The Parti Québécois's proposed Charter of Quebec Values has been hugely controversial both inside and outside the province, but polls suggest French-speaking Quebeckers are onside with the plan. And these are the voters who decide elections in Quebec.
Francophones make up a majority of residents in more than 85 per cent of Quebec's provincial and federal ridings. More than half of Quebec's 125 provincial ridings are at least 90 per cent francophone, and two-thirds of the province's 75 federal seats are at least 80 per cent French-speaking. That makes this group decisively important in elections.
The Parti Québécois has traditionally held the advantage because of their support among this demographic, most notably winning a majority government in 1998 despite placing second in the popular vote. Though their edge has been whittled away with the emergence of other parties like the defunct ADQ, the Coalition Avenir Québec, and Québec Solidaire, they have retained that advantage.
With the brief exception of François Legault's time at the top of the polls, the PQ has consistently led among francophones, with generally between 35 and 40 per cent support. The party was beginning to sink among French-speaking Quebeckers earlier this year, dropping to around 30 per cent, but they have since rebounded. The latest survey from Léger Marketing, conducted at the height of the controversy over the Charter of Quebec Values, put their support among francophones at 40 per cent.
This is a problem for Philippe Couillard's Liberals. Under his new leadership, the party has surged in the polls into first place. But the Liberals remain mired at between 25 and 30 per cent support among francophones, not nearly enough to have a hope of winning a majority government in the expected spring election. Their current support among francophones is similar to where they stood on the eve of the 2007 election when Jean Charest was elected to a slim minority government in the face of a surging ADQ and slumping PQ. By contrast, the Liberals were polling at around 36 per cent among francophones the last time they won a majority government in 2008. It is the CAQ, at around 25 per cent among francophones, that has been causing trouble for the Liberals. The CAQ's predecessor party, the ADQ, had around 16 per cent support among French speakers in the 2008 election.
Instead, the Liberals have been making gains among non-francophones in Quebec. This voting bloc has traditionally been very loyal to the Liberals, and even in the 2012 election the party was still polling at 60 per cent or more among this demographic (the CAQ made an unsuccessful play for these voters, but was around 20 per cent support by the end of the campaign). Particularly since the uproar concerning the charter, however, Liberal support has spiked among non-francophones to around 80 per cent. But most of these gains are wasted in ridings where the Liberals are already secure.
This makes the PQ's proposed charter good politics for them. Polls suggest that it has met with the approval of francophones. The party has taken a hit among non-francophones, dropping to the low-single digits from the 10 per cent or so the party managed in 2007 and 2008, but that will not cost them many seats, if any. For the Liberals, it puts their ability to defeat the PQ in the next election in doubt.
The situation could not be more different for the Liberals at the federal level, as the party has made serious inroads among both francophone and non-francophone voters.
The New Democrats won the 2011 federal election in Quebec due in large part to their breakthrough among francophones. In the months following the vote, the party was still polling at 40 per cent or more among French-speaking Quebeckers. During the NDP's leadership race, however, the party faltered among this demographic and dropped to around 30 per cent, putting them in a tie with the Bloc Québécois. Thomas Mulcair's leadership victory changed that and the party soared back into first place.
But the arrival of Justin Trudeau has shifted things once again. After polling in the mid-teens, Mr. Trudeau's leadership boosted the party to around 35 per cent support among francophones, putting them in a tie with the NDP. That puts a lot of seats outside of the Montreal area that would not normally be winnable at play for the Liberals.
In Montreal, the Liberals look set for a major comeback. Non-francophones were splitting three-ways in the aftermath of the federal election, with support hovering around 30 per cent for the Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives (who did come close to winning a seat in the West Island). The Liberals gained a slight advantage after the NDP leadership race was settled, but since Mr. Trudeau was named leader the party has surged to over 60 per cent support among non-francophones. This is traditionally where the Liberals have stood among these voters, suggesting they are well-placed to sweep the non-francophone-majority parts of Montreal island once again.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.