Thursday, March 6, 2014

And if the polls change in Quebec...

Not one, not two, but at least three articles appeared in the last 24 hours reminding us that campaigns matter and that polls conducted at the start of a campaign are not necessarily reflective of the final result. Oh, and hey, those polls recently completely blew, didn't they? Except Nova Scotia, of course. But that is an ugly fact getting in the way of a narrative! Sometimes I feel that, 10 or 20 years from now, I'll still be reminded that Danielle Smith and Adrian Dix did not become the premiers of their respective provinces (though Smith still might). Maybe by then I'll also constantly need to refute the claim that pollsters don't call Moon bases. They do!

Obviously, the polls in Quebec will likely change. There are some 30 days of campaigning to be done, with one or more debates. Plenty of opportunity for a leader to fall on his or her face, a high-profile candidate to say something stupid, or the momentum of the campaign to escape the carefully planned agenda of each of the parties. Readers of this site know all about this possibility - I don't need to spell it out to you that simply because the site is projecting a majority for the Parti Québécois now means they will get one on April 7.

But can we try to estimate how the polls might move, if they do? No set of calculations based on anything plausible would have predicted a surge of the NDP by some 25-30 points in the 2011 federal election campaign in Quebec, so the range of possible outcomes in the province are virtually limitless. But let's try to do our best, using yesterday's Léger/JdM poll.

One of the questions asked by Léger was about which party each respondent would support if they were not able to vote for their first choice. The results were interesting, though largely intuitive.

The chart to the left shows how supporters of each of the four main parties would cast their ballot if they couldn't vote for the party they intended to support. The light gray band represents those who responded "others", "would not vote" or "I don't know", and those who refused to answer (just 1%).

Liberal supporters mostly went to the CAQ as their second choice (34%) or the Greens (13%). PQ voters moved over to Québec Solidaire (30%) or the CAQ (18%), while CAQ voters chose the Liberals (44%) and the PQ (19%) second. Supporters of Québec Solidaire primarily selected either the PQ (26%) or the Greens (16%) as their second choice.

The CAQ had the fewest number of respondents choosing one of the lesser-committed categories, suggesting they have fewer my-party-or-no-party supporters than either the PQ or the Liberals.

The question asked by Léger about how committed voters were to their party reflected this. While 74% of PQ voters and 70% of Liberal voters said their choice was definitive, just 52% of CAQ supporters and 48% of QS supporters said the same thing. About a third of CAQ voters said they would probably change their mind - compared to just 14% of PQ voters.

So let's use these two poll questions to estimate how the polls may move if various scenarios play out.

First, let's assume all those voters who said their choices were not definitive cast their ballot instead for the party they said was their second choice (or they stay home if they did not choose one). Recall that the overall results of the Léger poll were 37% for the PQ, 35% for the PLQ, 15% for the CAQ, and 8% for QS.

If all those uncommitted voters drifted, the results would not be much different:

35% - Parti Québécois
33% - Liberals
15% - Coalition Avenir Québec
9% - Québec Solidaire

With those lower numbers, however, the PQ would have a harder time cobbling together a majority government. But they'd likely still be leading by some 20 points among francophones, so it would be far from impossible. Québec Solidaire would have a good chance of electing a third or even fourth MNA.

Next, let's assume that the uncommitted supporters of the smaller parties (Québec Solidaire, the Greens, and Option Nationale) decide that the race is really between just the PQ, the PLQ, and the CAQ. Those supporters decide to vote for their second choices (but not other small parties) or stay home. Again, the results only change marginally, though QS would have difficultly holding their two seats:

40% - Parti Québécois
37% - Liberals
16% - Coalition Avenir Québec
4% - Québec Solidaire

Now, a PQ majority is far more likely. And with both the PQ and PLQ increasing their vote share, the CAQ would have even more trouble holding their seats.

That being the case, what if voters decide that the CAQ does not have a shot, and that they must support either the PQ or the PLQ? Uncommitted CAQ and smaller-party supporters vote for their second choices (only if they were the PQ or PLQ), or stay home. Now it gets a bit more interesting:

43% - Parti Québécois
42% - Liberals
8% - Coalition Avenir Québec
4% - Québec Solidaire

This is the sort of scenario that Philippe Couillard hopes plays out as the campaign goes on. If the CAQ vote was cut in half, that boosts the Liberals tremendously. And since most of the CAQ's support is among francophones, that is the electorate in which the Liberals would make their gains. This no longer makes a PQ majority as likely. Though it does increase the likelihood that the only parties in the National Assembly would be either the PQ or the PLQ.

But while Couillard may be hoping the campaign takes that kind of turn, he is the rookie leader. What if Liberal support collapses? All the uncommitted Liberals become disappointed with Couillard's performance, and cast a ballot for their second choices (if they are the PQ or CAQ) or stay home. Uncommitted supporters of the smaller parties decide that they should either vote for the PQ or CAQ or not bother.

44% - Parti Québécois
27% - Liberals
22% - Coalition Avenir Québec
4% - Québec Solidaire

Now a PQ majority is guaranteed. The CAQ would have a good shot at re-electing most of their incumbents, and the Liberals would be reduced significantly. But there aren't enough uncommitted Liberals to move the CAQ out of third place. There will need to be a very important shift in voting intentions and underlying support for the CAQ for François Legault to have a real shot at winning, or even placing second. The fundamentals simply don't point towards that happening.

But what if something more unexpected occurs? Pauline Marois has never been loved by voters. What if she does something that seriously turns voters off during the campaign, and support for the PQ collapses? In this scenario, uncommitted PQ and smaller-party voters cast a ballot for their second choices (if they are the PLQ or CAQ) or stay home.

42% - Liberals
31% - Parti Québécois
20% - Coalition Avenir Québec
4% - Québec Solidaire

The Liberals do have the potential to win if the CAQ vote collapses, but the PQ would stand to gain from such a collapse as well, making it still too close to call. Only if the PQ's vote collapses a great deal can the Liberals win (the results of this scenario are relatively close to those of the 2008 election). But the PQ still has a considerable base from which to work.

So based on the information we currently have to go on, a number of scenarios are reasonable: a large PQ majority, a toss-up majority/minority for either the PQ or the PLQ, or a PLQ majority. But a scenario that puts François Legault near the premier's office - or even the job of leader of the opposition - is currently not in the cards.