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?