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[Ottawa – September 2, 2010] – In a surprising development, we see the political landscape now  in a dead heat between the Liberals and Conservatives. There is clear evidence as to why the Conservatives have squandered a comfortable 11 point lead at the beginning of the summer; and there are interesting hints as to what issues and forces may shape the fall season and any ensuing election over the next year.

In the last week of polling, the Conservatives and the Liberals were in an almost exact tie at 29.4% and 29.1%, respectively. The NDP, the Green Party, and the Bloc show little change (although the Greens and the Bloc are up modestly). The demographics show that the Liberal move to a tied position is almost exclusively a product of a major shift in how the university educated are leaning. The Conservatives have shed many of their university educated supporters and the Liberal Party has picked them up (as well as some possible gains from other university educated voters).

In seeking an explanation for these movements, we need look no further than the government’s ill-received decision to end the mandatory long form census. Not only does the shift of the highly educated support this conclusion, but a direct question on public approval for this decision provides compelling evidence that this move precipitated the current woes that the Conservative Party now faces.

When asked whether they felt that the privacy intrusion of the census justified a voluntary census or whether the lack of representativeness would cost us vital data, a clear majority of the public (56%) picked the latter (compared 26% who felt the mandatory long form was a violation of privacy). Even among Tory supporters, this appeal is not selling and there is an overwhelming lean to disapproval in the rest of the spectrum. Opposition to this decision is strongest among the university educated.

We also see that there is a strong connection between the belief that the federal government is moving in the wrong direction and disapproval of this decision. On the issue of directional satisfaction, we continue to see that only around 40% of voters approve of federal direction but we have also seen a sharp decline in confidence in the direction of the country itself. This level of approval is dramatically different across the remaining Conservative base (who overwhelmingly approve) and the rest of the spectrum (who are decisively underwhelmed).

The regional numbers suggest that the government has significant directional issues with BC, Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic and these are associated with declining Conservative voter support in each of those regions. Quebec, in particular, stands out as a very serious problem for the Conservatives but they also trail significantly now in Ontario and the Atlantic. The Conservatives are very strong in Alberta and Saskatchewan/Manitoba and they retain their core supporters (male, older, college educated). They have, however, faltered badly with women as well as with the university educated.

Although the Liberals are doing better than they were at the outset of the summer, this may be more of a story of Conservative losses. A re-examination of leader approval ratings reinforces this conclusion. Michael Ignatieff may be getting better press coverage, and his party has at least temporarily drawn even with the Conservatives, but he still suffers from the lowest approval rating of any of the party leaders (22%). This figure has changed little over the last few months, but this new found party parity, as well as the Liberal Party’s strength with the highly educated ( a group rich in opinion leaders), may yield future benefits.

Stephen Harper, however, will find little of cheer in his approval numbers. He has the highest disapproval rating and he has even less appeal outside of his current base than Michael Ignatieff. In fact, it is difficult to combine the very negative numbers outside of his base with an immediate opportunity for a dramatic recovery. It will also be interesting to see how the framing of stable Conservative majority versus risky coalition fares when Mr. Harper is below 30 points and profoundly short of a majority. With these current numbers, he would be just as likely to be leader of the opposition as Prime Minister and the likelihood of a majority is very remote indeed.

The Prime Minister may take comfort in noting that he did very well in the September/October period last year but the defection of the highly educated and the overall trajectory of things are not favouring him at the moment. The analysis suggests his best prospects lie in recapturing those who have defected to the Liberals. Mr. Harper’s approval ratings are also slightly better with the undecided than those of Mr. Ignatieff.

Mr. Ignatieff may want to construct a “big red tent”, but the approval ratings suggest that his opportunities for expanding his constituency all lie to the left of the Conservatives. For the remaining Conservative base (who are very loyal to Mr. Harper), Mr. Ignatieff is anathema with an approval rating of 8%. He is, however, seen as considerably less objectionable in other parts of the political spectrum than Stephen Harper.

On a final note, Jack Layton’s lustre seems diminished from the past. While he is still the only tested leader with a net positive approval rating, that margin has shrunk. He does very well with women and in Quebec. The looming gun registry challenge may pose special challenges for Mr. Layton with these two favourable constituent groups (who tend to be strongly in favour of gun control)

All of this sets the table for a fascinating fall session in a newly deadlocked political landscape which increasingly reveals a large fault line organized along social class and educational divisions.

Click here for the full report: full_report_september_2


  • In the 50 years since I have followed federal politics, Lester B. Pearson era, I have never seen a Prime Minister so unsuited to lead Canada. He is un-Canadian and unsuitable for office!