In business, branding is an integral factor in getting your product sold. Done correctly, it helps keep existing customers loyal and attracts new ones. It's no different in politics - and over the last decade the Liberal brand has declined in the face of its more successful Conservative competitor.
It has not always been like this. The traditionally "natural governing party" once held sway in all but one of the provincial legislatures for most of the 1930s and 1940s. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the Liberals formed government in five or six of Canada's ten provinces.
Today, however, the Liberals sit as the Official Opposition in the House of Commons and form government in only four provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island. Only in PEI are the Liberals leading in the polls, and if current trends hold firm the Liberals will only have premiers in Quebec and Prince Edward Island at the end of next year.
But links between Michael Ignatieff's Liberal Party of Canada and the ten provincial Liberal parties can be in name only. The parties in British Columbia, Quebec, and Alberta, for example, have no official ties with their federal counterpart and the B.C. Liberals have more informal ties with Stephen Harper's Conservatives. However, provincial and federal parties that share the same name often share the same fate.
The decline in federal Liberal support has been mirrored by a drop in provincial Liberal fortunes in six provinces since 2000. As the federal vote share of the party went from 38 per cent in the 2000 election to 26 per cent in 2008, Liberal support dropped in provincial elections everywhere from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador.
The B.C. Liberals took 58 per cent of the vote in the 2001 provincial election, but dropped to 46 per cent in 2009 and are currently at around 33 per cent in the polls. In Saskatchewan, the Liberals went from 20 per cent in 1999 to a mere 9 per cent in 2007, and are currently sitting at about 8 per cent support.
The Liberal parties in Ontario and Quebec have also struggled, with Dalton McGuinty dropping from 46 per cent in the 2003 election to 32 per cent in the most recent Ipsos-Reid poll. Jean Charest has seen his party's support chopped in half: While he got 46 per cent of the vote in the 2003 election, the latest poll from Crop puts his party at only 23 per cent.
The Liberals have also suffered in two of the Atlantic provinces, with Shawn Graham being turfed out of office in New Brunswick's provincial election in September. In Newfoundland and Labrador, where the party once took 50 per cent of the vote under Brian Tobin, the Liberals are poised to take less than 20 per cent in next year's election.
It is not all bad news, however. The PEI Liberal Party has increased its vote share in every election since 2000, and the latest poll puts Premier Robert Ghiz at more than 60 per cent support. The Liberals have also held steady in Alberta, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia over the last ten years.
By comparison, the Conservative brand has been doing much better. From 30 per cent support in the 2004 election, the party increased its vote share to 38 per cent in 2008.
Mr. Harper's Conservative Party of Canada has no official affiliations with the various Progressive Conservative parties that exist at the provincial level, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan have tiny Conservative parties and Quebec has none at all that uses the name. Nevertheless, in four of the seven provinces with an existing and mainstream party that boasts the Conservative "brand," their fortunes are on the upswing.
In Manitoba, the Progressive Conservatives appear set to challenge the governing NDP in the 2011 election. In Ontario, Tim Hudak's PCs are leading the Liberals in the polls, while David Alward led his party to victory in this fall's New Brunswick election. And outgoing premier Danny Williams's party has the support of 75 per cent of Newfoundlanders, based on a poll released this week.
On the other hand, in Alberta, Nova Scotia and PEI the Conservative brand is faltering, though in Alberta the Progressive Conservatives are being challenged on their right, rather than their left, by the fledgling Wildrose Alliance.
Provincial and federal politics can be completely different animals, and it would be unwise to equate the two. But it cannot be a positive sign for the federal Liberal Party that fewer and fewer people are in the habit of voting for their provincial off-shoots. And with conservative parties in a strong position to win all four of the provincial elections slated for 2011, the next year has the potential to be a very good one for Team Blue.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com