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Tectonic Realignment or Ephemeral Bounce?


[Ottawa – May 8, 2013] – It has been less than a month since Trudeau’s landslide leadership victory and his party has been vaulted into a commanding 12-point lead. At nearly 39 points, the Liberals are within striking distance of a majority government, a feat the party has not achieved in over seven years. The Conservatives, meanwhile, sit at just over 26 per cent while the NDP is holding steady after its nearly 10-point decline since August of last year. The NDP slide almost directly coincides with the appearance of Justin Trudeau and evidence suggests that his rise is almost entirely responsible for the NDP swoon. In the case of the even larger drop in Conservative support, there are other more important factors – notably a darkening outlook on national direction and growing regime fatigue.

For a Liberal party experiencing a near death experience two years ago, this resurrection is astonishing. The Liberals lead everywhere outside the Prairies, including in the key battlegrounds of Ontario and Quebec. They also lead among men, women, and every age group and educational cohort. The question of whether or not this is some ephemeral bounce or a more tectonic realignment of the political landscape remains unclear. We believe the answer lies somewhere between these two extremes.

First of all, it appears that much of the Liberal rise wasn’t a grand jump following a convention (which did occur to some extent with their last two leaders). This latest spike upward may well be a further convention bounce, but the steady rise from the end of summer 2012 to the spring of 2013 was more of a march than a bounce. Few were paying attention to the plethora of lightly viewed leadership debates involving a large cast of largely forgotten contenders. It appears that the rise over this period was coincidental with a profound rise in awareness of who Justin Trudeau is and a less spectacular but positive lean to consider him in a favourable light.

Meanwhile, Thomas Mulcair stalled in recognition levels (now lower than those for Justin Trudeau) while his approval ratings declined. Worse, he shed a large number of his supporters to the rejuvenated Liberal Party. Mr. Mulcair is in real danger of ceding the mantle of the “alternative” to Mr. Harper. There are a large group of voters disaffected with the current government who are relatively indifferent about who should replace the current government. This includes a large number of erstwhile Liberal supporters who shifted to the NDP two years ago. These and other voters who don’t like the Harper government will (and are) moving to the Liberals if they seem a more plausible bet to depose Prime Minister Harper. It also appears that discouraged traditional Liberal voters (who stayed home in 2011) are returning to the fold.

So was Peter Newman’s view that the Liberal is dead wrong and is the party’s seemingly endless period in the political penalty box, which began following the sponsorship scandal, drawing to a close? Are the Liberals poised to reassume the reins of power and their historical role as the Natural Governing Party under the stewardship of a new charismatic Trudeau? This tectonic shift back to the future is no more plausible than the ephemeral bounce hypothesis. As our likely voter model shows, the (highly hypothetical) race is much closer when we focus on likely voters. Rather than the heady 13-point lead with all eligible voters, the lead narrows to a much closer 3 points, pretty close to a tie in terms of statistical significance.

We also note that fanciful dreams of a return to glory warmed Liberal hearts following the selection of Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff, only to be dashed in the hard light of electoral realities, not midterm polls. Prime Minister Stephen Harper maintains a formidable political force in the Conservative Party and they still confront the very auspicious political arithmetic associated with a fragmentation of the center left against a unified right.

Despite necessary caution about the significant of these shifts, there is definitely something new afoot. it is much too early to declare a tectonic shift but it is also clear that this isn’t simply a mercurial bubble. The NDP seem to have (at least temporarily) surrendered the mantle of the alternative to the current government. It also appears that Mr. Harper may be encountering some really profound longer term threats to continued success. The public keep reaching new lows in terms of confidence in the trajectory of the country and the federal government. Longer term outlook on the economy is very grim and Mr. Harper’s base has shrunk to record lows in tandem with his approval rating. The old playbook stalwarts of negative ads and a tough on terror response to recent events do not seem to be reversing the Conservatives’ diminished prospects. So while it is premature to suggest that Stephen Harper’s portable armoured limousine might be turning into a pumpkin, this possibility is certainly on the table.

Click here for the full report: Full Report (May 8, 2013)

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