result is that the NDP is not in contention for government.

    Once a generation the NDP has the ability to become a government or the second party; At these levels the NDP may well lose seats to a resurgent Liberal party in the West and East. Decline in NDP national support over the last 18 months has been equally as rapid or even exceeded the Tories'. At 21% they are below the equilibrium point where the surpassed the Liberals during the 2011 campaign and dangerously close of falling to their traditional support levels of 10-20%.

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    1. Bricker (i.e. Ipsos-Reid) 'said the NDP’s persistent strength in the polls makes the party a factor to watch. “The only thing we’ve seen that I think is of particular interest in all of this is the NDP strength hanging in there. The fact the NDP has got a new floor that is at least 25 [per cent] makes them definitely a spoiler in whatever goes on in the future.”'

      http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/senate-scandal-hasnt-hampered-tories-support-poll-says/article15174731/

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    2. yes -- that is, unless they find a new "new floor", just like they've previously discovered new "new ceilings".

      everyone's making things up about the future. confirmation bias rules.

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    3. chirumenga,

      I would point out that on average the NDP is well below 25%; so while Bricker's comments are useful to some degree poll averages indicates the NDP floor is closer to 20% than 25%. More damaging for the NDP is that it lacks a regional support base; third in the West, and a very weak second in Quebec and the Maritimes. That is not a good position for a party that wants to become government.

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    4. You're free to argue with Bricker about where to put the "floor", but the Ipsos poll shows the NDP alone in first or tied for first in Quebec, Ontario and BC... if their numbers are accurate (or even reasonably accurate), the NDP is in as good a position or better than either of the other parties to form a government. If you are referring to an aggregate of recent polls (but clearly not including the Ipsos Reid poll), then you'll have to define your terms/dates etc. for your comment to be meaningful.

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    5. I should just clarify, Bede, that Ipsos has, in fact, found the average recent poll results for the NDP to be in the mid to high 20s. You seem to be comparing Ipsos's 25% floor with results from other firms, which isn't quite kosher.

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    6. chirumenga,

      That is one poll. On average the NDP over the last couple of months have polled below 25%. That is just the way polls go they fluctuate. The bigger picture or trend lines clearly show downward momentum for the Dippers. On this website the poll average high for the NDP was May 2012 at 35%. By Sept 2012 the NDP average was 25%. Can Mulcair turn it around? Maybe, the Ipsos poll is evidence of such a turn around. However, on average the polls indicate the NDP third on this website and seat projections. I do not know what impact the Ipsos poll will have.

      The Ipsos poll is interesting. It is a good poll for the NDP but, shows their difficulty competing for government, they lead in a single region, Quebec. As we both know FPTP disproportionately rewards seats so regional leads are important. The numbers in Ontario on the surface from Ipsos are good for the Dippers; +7% from 2011 but, the Liberals are +7% from 2011 whereas the Tories are -10%. 80% of constituencies are Tory-Grit battles so of the 20-40 seats the Tories may lose with these numbers the NDP would only win a handful and may even lose seats to resurgent Liberals. In Quebec a similar story, Dippers hold 32% -11% from 2011 whereas, the Grits are +16% (30%); BQ up slightly to 25%. With these numbers it is difficult to see the NDP hanging on to all their seats. Losing a half dozen would be well within the realm of possibility. It is a similar story across the country. The NDP lead if one exists is not great enough to either start turning conservative ridings NDP or offsetting the increase in the Liberal vote.

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  7. I'll note that I said "if Harper is smart he will resign shortly" for the good of the party. I'm not very confident he is that smart.

    Couple that with the anti union legislation coming out of his government with the resolutions to be debated at this weekends conference which are decidedly anti-union. One would destroy the Rand Formula which allows unions collect dues from all the members of the bargaining unit. If that becomes part of the CPC platform my wife and I will give Trudeau a chance. I do believe unions are necessary to battle the influence corporate Canada.

    Peter I too would like see us process more of the raw materials that leave our country. Just look at the NIMBY opposition to new pipelines and refineries in Canada. Unfortunately we don't seem to be able to persuade people that good paying jobs are important to our economy.

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    1. The nimby to pipelines, given their recent safety records is understandable. To refineries not so much but even there that still falls within my "don't export resources" mantra. Don't export energy which can used here to create products. Understand ??

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