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\Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
\Prime Minister Stephen Harper listens to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 7, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

After a rocky year in polling, the new normal: a slim Tory lead over NDP Add to ...

The Conservatives and New Democrats traded the lead in national voting intentions during 2012, but at the close of the year the parties appear to be just about where they were when the year started.

Breaking the polls down by the month in which they were conducted and weighing them by sample size gives a good indication of how the parties’ support has ebbed and flowed throughout the year. It also shows how little has changed: the Conservatives averaged 35 per cent support in January to 28 per cent for the New Democrats and 24 per cent for the Liberals, compared to an average of 33, 28 and 23 per cent (respectively) in December 2012. (Read our infographic)

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But in between, support did shift dramatically. The Conservatives began the year with a comfortable lead over the New Democrats. That changed when Thomas Mulcair was named the new NDP leader in March. The following month, the NDP tied the Tories with an average of 33 per cent support, and moved ahead in May, June, and July, with the New Democrats hitting their peak in June at 35 per cent. That gave them a two-point margin over the governing Conservatives.

In August, however, the Tories moved back in front and have yet to relinquish the lead. Nevertheless, their support has been relatively flat at between 32 and 35 per cent since then, well below the 40 per cent the Conservatives captured in the May 2011 election.

The Liberals have yet to fully recover from the debacle of that vote, with between 20 and 22 per cent support between March and September. Things picked up in October, however, when Justin Trudeau launched his leadership campaign and the party improved to 28 per cent support – their highest result since January 2011. Support has trailed off a little since then, but the Liberals are still above the doldrums of May and June.

The Greens hardly budged over the year, with support at around 5 or 6 per cent.

Conservative leads in Alberta, the Prairies, and Ontario

The winning coalition of voters in the West and Ontario continued in 2012 for the Conservatives. In Alberta, average support for the party only once dipped below 55 per cent. The New Democrats maintained runner-up status for most of the year, losing it only in November when the Liberals edged them out by a single point. For the most part, however, the NDP has had around 19 per cent support in Alberta and the Liberals around 13 per cent.

With only a few blips, the Conservatives have also held a wide lead in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for most of the year, averaging about 44 per cent support. The New Democrats have been polling very well in the Prairies, however, coming to within one point of the Tories in July and beating the Conservatives by six points in October. In fact, the NDP’s 43 per cent result of that month was the highest in recent memory.

Ontario is the real battleground province, however, with its 106 seats being increased to 121 for the next general election. The Conservatives have had the advantage in Ontario throughout 2012, with their support sticking to a narrow band of between 35 and 39 per cent. The NDP and Liberals have been in a tight race for second place, with the New Democrats pushing the Liberals to third in the aftermath of Mr. Mulcair’s leadership win. The start of the Liberal leadership race has, however, turned things around: the two parties have been neck-and-neck for the last three months.

NDP strength in British Columbia and Quebec

The New Democrats are in the process of building their own coalition of voters in B.C. and Quebec. The NDP held the lead in British Columbia in seven of 12 months this year, with the party holding steady at between 39 and 40 per cent support from April to August. Those numbers were among the best the party has managed for some time. The Conservatives were never far behind, however. The Liberals were mired at around 16 to 19 per cent for most of the year, with the exception of a surge to 32 per cent in October that could be partly blamed on a statistical anomaly or the influence of the party’s leadership race.

The New Democrats held the lead in Quebec throughout 2012, but the ride has been a little rough. The party was in great danger of losing the lead to the Bloc Québécois in February and March, as NDP members considered options other than Mr. Mulcair. The party hit a trough of 27 per cent in February, putting them just one point up on the Bloc. That margin continued into March before the party surged to 43 per cent in April after Mr. Mulcair’s win. Every other party took a hit as a result. Since then, however, the New Democrats have been in a near-steady decline, and slipped to 32 per cent in December.

However, it was not the Bloc that has taken advantage – they have been stuck at between 20 and 26 per cent since Thomas Mulcair became NDP leader. With the exception of a drop in December, the Liberals made steady gains from June through to November, peaking at 28 per cent that month (their best result since September 2009). The party had even pushed the Bloc down to third place between October and November.

Wildcard Atlantic, or Liberal surge?

The Liberals have also seen their fortunes improve in Atlantic Canada. Polling in this region is often very volatile, as the sample sizes are small and the race has always been three-headed. But while the Liberals were relatively steady from the beginning of the year to September, their support has increased since then. They tied the NDP at 34 per cent in October and took the lead in November (by one point), before surging to 39 per cent in December. Polls routinely show that Justin Trudeau has the greatest effect on Liberal support in Atlantic Canada, so his candidacy may be playing an important role in the party’s better numbers of late.

The New Democrats have lost the lead as a result, something they had maintained (or were tied for) since January. The NDP’s peak of 40 per cent registered in April and September were its highest results in recent years. Conversely, their result of 28 per cent in December was the lowest since April 2011, before the May election. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have been third or tied for second in eight of twelve months.

How 2012 stacks up

The past year has been one of the more interesting in polls. The last time the Conservatives did not hold a lead in the monthly averages before the NDP’s surge was June 2009, when the Liberals were in first place. The peaks and valleys hardly compare with the final weeks of the 2011 election campaign, but the shifting fortunes in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada are among the most volatile in some time. With the Liberal leadership race coming to a close in April, 2013 could be another fascinating year.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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