NDP LEADS AS PUBLIC GIVES SOME OF LOWEST DIRECTIONAL MARKS TO THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IN OVER A YEAR
[Ottawa – July 31, 2015] Nothing much is clear as we complete our midsummer check-up on the state of the largely distracted voters. There are, however, some interesting developments that set the stage for what will be a much more fiercely enjoined debate which will commence with the upcoming debate on August 6th. These become even more important on the eve of what could be an early and unusually protracted campaign.
The vote intention numbers show the NDP with a clear but modest lead of 34 points, the Conservatives are at 30 points, and the Liberals are still in contact but significantly back at 23 points. The Bloc Québécois’s honeymoon with their returning leader seems to be drawing to a close and the party is falling back to its pre-Duceppe levels. The Green Party has also been receding in recent weeks.
In Ontario, all three parties seem to be converging into a tie. The NDP are doing quite well in Saskatchewan and although this finding should be interpreted with caution due to the extremely small sample size in the province, the longer-term trends suggest that the party has indeed gained ground here in recent months. The Liberals have clearly lost their lead with the university educated, but our data on second choice suggests that the party is still very much in contention with this group.
What, if anything, is percolating under the political surface to produce these numbers? Let’s consider the three front runners in turn.
The NDP – clearly leading, but can they win a two-way race against the Conservatives?
What’s not to like if you are Thomas Mulcair and the NDP? You have risen from political obscurity at the beginning of the year to clear leadership. Your leader has a clear approval advantage over the other contenders. The public are increasingly seeing you as the agent of change and you have a pretty balanced regional and demographic constituency.
The key challenges for the NDP are threefold. First, hang on to those promiscuous progressive voters who have been slowly oscillating back and forth from Liberal to NDP (and back) since 2011. Second, withstand the added critical attention that comes with being the frontrunner. Finally, convince voters that they really should consider the NDP as a better bet to another Harper government.
This last challenge rises as the Liberals continue to be in third place. It may also be the case that the apparent irrationality and stubbornness of the Conservative Party to relax their unremitting focus on Justin Trudeau as ‘not ready’, marginally competent, and lacking judgment isn’t based on lousy polling or mere spite for all things Trudeau and Liberal. The true motive may have been to hobble the previously front running Trudeau so badly that the ballot question shifts from ‘Do you want some as yet unknown mixture of NDP and LPC to replace Harper?’ to ‘Do you prefer the NDP to the Conservatives?’.
This latter consideration may be why the issue of a coalition and related alternative political arrangements running the gamut from ad hoc co-operation to a full merger will be part of the debate as the election looms. Our newest data on the public’s attitudes to the ‘c-word’ reveals why the Conservatives may want to spike that possibility by retaining focus on a party which is now 10 points back of the party which now leads the parade. In short, it appears that for the vast majority of center-left voters, the ultimate goal is not the singular success of their first choice, but the larger goal of ending the Harper regime and replacing it with a progressive alternative. Voters may even be more comfortable with some blended progressive solution than with having either the NDP or Liberals run things on their own.
Consider the following rather striking facts. First, support for any form of progressive coalition is up dramatically from 2011 when it was used as a bogeyman to tout the need for a strong, stable majority (to fend off the horror of an NDP-led coalition). This time out, the voters aren’t buying that. The next finding is that for the vast majority of the NDP and Liberal voters would prefer a coalition of the NDP and Liberals to a continued Conservative minority government. Instructively, these same voters are relatively indifferent as to whether that coalition would be led by Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau. The real goal is Stephen Harper’s exit; the relative success of their favoured parties is job two.
This brings us to the status and prospects for the Liberal Party. They have certainly been humbled vis-à-vis their lofty position of a year ago and they are having trouble getting their ideas connecting with a currently inattentive electorate. They may have chosen the wrong positions on some tough issues in the past and they may have been damaged by the relentless Conservative attack ads. They still, however, have some strong assets and can get back in the game. If we read our data correctly, a precondition for recovery would be to acknowledge the gap between their hard line against a coalition (co-operation) and the preferences of their current and available voters.
