Pauline Marois launched an election campaign in Quebec two weeks ago to obtain a majority government. But with the Liberals under Philippe Couillard making gains at the expense of François Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec, she might fall short of that goal.
Polls conducted over the last week show the race to be very close between the incumbent Parti Québécois and the opposition Liberals. A survey by Léger for The Globe and Mail and Le Devoir, carried out between March 11 and 13 put the two parties in a tie at 37 per cent apiece. Another poll, by CROP for La Presse and conducted between March 12 and 16, gave the Liberals 39 per cent to 36 per cent for the PQ.
This has left the CAQ on the sidelines, with just 13 or 14 per cent support, while the left-wing sovereigntist party Québec Solidaire has seen its support inch upwards to 9 or 10 per cent.
On the face of it, the polls in Quebec have been remarkably steady. In five polls conducted since the beginning of March, the PQ has not varied from between 36 and 38 per cent support. The party's numbers have been wobbling back and forth in such a tight band that it seems the PQ's vote has stabilized. The arrival of Pierre Karl Péladeau, then, appears to have had no effect.
That is, at least, on the PQ. While variations in Liberal support from one poll to the next have not exceeded the margin of error (of a probabilistic sample – most of the polling being done in Quebec has been online, where no margin of error applies), the Liberals have been trending upwards. Before the campaign began, the Liberals were polling at 34 or 35 per cent in the province. The party has picked up two points since then according to Léger, and five points according to CROP.
The gains the Liberals have made have come almost entirely from the CAQ. With support for sovereignty no higher than support for the PQ in most polls, it would appear that federalist CAQ voters have swung over to the Liberals in order to block a PQ victory that could lead to a third referendum. The party dropped from 17 per cent to just 13 per cent in CROP's most recent polling, while Léger has also recorded a consistently negative trend for the CAQ since December.
This is particularly marked among francophones. The PQ's vote has – again – been very stable among this electorate, at between 42 and 44 per cent in the last three surveys. The Liberals, however, have gone from the low-to-mid 20s to 27 or 30 per cent in the last two polls by Léger and CROP. The CAQ, which had the support of 20 per cent of French-speaking Quebeckers in CROP's first poll of the campaign, has plummeted to just 14 per cent.
The seat implications
However, the Liberals will need to attract more support from francophones if they want to be able to win the next election outright. With the regional distribution of their vote recorded by the polls – heavily concentrated on the island of Montreal – the Liberals would likely be able to win between 50 and 66 seats. While that is theoretically enough to put them over the 63-seat mark required for a majority government, the PQ's distribution would net them between 56 and 70 seats. That makes it much more likely that the PQ will be able to pull more seats out of these numbers than the Liberals – and perhaps even win a majority government.
The Liberals need to draw more votes, and thus more seats, from the CAQ. Mr. Legault's party could win as many as five seats with its polling support, but could also be shutout entirely. If that were to occur, the Liberals would benefit as they are better placed to take advantage of a CAQ collapse than the PQ, who is not as competitive in those seats still leaning towards the CAQ.
Where the campaign goes from here
It makes tomorrow night's debate a potential turning point of the campaign. Mr. Couillard and Ms. Marois are perhaps the least susceptible to lose votes, as polling by Léger suggests their supporters are the most committed. But only about half of CAQ voters say their mind is made up – that leaves a large pool of voters available to the Liberals, who are the most popular second choice of Mr. Legault's supporters. A poor performance by the CAQ leader could mean further losses for his depleted party. A strong performance, however, could turn the campaign on its head.
Can the CAQ drop further in the polls? The party merged with the Action Démocratique du Québec in 2012, and its supporters appear to be drawn from the ADQ's old base. But the ADQ never took less than 11.8 per cent of the vote when running a full slate of candidates. How likely is it that the CAQ can sink below that level of support? The well of available CAQ votes, then, may have run dry.
But if the CAQ has been penalized so greatly by the polarization of the campaign on the question of sovereignty, could something similar happen to Québec Solidaire? At 10 per cent, the party is eating into the PQ's vote in a dramatic way. The PQ may come up short in as many as 15 seats due to the division of their vote with QS. However, in recruiting Mr. Péladeau, who is deeply unpopular in Quebec labour circles, the PQ may have itself to blame for those losses.
While every leader hopes for a knock-out punch during a debate, both Mr. Legault and Ms. Marois will be satisfied if they can halt the Liberals' momentum that is sapping both of their parties' electoral hopes. Otherwise, the campaign that was Ms. Marois's to lose may turn out to be just that.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.