Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Approval ratings of five Prime Ministers

Trawling through the archives, I came across a compilation of approval ratings polling by Environics, stretching from 1985 to 2009. Something like that is just too interesting not to share.

The polls show some pretty clear patterns, at least after the tumultuous tenure of Brian Mulroney. Canadians have tended to be pretty satisfied with their prime ministers over the last two decades. But disapproval ratings inched upwards as time went on, until the prime minister either stepped aside or was forced aside by voters.

In the chart below, the darker trend line refers to approval ratings. The lighter one represents disapproval ratings.

Click to magnify
Mulroney's numbers are the most dramatic. For almost the entirety of his time in office, more Canadians (often many more) disapproved of him than approved of him. But in 1988 his numbers surged just enough to secure re-election, before his ratings tumbled down once again.

When Environics' polling starts, in June 1985, Mulroney was enjoying a post-election honeymoon with an approval rating of 61%. But that soon collapsed, to 43% in November, 34% in September 1986, and 23% in May 1987.

From there, he started to rebound. By the end of 1987 he was back up to 28%. By the spring of 1988 he was at 34%, and in October 1988 he was at 36%. The following month, his party won re-election with 41% of the vote.

And again Mulroney experienced a honeymoon, with his approval rating soaring to 60% in March 1989. It did not last long, falling to 45% in June of that year and 29% in December. But unlike his first term, Mulroney did not rebound. By the end of 1990, his approval rating was just 17%. By mid-1991, it was only 12% with an incredible 83% of Canadians saying they disapproved of the prime minister. It did not get much better until he stepped aside in June 1993, when his approval rating was 15%.

Here we can see the roots of the disastrous showing of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. The party's numbers did rebound under Kim Campbell, but in the end the party captured just about as much of the vote as the proportion of Canadians who approved of Mulroney when he stepped down.

Overall, Mulroney averaged an approval rating of just 27% and a disapproval of 65% during his time in office. In his first term, his approval rating averaged 36%. In his second term, it was just 22%.

Campbell was in office long enough for only one of Environics' polls, and it was a good one for her: 48% approval to 31% disapproval. But her party was drummed out of power in October 1993.

Jean Chrétien took office, and had the same kind of numbers as Mulroney did when he won re-election in 1988: an approval rating of 62% and a disapproval rating of just 14% in December 1993.

But Chrétien proved much more popular than Mulroney, and from the 1993 election to September 1995 his approval rating hovered at 61% or over, topping out at 66% in December 1994. His disapproval rating, however, increased: to 23% at the end of 1994 to 29% on the eve of the Quebec referendum.

Though his side won that campaign, that it came so close to losing may have cost Chrétien. In December 1995, his approval rating was down to 53%, with disapproval jumping to 38%. His numbers would stick to this level for another year.

For the first time as prime minister, Chrétien's approval rating dropped below 50% at the end of 1996 and in early 1997. It did not bode well for the 1997 election, and the Liberals just eked out another majority.

Chrétien experienced another honeymoon at this point, with his approval rating rising above the 50% mark until it hit 61% in early 1998. It wobbled back and forth between 50% and 64% until early 2000, when it briefly fell to 36%. That was his lowest result ever. Perhaps it was anomalous, as his approval rating jumped back to 55% a few months later.

By 2003, however, Chrétien's welcome was beginning to wear out. His approval rating fell to between 42% and 45% that year, as his disapproval rating reached majority status for only the second time during his tenure. He was gone by the end of the year.

On average, Chrétien boasted some impressive numbers. During his entire time in office, he averaged an approval rating of 54%, against 37% disapproval. But here again we see that time takes its toll: his approval rating averaged 58% in his first term, 54% in his second, and 50% in his third. By then, his disapproval rating was averaging 46%, compared to 31% in his first term.

Paul Martin improved upon Chrétien's numbers when he took over. His approval rating was 53% at the beginning of 2004, increasing to 56% by the summer. In 2005, however, his numbers began to sink. His approval rating was 48% at the beginning of that year, drooping to 41% in the spring (and disapproval jumping to 56%, higher than anything Chrétien managed). There was a small uptick over the summer of 2005, and it was time for another election. But in this case Martin would come up short.

Over his short tenure, Martin averaged an approval rating of 49%, with disapproval at 46%.

Stephen Harper, like Mulroney and Chrétien before him, enjoyed a honeymoon after winning the 2006 vote. His approval rating was 61% after that victory, with disapproval at just 27%. His approval ratings dropped to 53% by the end of the year, as his disapproval ratings shot up almost immediately, to 42%.

Things held steady in 2007, with his approval rating hovering between 49% and 57%, with disapproval between 37% and 47%. But in 2008, Harper's approval rating dropped below 50%, and by the spring the country was split down the middle on the prime minister. By the end of 2008, his disapproval rating had hit a majority of respondents.

Apart from an early 2009 poll (which saw Harper's numbers go back to 50% after winning the 2008 election), that is where the story ends. That is unfortunate, since it is useful to have these numbers coming from the same polling firm.

The latest approval ratings from EKOS and Forum pegged Harper's approval rating to be around 36% which, aside from the anomalous Chrétien poll, would be the lowest by any prime minister since the Mulroney years. But we may be comparing apples to oranges here.

It certainly fits into the trend of a gradual decline in fortunes the longer a prime minister stays in office. But that rate of decline differs. Over his three terms, Chrétien's approval ratings dropped by eight points. Over Mulroney's two, it fell (on average) by 14 points. From start to finish, though, Mulroney plummeted by 46 points, Chrétien by just 17. Martin was down by about 10 over some 18 months.

So this chart may tell us little about what to expect going forward, but it does stand as an interesting historical document.