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PQ heading for Quebec majority: why the polls might be right

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois speaks at a news conference on Sept. 6, 2013. Ms. Marois says she didn’t mean to offend by comments made about England in newspaper Le Devoir.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

With likely two months or less to go before an election is held in Quebec, opinion polls put Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois on track for a majority government. The performance of pollsters in Quebec over the last 16 years, moreover, suggests that might be right.

The most recent poll conducted in the province – by CROP for La Presse and surveying 1,000 Quebeckers online between Feb. 13-16 – gave the PQ the support of 40 per cent of respondents, with the Liberals under Philippe Couillard trailing at 34 per cent. François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec was well behind with 16 per cent support.

With a 23-point lead over the Liberals among francophones, who make up the majority of voters in more than four-fifths of Quebec's ridings, the PQ would likely be able to win some 77 seats, turning their present minority government into a majority. The Liberals and CAQ would be reduced to 41 and seven seats, respectively.

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According to the results of the CROP poll, the PQ would be a in a strong position to nearly sweep the suburbs around the island of Montreal, win a majority of seats in the rural parts of the province, and with the CAQ shut the Liberals out of Quebec City. It is a nightmare scenario for Mr. Couillard.

Support for the provincial Liberals has been drifting since the PQ brought forward its charter of secular values. After Mr. Couillard became leader of the party in March, the Liberals' support continued to increase through to August, when the party topped out at around 40 per cent support. They had a double-digit lead over the PQ at the time. But after the charter was proposed, Liberal support began to falter, dropping to the mid-30s by the end of the year. In the last four polls conducted by CROP and Léger since early December, the Liberals have dropped back to between 33 and 35 per cent support. The PQ, meanwhile, has been between 35 and 40 per cent over that time.

The momentum, if such a thing exists in politics, would seem to be in Ms. Marois's favour. And with about two months to go before Quebeckers are called to cast a ballot, that could be very bad news for the Liberals.

Long-term forecasts

Polling in some recent provincial elections has not exactly been prescient. There were the misses in Alberta in 2012 and British Columbia in 2013, of course, while the Quebec Liberals outperformed the polls in the 2012 election by a considerable degree. (Polling in last fall's Nova Scotia election was better.) But broadly speaking, polling in Quebec has been quite successful at the provincial level, even two months out.

Roughly two months before the election in 2012, the polls were putting the gap between the PQ and the Liberals at one or two points and in a virtual tie. On election day, the PQ beat the Liberals by less than a percentage point.

Two months out from the election in 2008, the polls almost matched the election results exactly, forecasting the Liberals to win a majority government and the PQ to return as the Official Opposition. The polls conducted roughly two months before the 2007 election were correctly estimating that the Liberals would form a minority government, though they did put the PQ in second instead of Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec (which merged with the CAQ in 2012). And in 1998, the polls were suggesting the race between the PQ under Lucien Bouchard and the Liberals under Jean Charest was neck-and-neck, as it would be when the votes were counted two months later. Over the last five provincial elections in Quebec, only the results in 2003 did not match what the polls were saying around 60 days before the vote.

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Certainly, Mr. Legault might be hoping for a repeat of 2003 (though, ominously, it was the ADQ that shed support during that year's election campaign) or something similar to what happened in 2011 with the New Democrats in the province. But the CAQ Leader does not have the personal support levels that would likely be needed to propel his party back into the race.

That was not the case in the run-up to the 2012 election, when Mr. Legault was seen as the best person to be premier by between 16 and 19 per cent of Quebecers, putting him only a handful of points behind Mr. Charest and Ms. Marois. In addition, his approval ratings were higher than those of his two rivals.

Now, however, Ms. Marois has moved ahead. She has managed between 25 and 30 per cent support on who would make the best premier over the last four polls, almost double where she was last spring. Mr. Couillard has dropped to between 22 and 25 per cent on this question from the 30 per cent he was putting up in June. Mr. Legault, meanwhile, has managed between 13 and 15 per cent since September 2013, and his approval rating is the worst of the three main leaders.

With the CAQ falling away and the PQ corralling much of the francophone vote under its banner, Pauline Marois is in a strong position heading into a new election. Normally, a veteran campaigner like Jean Charest could not be under-estimated. But Philippe Couillard will be leading the party into a campaign for the first time, and his performance as leader, particularly in the wake of the charter controversy, has inspired little confidence. The next election is setting up to be the PQ's to lose.

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

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