The effect that Pierre Karl Péladeau's candidacy for the Parti Québécois will have on the election campaign in Quebec has yet to be recorded in the polls. But how were voting intentions evolving before he threw his hat into the ring?
The most recent survey conducted in the province was out of the field on March 8, the day before Mr. Péladeau's announcement. The CROP/Radio-Canada poll put the PQ and the Liberals in a tie with 36 per cent apiece. Compared to the firm's last pre-election poll, in which the PQ held a lead of 40 per cent to 34 per cent for the Liberals, this represented a significant tightening of the race.
Other polls seem to hint that the contest was indeed getting closer between the PQ and the Liberals in the run-up to Mr. Péladeau's candidacy. The Liberals, and in particular their leader, Philippe Couillard, were enjoying a little bit of momentum.
The Liberals have been polling at a rather steady pace in CROP's surveys, never varying from a tight band of between 34 and 37 per cent support over the last five polls going back to mid-November. In that sense, the small uptick to 36 per cent from the 34 per cent of mid-February and the 35 per cent of December-January is insignificant. The fall of the PQ from 40 per cent in February to 36 per cent last week is also unremarkable, as it puts the party back to where it stood in the previous two months.
Polling by Léger, with its last survey conducted just before the election call, has showed similar stability. And just like in the CROP polls, if there was any movement it was in favour of the Liberals – in its latest report, the gap narrowed from three points to two points compared to Léger's January poll. A recent poll by Forum Research (using interactive voice response methodology, unlike the online panels of CROP and Léger) gave the Liberals a two-point edge over the PQ, also suggesting the race is tight.
The leadership question
But while the polls have generally been stable in terms of voting intentions, they have shown some significant growth in support for Mr. Couillard. The most recent Léger poll showed his support on the question of who would make the best premier increasing from 20 per cent in January to 25 per cent, while Pauline Marois's score was unchanged at 27 per cent. The new CROP poll had Mr. Couillard jumping from 22 per cent in mid-February to 26 per cent, while Ms. Marois dropped from 30 per cent to 27 per cent.
These shifts are unlikely to be statistical wobbles, and do represent a departure from the numbers Mr. Couillard was managing before the campaign began. The Liberal leader's support had tumbled in the wake of the charter debate as he failed to take a consistent line and squabbled with one of his MNAs (the only Muslim member of the National Assembly, who supported aspects of the charter and is now running as an independent). He averaged 27 per cent on the question of who would make the best premier in polls done between March and November. That dropped to 23 per cent in polling done between December and February. Léger had Mr. Couillard at just 20 per cent on this question in January.
This suggests that Mr. Couillard's personal ratings were being boosted in the period immediately before and after the election call, and pointed towards future gains for his party. They were perhaps already starting to register when Mr. Péladeau announced he would stand as the PQ's candidate in the riding of St-Jérôme.
The language divide
Nevertheless, Mr. Couillard and the Liberals still had much ground to make up among francophones in the province. Despite the small uptick of two points for the Liberals and the larger gain of four points for Mr. Couillard himself in the newest CROP poll, the party was only up a single point among francophones to just 25 per cent. That still put it 17 points behind the Parti Québécois, enough to give Ms. Marois the possibility of forming a majority government. In fact, it was the Coalition Avenir Québec of François Legault that made the largest increase among francophones, jumping three points to 20 per cent as the PQ dropped five points.
Mr. Péladeau may help the PQ make gains among the sort of pro-business, soft nationalist French-speaking voters in the province that support the CAQ. This is the same clientele that the Liberals needed to court. The reaction to Mr. Péladeau's entry into the race, both positive and negative, has been strong and it is unlikely it will have no influence on voting intentions in the province (Quebecor's two major newspapers in the province, Le Journal de Montréal and Le Journal de Québec, whose readership one might expect to contain many admirers of Mr. Péladeau, had a combined weekly circulation of three million in 2012). The next set of polls will demonstrate whether he has blunted the momentum the Liberals may have been building in the first days of the campaign.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.