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Summertime and government living is easy? Not necessarily

The summer recess is an opportunity for a government to escape the opposition heckles and questions from the parliamentary press gallery. It is a time for the governing party to lick its wounds and improve its polling numbers in anticipation of the return to the House of Commons in the fall. But while conventional wisdom has it that summers are good for governments, the last three decades of polling indicates otherwise.

Comparing voting intentions in polls conducted before and after the yearly summer recess stretching back to 1978 shows that a government is just as likely to lose support over the summer months as it is to gain.

According to this analysis, the governing party has lost support in 13 of the last 32 summers. It has also gained support 13 times, while in the remaining six years the government returned to the House of Commons in the fall with the same polling support it had when it left.

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While the current Conservative government has had both good and bad summers (it gained in 2008 and 2009, but lost support in the summers of 2006 and 2007), as did the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney (four summers of increased support, four summers of decreased support), the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin saw their fortunes improve or remain the same in more than four out of every five summers in which their parties held sway between 1993 and 2006.

Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments between 1978 and 1984 fared much worse, however, losing support in five of those seven years.

And while the respite of the summer may not be as beneficial to the government as previously thought, the Official Opposition also has a history of outperforming expectations.

Deprived of the spotlight of the House of Commons and out of the news, the Official Opposition should be expected to see its numbers plunge in the polls. Instead, their numbers have improved in 14 summers since 1978, compared to 13 summers in which their support decreased and five in which their support remained stable.

In other words, both the governing Conservatives and the NDP opposition have about a 60 per cent chance of their polling numbers being the same or better when they return to Ottawa in September. On the other hand, they also have about a 60 per cent chance of their numbers being the same or worse.

But what of the parties whose leaders' reside in neither 24 Sussex nor Stornoway? They are even further removed from the public's attention during the summer months.

Indeed, these parties do have a rougher time during the break. In 40.9 per cent of cases their support dropped after the summer recess, while they have stayed the same in another 22.7 per cent of cases. Only 36.4 per cent of the time did their numbers improve.

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Undoubtedly, this does not bode well for the Liberals who are in the grips of trying to rebuild their party after a third-place showing in the last election. But the last five years of Conservative government indicate that the New Democrats have recently made worse use of the summer months, dropping in three of the five summers since 2006 and increasing only once (in 2008). The Liberals and the Conservatives have both seen their support increase and decrease twice each since 2006, but whereas the Conservatives have gained an average of 1.4 per cent per summer over that time, both the Liberals and New Democrats have dropped an average of one per cent over the last five years between June and September. In all, the three main parties have seen their support vary by an average of 2.2 points over the summer months since Stephen Harper first took office.

But that is a far cry from the turbulent 1980s. In that decade, party support shifted over the summer months by an average of +/- 4.6 percentage points per party – enough to transform the Tories' current 10-point lead over the NDP into a neck-and-neck race. By comparison, summers have shifted political support by 2.7 per cent per party in the 1990s and 2.1 per cent per party since 2000.

Of course, with the Conservatives now enjoying a majority government their position in the polls may be of secondary importance this early in their mandate. But the calendar may not be as much of an indicator of political support as is commonly thought, an important factor considering the next election campaign is scheduled to begin after the summer recess of 2015.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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