Support for the Ontario Liberal Party has increased since Kathleen Wynne became the province’s new premier, but recent history suggests that this bump in the polls may not last.
The experience of other premiers recently thrust into the job, replacing an outgoing premier who may have outlasted his or her welcome, suggests that Ms. Wynne may be in the midst of a honeymoon period that could evaporate in a matter of months. Based on how others have performed in a similar position, her future may be as uncertain as the flip of a coin.
In the three months prior to Ms. Wynne’s leadership victory, the Ontario Liberals averaged 27 per cent in the polls. That represented a drop of 11 points from her party’s performance in the 2011 provincial election, and in most surveys the Liberals were running third behind the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.
The new-premier bump
Now that Ms. Wynne is premier, her party is running neck-and-neck with the Tories and has averaged 31 per cent in all polls that have been conducted since the leadership convention at the end of January. If an election is held soon, she has decent odds of winning it. But how likely is it that her support will hold firm if the next vote is pushed off until the autumn or into next year?
Ms. Wynne’s recent bump in support is not atypical for new premiers who are named mid-mandate. Including Ms. Wynne, a sampling of 10 such cases in which polling data are readily available shows that new premiers boost their parties’ fortunes by an average of 0.5 points over their first six months in office (see infographic). Though that is not a very significant result, it suggests that new premiers do have a net positive effect on their parties.
But not always: Ed Stelmach, Greg Selinger and Kathy Dunderdale all experienced decreases in support after taking over from their predecessors. But in each case they were replacing popular figures: Ralph Klein in Alberta, Gary Doer in Manitoba, and Danny Williams in Newfoundland and Labrador. Christy Clark’s numbers were better than what the B.C. Liberals were putting up during the darkest days at the end of Gordon Campbell’s tenure, but they were still lower than where the Liberals were immediately before her leadership win.
On the other hand, Ujjal Dosanjh, Bernard Landry, Ernie Eves, and Rodney MacDonald all increased their respective party’s support by two or three points upon their arrival.
When the honeymoon’s over
If Ms. Wynne manages to get her budget passed and her government survives the spring, she will not be able to take advantage of the bump in the polls she is currently enjoying. Though it would prolong the life of her government, this could be a more dangerous prospect for the premier.
In the second six months of a new premier’s term in office, any surge they may have caused is often lost – and this time significantly so. On average, their party’s support dropped by almost four points in the six months following their first half-year in office, compared to where things stood before they became premier.
Some of the decreases were significant in size. The support for Mr. Selinger’s NDP in Manitoba dropped another four points in his second six months in office, after initially slipping by three points. Ms. Clark, who managed to keep things relatively stable at first, saw her support plunge 10 points from the day she took office. And Ms. Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador fell from 75 per cent to 56 per cent support in her second six months.
This suggests that when new premiers are named between elections, the “honeymoon” effect can be short-lived and the negative feelings that voters might have held before the departure of his or her predecessor return in force once the new premier is settled into the job. This is certainly taking place in British Columbia, though Ms. Clark’s administration has played its part in the downturn as well.
The last time Ontario changed its premier between elections does not provide much of a guide for Ms. Wynne. When Ernie Eves replaced Mike Harris as PC premier in 2002, the Tories were polling at around 35 per cent support – roughly where they still are today. But whereas the Ontario Liberals were trailing the Tories by some seven points before Ms. Wynne took over, the PCs were trailing the Liberals by 17 points in 2002.
Mr. Eves improved Tory fortunes minutely in the six months after he became leader, pushing his party up to 38 per cent and the margin down to nine points, but his support dropped back down to 35 per cent in the next six months as the election approached. Eventually, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals defeated Mr. Eves by 11 points in the 2003 election.
The chances for a sitting premier to be elected in their first go at a proper mandate are roughly 50/50. In the sample of 10 recent mid-mandate premiers, five were re-elected, three were defeated, and the fate of the remaining two has yet to be decided (though Ms. Clark seems destined to lose). Going back to 1950, of the 40 premiers who were named mid-mandate and who also attempted re-election 21 were successful and 19 were not. The record in Ontario is similarly split. So, on which face of the coin will Ms. Wynne’s future lie?
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .