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Quebec Premier Jean Charest waves as he boards his bus following a news conference in the backyard of a family home Tuesday, August 21, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Quebec Premier Jean Charest waves as he boards his bus following a news conference in the backyard of a family home Tuesday, August 21, 2012 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Do Charest’s Liberals have more support than it appears? Add to ...

Between the start of the provincial election campaign in Quebec and Sunday night’s leaders’ debate, the Parti Québécois registered a lead in every public opinion poll. That lead has been as narrow as a single point and as wide as seven, as reported in a poll for Montreal daily La Presse late last week. But has the campaign taken a turn for the worse for PQ Leader Pauline Marois?

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A new survey by Forum Research for The National Post shows that Jean Charest’s Liberals were leading in the province on Monday with 35 per cent support, a gain of four points since their poll taken the week before. The Parti Québécois dropped six points to 29 per cent, while François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec held relatively steady at 24 per cent.

This is a remarkable turn of events. The Parti Québécois has not trailed any party in a poll by a margin of this size since January, when the CAQ was the province’s darling. And the Liberals have not held this large of an advantage in any poll since August of last year.

The Forum poll, conducted on Monday night before the first of the one-on-one debates, differs substantially from what other surveys have recently reported. Both Léger Marketing and CROP were in agreement in their two polls conducted throughout last week: the PQ at 33-34 per cent, the Liberals at 27-28 per cent, and the CAQ at 25-27 per cent. How likely is it that this sort of dramatic, potentially campaign-changing shift has taken place?

Forum, CROP, and Léger use different methodologies. Both CROP and Forum conduct their surveys over the telephone, with CROP using live callers and Forum using an interactive voice-response system. Léger does its polling via an online panel. Perhaps more important, Forum was in the field the day after Sunday night’s debate that featured the leaders of the three major parties, as well as Québec Solidaire’s Françoise David.

Most commentators considered the debate somewhat of a draw, with Mr. Charest, Ms. Marois and Mr. Legault trading punches but not scoring any hits. They were also in agreement that Ms. David performed well. This seems to be confirmed by the Forum poll, as 40 per cent said she had won the debate. The poll puts Québec Solidaire at nine per cent, their highest mark in the campaign so far. Much of that new support seems to have come from the Parti Québécois, which was also expected. But that does little to explain the big swing in support towards the Liberals. Was Mr. Charest much more effective during the debate than originally thought?

This is not the first time in the campaign that Forum Research has had a poll that was out of step with others. The firm pegged CAQ support at only 14 per cent the day the writ dropped, while Léger had found the party to be at 21 per cent the day before. And Forum has generally had higher results for the Quebec Liberals than their two Quebec-based counterparts. They registered Liberal support as being seven points higher than Léger did in the first week and were up on Léger and CROP by one and three points in the second week and by four and three points in the third.

But Forum has also been slightly higher than the other firms in gauging PQ support: by six points in Week 1, two points in Week 2, and one or two points in Week 3. The firm has pegged CAQ support between or equal to the other firms in the second and third weeks of the campaign, instead under-scoring smaller parties.

In other words, if we can expect the same kind of spread between Forum’s results and those of the other polling companies, the Liberals would still hold a wide lead.

However, Forum was in the field before the three one-on-one debates that started on Monday and finish tonight. If the other two firms conduct their polling after the debates are over, the situation might be completely different. If one or two of the leaders impress (or disappoint), any shifts in support that Forum registered on Monday night may no longer exist. If CROP and Léger do not show similar results to Forum’s in their next surveys, it will be impossible to determine whether Forum’s poll was an outlier or if the one-on-one debates were the reason behind the change.

Nevertheless, the poll casts a different light on the campaign. With these levels of support, the Liberals could hope to win a minority government – or even a slim majority if the vote swings and splits work to their favour. The Liberal campaign that was seen as moribund and sinking is suddenly on the upswing. The Parti Québécois is now the party on the decline and the CAQ is flat. Mr. Charest is the frontrunner again – at least until the next poll comes out.

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

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