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Crunching Numbers

Tory peak, NDP surge and Liberal collapse mark turbulent year in polling Add to ...

It took only a few days at the end of April, but the voting intentions of Canadians were finally jolted out of a seemingly permanent state of inaction in 2011, making the year one of the most tumultuous in recent memory. While the Conservatives are ending the year much like it began, with a majority government to their credit, the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Québécois are in wildly different positions.

Weighing every poll released during 2011 by sample size and averaging them out on a monthly basis shows that the Conservatives averaged 35 per cent support in December, unchanged from where they were in January.

This level of support is the lowest that the Conservatives have averaged throughout 2011. The party has been on a steady decline since the first few months after the election, when it was averaging 41 per cent support. That dipped most precipitously in August before rebounding slightly in September. But since then, in light of Attawapiskat, heavy-handed tactics in Parliament, and various other flare-ups that have put the government in a bad light, the Tories have been on the decline.

This suggests the Conservatives peaked at the right time. The party hit 40 per cent on election night, only one point lower than they averaged in the polls throughout June and July. Prior to the election, the party was stuck at 38 per cent – a level of support that would have likely delivered another minority government.

The Liberals started the year at 28 per cent support, but as the May election drew closer support began to slip until it fell to 19 per cent. The party has not averaged as low in the polls since then, and with Bob Rae performing well in the House of Commons the Liberals increased their support to 24 per cent in October, within striking distance of the New Democrats. That support has since dropped back to 21 per cent.

The most dramatic change has come in the support that the NDP now attracts. The party was mired at 16 per cent for the first two months of 2011, but during the election campaign the New Democrats under the late Jack Layton made important gains, averaging 22 per cent in April before hitting 31 per cent on election night. The NDP maintained that level of support until November when, with the leadership campaign in full swing and the front benches of the Official Opposition depleted, the party dropped to 29 per cent to end up at 28 per cent in December.

Battle for second in Ontario

Ontario gave the Conservatives their majority in May, and the Tories have not done better than the 44 per cent they hit on election night. Perhaps due to the disappointing performance of Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives in the October election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have dropped back down below 40 per cent. The Tories averaged 37 per cent in December, a slip that would single-handedly cost them their majority government if an election were held today.

For the Liberals and the New Democrats, Ontario has been a neck-and-neck fight for runner-up. The Liberals were in the running for first in the province before the election but since then the two parties have traded the lead back and forth. The influence of Dalton McGuinty’s victory may have improved things for the Liberals, however, as they have recently put some distance between themselves and the NDP.

NDP gains in the West

The four western provinces have also shown themselves capable of breaking from the past. British Columbia, in particular, has been very volatile. Prior to the election, British Columbians appeared to have their voting intentions locked-in. But during the campaign Liberal support tanked, and aside from a rebound between August and October the party has not recovered that support. Instead the New Democrats, undoubtedly buoyed by a strong performance by their provincial wing, have increased their support to the mid-30s, drawing them in close to the faltering Conservatives.

Tory support is steady in Alberta, however, while the New Democrats have supplanted the Liberals as the main alternative. The NDP has been riding at around 20 per cent in the province since the election, putting them in contention for a second seat in Edmonton after the riding boundaries are redrawn.

The NDP is also poised to make gains in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In the context of the end of the Canadian Wheat Board, Conservative support has slipped to below 50 per cent in the two provinces, allowing the New Democrats to pull above 30 per cent. This puts them in a particularly good position in Saskatchewan, where there were a number of close ridings in the last election.

The Atlantic coin toss

Atlantic Canada has seen the country’s closest contest in 2011. Though it was primarily a Liberal-Conservative race prior to the election, since then the three parties have been clumped together in a narrow band between 25 and 38 per cent support, with the gap between first and third being as small as four points. The Liberals have been on the bottom of the three-way race since the election, however, while recently the NDP has pulled narrowly ahead of the Tories – echoing improved performances by their provincial counterparts in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

NDP decline in Quebec

It was in Quebec that the real story of the 2011 election took place. When the year began, the Bloc Québécois was coasting along at 40 per cent and looked set to win a majority of the province’s seats once again.

The election then blew the political landscape of Quebec apart. Bloc support dropped dramatically as Mr. Layton gained the affections of the province and stole votes away from every other party. The NDP ended up with 43 per cent support on election night, sending the Bloc down to 23 per cent and the Conservatives and Liberals into the teens.

Many expected the support of the New Democrats to slowly fade away, especially after the death of Mr. Layton. At first, the NDP defied expectations, averaging a higher level of support for most of the five months after the election. But in November the New Democrats fell to 37 per cent support and in December they have averaged only 33 per cent in Quebec.

The Bloc Québécois, Conservatives, and Liberals have all rebounded, making Quebec a four-way, regionally-divided contest.

Though it will be difficult to surpass 2011’s volatility, with the New Democrats choosing their new leader in March and provincial elections expected in Alberta and Quebec, 2012 might have a few twists and turns of its own.

Eric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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