Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.
The last time voting intentions shifted so dramatically in the space of a year, the Liberal Party and Bloc Québécois were crushed and the New Democrats under Jack Layton vaulted into the best electoral performance in their history – by far. That makes 2013 a dramatic year in politics by any measure.
When the year began, the race was primarily between the Conservatives and the NDP. The Tories were leading in the polls with an average of 35 per cent, compared to 29 per cent for the New Democrats and 23 per cent for the Liberals. As the year comes to a close, the Liberals now lead with an average of 35 per cent in polls conducted in November and December, followed by the Conservatives at 28 per cent and the NDP at 24 per cent.
This represents a 12-point gain for the Liberals throughout 2013, with that surge coming almost equally from the Tories (seven points) and the New Democrats (five points). In 2012, by comparison, no party moved by more than two points between January and December. Instead, one has to go to 2011 to see a shift in support of the same magnitude: the New Democrats had just 16 per cent support when that year began. They took 31 per cent in the May 2011 election, and ended the year with 29 per cent support.
Of course, Jack Layton made those gains when it mattered most, during an election campaign. The spike in support that the Liberals have experienced in 2013 under Justin Trudeau have come outside of an election year, when the stakes are low and voters are at their least attentive. But that does not necessarily indicate that these between-election numbers are meaningless. For much of the period between the 2006 and 2008 elections, support recorded in the polls was not markedly different from the 2008 election result.
The narrative of the polls in 2013 is a rather simple one. The Liberals saw a dramatic increase from 23 per cent in January to 38 per cent in May, when Mr. Trudeau's honeymoon was in full swing. At about the same time, the Conservatives dropped to 30 per cent or below while the New Democrats fell to around 23 or 24 per cent support. Both Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair's parties remain at these levels of support, while Mr. Trudeau's numbers wobble around the mid-30s. In other words, since the Liberal leadership race came to a close things have remained relatively stable.
Liberal leads in central and eastern Canada
The Liberals managed to take and hold the lead in polls in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada in 2013. In the country's most populous province, the Liberals moved in front as early as April, when Mr. Trudeau became party leader. Since then, Liberal support has wandered between an average of 34 and 40 per cent support, while the Conservatives have been holding steady at around 33 or 34 per cent. The New Democrats have trailed at length in the low-20s.
In Quebec, the New Democrats had started the year with support of one-in-three residents of the province, but again Mr. Trudeau's leadership victory changed the game. Liberal support may be wavering in Quebec, as during the spring and early summer the party was usually polling in the high-30s. Now, they are closer to the mid-30s. Neither the New Democrats or Bloc Québécois have really managed to make up any lost ground, though throughout the year the NDP was more solidly in second (with between 23 and 29 per cent support) than the Bloc (between 18 and 26 per cent).
The Liberals began the year with a small lead in Atlantic Canada, with roughly 35 per cent support to 30 per cent apiece for the NDP and Tories. But as early as March, the Liberals were polling above 40 per cent and they have frequently managed better than 50 per cent support in the region since. The NDP and Conservatives both plummeted as a result. Depending on the month, the two parties have found themselves anywhere between 20 and 30 per cent.
The closest race in 2013 has undoubtedly been in British Columbia. When the year began, the Conservatives and New Democrats were running in a virtual tie in the low-30s, with the Liberals well behind at around 20 per cent. The Greens, at around 10 to 12 per cent support, were in fourth. But when Mr. Trudeau became leader, the Liberals joined the other two parties at around 30 per cent support and from April to July the three parties were never separated by more than three points, on average. Things began to shake loose in August as the Liberals moved ahead, and with the exception of September, when the Tories had an uptick, the Liberals have moved themselves into a wider – but still modest – lead. Nevertheless, the Conservatives and New Democrats remain in a tight contest for second and, depending on the poll, for first as well. The Greens have been sidelined somewhat, and now poll between 8 and 10 per cent on average.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba, grouped together in most polls, have also emerged as hotly contested battlegrounds. The year began with a very wide lead by the Tories in this traditionally safe territory for them. But the Trudeau honeymoon was also felt in the Prairies, as the Liberals moved to around 30 per cent support and pushed the NDP closer to 20 per cent in the region. The Conservative lead had been cut in half, but as the summer turned into the fall the Liberals were making a move. In the last few months, the Liberals and Tories have been roughly tied in the Prairies in the mid-30s. Suffice to say, it has been a very long time since that has been the case.
The last Conservative bastion
In neighbouring Alberta, however, the Conservatives are still dominant. The Tories routinely poll at well over 50 per cent support in the province, and the trends in 2013 have been mostly stable for them. Of note, however, is that the party is now much more likely to poll below 60 per cent than it has been in previous years. The Liberals moved ahead of the NDP for second place in the province early in 2013, and the situation has remained relatively steady in Alberta since then.
But the stability in the numbers nationwide that has been maintained since the spring masks the remarkable amount of change that has occurred in 2013. On first glance, much of that appears to have taken place between the Liberals and NDP. But it is rather the Conservatives who have been on a steady and sustained decline. The drop of eight points the party suffered between January and May was larger than the decrease the NDP has sustained this year, and Mr. Harper has been unable to make up those losses. That the Liberals moved into the lead in 2013 was perhaps the major story – but the implications for the Conservative government may be more consequential.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.