COMMENTARY: When a big lead in the polls isn’t quite what it seems

Click to play video: 'Poilievre claims Trudeau ‘panicked’ for ‘plummeting’ in polls over parliament’s summer break'
Poilievre claims Trudeau ‘panicked’ for ‘plummeting’ in polls over parliament’s summer break
Canada’s House of Commons returned from summer recess on Monday, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre challenging one another on housing affordability. – Sep 18, 2023

Ipsos’s most recent poll for Global News shows that Pierre Poilievre’s Conservative Party is significantly ahead of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party.

This nine-point lead is the largest we have seen for the Conservatives since the Liberal Party’s support plummeted after the SNC Lavalin scandal before the 2019 election. If an election were to take place tomorrow, a nine-point lead should likely place the Conservatives comfortably in the majority.

However, is a Conservative majority guaranteed? Not yet.

The Conservatives still face a significant vote efficiency problem. As we observed in 2019 and 2021, the Liberals were able to win both elections despite the Conservatives receiving roughly 200,000 more votes each time.

Winning the popular vote but losing the seat count is akin to winning battles but losing the war in politics. The weakness in the Conservative’s nine-point lead lies not in its magnitude but in its distribution.

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Similar to the previous elections, the Conservative vote is concentrated in the West. While winning the West is a good start, even if the Conservatives were to win every seat in the region (which is unlikely), it would not be enough to secure a majority. The Conservatives need to make significant gains in seat-rich central Canada, but that’s where their lead diminishes.

In Ontario, the Conservatives are tied with the Liberals in terms of popular vote. This represents a substantial improvement from the last three elections but does not guarantee them a majority of seats in the province.

In Quebec, the Liberals trail the Bloc Québécois, with the Conservatives in a distant third place. Since Brian Mulroney retired from politics in 1992, the Conservatives have struggled to expand their seat count in Quebec. Even with a nine-point lead on the national level, the Poilievre Conservatives have not seen significant improvement in their standing in Canada’s second most populous province.

Click to play video: 'What policies will Poilievre’s Conservatives campaign on in next election?'
What policies will Poilievre’s Conservatives campaign on in next election?

While the current distribution of votes doesn’t guarantee a Conservative majority, Poilievre enjoys some advantages that no previous Tory leader has seen since Stephen Harper won his majority in 2011.

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Poilievre has a significant lead over Trudeau as the preferred prime minister. He also outperforms both Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in most of the leadership criteria tested, including the management of key issues such as housing, cost of living and economic management.

Poilievre even leads on character traits such as trustworthiness, the absence of a hidden agenda and the ability to heal Canada’s divisions.

All these factors indicate that the Poilievre Conservatives are in a favourable position when it comes to growing votes. However, they have yet to see a significant impact in Ontario and Quebec, at least not enough to secure a majority if an election were to be held tomorrow.

Our polling data shows that both the Liberals and the NDP are facing significant challenges in public opinion. Additionally, credible seat models suggest their combined seat performance in the next election is unlikely to surpass that of the Conservatives.

This implies that a viable governing arrangement for the Trudeau Liberals may require the support of both the Bloc Québécois and the NDP. Looking back at the 2008 attempt by then-Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion to form a similar alliance, it quickly collapsed and ultimately harmed Dion’s leadership, potentially aiding the Harper Conservatives in securing their majority in 2011.

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It is also true that the Poilievre Conservatives may find it challenging to govern without winning a majority. However, as Harper demonstrated after the 2006 and 2008 elections, there are opportunities to govern effectively without relying on a formal relationship like the one the Liberals and NDP have today, especially if the Conservatives have a significant lead over the second-place party in terms of seats.

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Lastly, what about the NDP? One intriguing finding in our poll is that NDP support has not increased despite the decline of the Liberals.

This is perplexing considering that the largest group of voters consists of NDP-Liberal switchers. Disappointed Liberal voters do not seem to be shifting toward the NDP. The explanation for this likely lies in the governing arrangement that Singh and the NDP have formed with the Liberals. As we have seen before, junior partners in such governing arrangements often face the same challenges as their senior partners without reaping electoral benefits.

In summary, the most recent poll indicates that the Tories are in a better position today than they have been since the 2015 election. However, unless they can increase their support in Ontario and Quebec, a majority is not guaranteed in the next election.

On the other hand, though the Trudeau Liberals are facing significant challenges, they are still holding on in Ontario. While this might not be enough to secure a majority or even a minority in the next election, it could potentially prevent the Poilievre Conservatives from securing a majority.

The NDP seems to have painted itself into a corner due to its governing relationship with the Liberals. At present, it appears that they have sacrificed the opportunity to attract a significant number of Liberal switchers in the next election.

Finally, the Bloc Québécois has the potential to become a significant player after the next election. Both the Liberals and Conservatives may need their support in some capacity to form a government.


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