From our more detailed analysis of micro-regions and specific ridings, there are many ridings where the majority of progressive voters would alter their first progressive choice to support the progressive choice better poised to beat the Conservative candidate. Just as we have seen a rise in support for coalitions (which may be a proxy for cross party cooperation to oust the Conservatives), we have seen majority support for strategic voting amongst the majority that want to see a change of government. Given the current positioning of the parties – as well as the vote splitting scenarios in play (particularly in Ontario), we would argue that a well-developed, credible strategic voting program could be the difference between Conservative success and failure.
And how about those Conservative prospects? First off, the Conservatives have a number of profound obstacles to continued electoral success. In addition to the inevitable regime fatigue that eventually afflicts any incumbent, they are seeing some of the worst ever scores on direction of the federal government, while their leader’s approval ratings and emotional connections are lousy and headed downward. On top of this, they have an economy that 76 per cent now see as in a recession and have an even gloomier outlook on the longer term future.
The collective angst about the end of progress and the middle class decline are a critical factor and restarting middle class progress remains one of the highest priority issues. The selected emphases of the government such as income splitting for stay at home spouses, even more security focus to deal with the apocalyptic threat of ISIS and Jihadism are rated almost dead last in trade-off analyses. Finally, the government is 10 points shy of where it was last election with only six per cent citing them as second choice.
So the Conservative Party’s route to power appears to be Sisyphean and the gig must be up for Stephen Harper, right? Not so fast. Let’s consider some of the alternative evidence. First of all, given the inventory of gloom noted above, the government is surprisingly very much in the race and registering poll support within range of what they had at this stage of the 2011 campaign. They got a modest uptick over the ISIS ads and they got a more sizable and important bounce from their cheque bonanza to families with kids in the home. We note a significant uptick in their status with this demographic but we also note that the effects appear to be smaller in recent days than they were immediately after receipt of cheques. Perhaps the cookbook on Vote Buying 101 hasn’t perfected the issue of the shelf life of such largesse and this may be one of the reasons we will be seeing an early writ.
The most important asset for the government remains the fracture of the center left. The NDP and Liberals draw from very similar constituencies and they are basically churning the same voters back and forth. Without strategic voting or some form of tacit or explicit co-operation between the progressive parties, they risk seeing Harper retain power with an even smaller plurality than 2011. It also appears that both the Green Party and the Bloc are being caught in the downdraft of this new normal and, for many progressive voters who like them and their leaders, it seems the stakes are too high to continue to support them at this time.
As we have stressed many times before, the NDP and Liberals draw on very similar constituencies and there is a strong risk of the two parties splitting the progressive vote and allowing the Conservatives to eke out a narrow victory. Nowhere is this problem more acute than in Ontario. We have conducted a riding-level analysis using all of our data from the past four months and, while we will not be releasing the analysis itself given that the samples are too small, we would like to illustrate the problem of vote splitting with a particularly vivid example.
In the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, the Conservatives lead the Liberals by just a fraction of a percentage point, while the NDP sits more than ten points back. Even though two-thirds of the riding supports a progressive candidate, the Conservatives stand to win by a margin of just 300 votes. In all, we have identified 31 ridings in Ontario alone where the Conservatives hold a lead of 10 points or less.
Note that we are only presenting this example for illustrative purposes and it should be treated with extreme caution due to the limited sample size and extended period. We would need to do much more extensive sampling at a riding level (as well as include cellphone-only households) to support a real – not hypothetical – strategic voting aid.
Tracking approval ratings
This study draws on data from two separate surveys, both of which were conducted using High Definition Interactive Voice Response (HD-IVR™) technology, which allows respondents to enter their preferences by punching the keypad on their phone, rather than telling them to an operator. In an effort to reduce the coverage bias of landline only RDD, we created a dual landline/cell phone RDD sampling frame for this research. As a result, we are able to reach those with a landline and cell phone, as well as cell phone only households and landline only households.
The field dates for the first survey are July 15-21, 2015. In total, a random sample of 2,400 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/-2.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
The field dates for second survey are July 22-28, 2015. In total, a random sample of 2,247 Canadian adults aged 18 and over responded to the survey. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/-2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Please note that the margin of error increases when the results are sub-divided (i.e., error margins for sub-groups such as region, sex, age, education). All the data have been statistically weighted by age, gender, region, and educational attainment to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to Census data.