By Mark Levesque, BA Student, Simon Fraser University
After the federal election held on May 2, 2011, the Conservative Party of Canada formed a majority government, winning 166 seats in the House of Commons with 39.6% of the popular vote. In an historical first, the New Democratic Party (NDP) formed the Official Opposition in federal Parliament, winning 103 seats with 30.6% of the popular vote and the Liberals placed third with 34 seats from an 18.9% share of the popular vote. The Bloc Quebecois, won 4 seats in Quebec (the only province in which they fielded candidates) and won 6.1% of the popular vote. While they are not included in the figure, it is worth noting that the Green Party of Canada won a single seat and captured 3.9% of the popular vote.
The 2011 federal election was an interesting electoral phenomenon in many ways. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives formed a majority government, the first time Canadian voters had elected a majority government since the 2000 election which saw Jean Chrétien win his third consecutive majority mandate. There was the breakthrough of the NDP in Quebec; a surge that became known as the ‘Orange Crush’ which saw them win 59 seats in a province they had never been competitive in before and form the Official Opposition at the federal for the first time in their party’s history. Green Party leader Elizabeth May became the first Green Member of Parliament. Along with the successes, there were also the failures. For the first time since Confederation, the Liberals failed to form either the government or the opposition. The Bloc, which had dominated Quebec federal politics since its emergence onto the political scene in 1993, was reduced to just four seats. However, while there are many interesting stories that can be seen in the electoral tapestry Canadian voters weaved in 2011, the goal of this article is not to focus on how Canadian electoral opinion crystalized on May 2, but rather to examine how these opinions have, or have not, shifted since the ballots were cast.
In the months following the election, voting intentions remained fairly stable compared with the results on election day. After peaking at 40.3% support in June, the Conservatives began slowly trending downwards. A lot of the talk after the election was concerning whether or not the NDP could hold onto their newfound support in Quebec. While national support does drop slightly following the election, eventually sinking to 29.4% in July, they remained in second place nationally, suggesting that the Orange Crush was perhaps indicative of a new electoral environment. Conversely, the NDP’s continued strength nationally is indicated by the stability of Bloc support, indicating that Quebecer’s were not switching back en masse to the party that had dominated federal politics in the province for almost two decades. Liberal support remained fairly stable following their poor finishing in May, and began to trend upwards, reaching 20.2% support in July, around the same time the NDP were at their lowest point since the election—perhaps suggesting a negative relationship between the support for the two parties.
During the summer recess, Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, stepped down due to illness and appointed Nycole Turmel, a freshly elected Quebec MP, as interim leader. Following her appointment, criticism was levied at her former sovereigntist ties when it was discovered she had only given up her Bloc membership weeks prior to becoming an NDP candidate in the 2011 election. However, despite these connections, NDP support began to rise around the time of her appointment—although this may have been in part a result of public sympathy for Mr. Layton. Jack Layton passed away in August 2011, corresponding with public support of the NDP around 30.75%, their highest since the election. Mr. Layton’s passing would mean that Nycole Turmel would act as interim Leader of the Opposition until the NDP held a leadership convention. As well, it presented a time of opportunity for the Conservative government, as now all three opposition parties would be led by interim leaders when the House resumed session in the fall.
When the House resumed session in September 2011, federal voting intentions had not shifted significantly from the election day results. The Conservatives continued to trend slightly downwards, but maintained a sizable lead over the other parties. NDP support, under the leadership of Ms. Turmel, would also decline during the months to come. As well, the NDP leadership convention was announced in September. The date of the convention itself was set for March 2012, and the rules of the race stated that Members of Parliament that wanted to enter the race had to forfeit any caucus duties they may have had, such as critic roles and committee chairmanships. This means that as high profile NDP MP’s entered the race they would be placing much of the burden of acting as the Official Opposition on an NDP caucus that contained many relatively inexperienced MP’s. That the focus of the NDP on internal matters may have adversely affected their national polling results is also indicated by the slight upward trajectory of the Liberals during this period. With their own leadership convention a year away, interim leader Bob Rae, a former provincial premier and experienced parliamentarian, focused his party’s efforts on opposing the governing Conservatives and achieved significant media coverage during this time. Just prior to the conclusion of the NDP leadership convention, the NDP and the Liberals were only separated by around 4 percentage points (26.5%, 22.5%, respectively), the closest the two parties had been since the election. This proximity would prove fleeting, however, following the conclusion of the NDP leadership convention.
In March 2012, the NDP elected Thomas Mulcair as their new leader. He was a former provincial Cabinet minister in the Quebec Liberal government, and an important player in the breakthrough that the NDP achieved in Quebec. Following his election Mr. Mulcair and the other NDP MP’s vying for the leadership stormed back to the House, as well as in the polls. In the following months NDP support would peak at 33.6%, 3 percentage points above their federal election result. This came at a time when the Conservatives were continuing to trend slowly downwards, and at a time when the Conservative Budget and its omnibus implementation bill were attracting a fair amount of media attention. Conservative support ranged around 36%, making the gap between them and the NDP only 2.5 percentage points, and with some high poll estimates actually placing NDP support above that of the Conservatives. However, Conservative support would level off and begin to rise shortly thereafter this apparent closing of the gap, and NDP support would begin to trend downwards. After the election of Thomas Mulcair the Liberal’s fortunes began to decline, providing further evidence to suggest that the weakness of the NDP prior to the leadership convention was a result of its weakened caucus. At its deepest point the chasm between the NDP and the Liberals was around 14 percentage points, with the NDP ranging around 30-33% and the Liberals hovering around 18-20%. The gap between the two parties would begin to close again around the time of the three federal by-elections in November 2012 that saw the Conservatives maintain 2 seats in Calgary Centre and Durham and the NDP hold their seat in Victoria. Around the time of these by-elections the gap between the opposition parties shrunk to 27.6% for the NDP and 24.3% for the Liberals, before NDP support began to climb upwards and the Liberals began to slide downwards again.
So what we can we say about federal voting intentions since the 2011 federal election? Recent polling aggregation places the Conservatives at 35.1% (4.5 percentage points below their election result), the NDP at 26.9% (3.7percentage points below), the Liberals with 22.9% (an increase of 4 percentage points since the election) and the Bloc at 6.8% (up 0.7 percentage points). The Conservative’s is a tale of remarkable stability. Despite all the media reports of public outrage over the omnibus bills, the F-35 procurement ‘fiasco’ and nationwide protest movements such as Idle No More, to name a couple instances, Conservative support has remained stable, with a total range fluctuation from high to low of 5.01 percentage points over this time period. While they have fallen slightly in support nationally, they still remain the top choice for a plurality of Canadians. While their current numbers would likely not put them in majority government territory if the election were held today, they are not far off. Public support for the NDP has varied substantially more, ranging a total of 6.84 percentage points since the election. While they approached the Conservatives in early 2012, their support now places them 8.2 percentage points behind the Conservatives. They do remain the second most popular choice of Canadian voters, thereby continuing to show the durability of their unprecedented success in 2011. The Liberals remain in third place, 12.2 percentage points behind the Conservatives and 4 percentage points behind the NDP, with a range of 4.9 percentage points between high and low values during this period. The narrowing and widening of the gap between the NDP and the Liberals as indicated by the figure, when understood along with the Conservative’s relative stability, would seem to suggest that gains made by one of the major opposition parties comes primarily at the expense of the other. If that is the case, and if Conservative support remains relatively secure, then the opposition parties will be hard pressed to overtake the Conservative’s without either managing to somehow fracture their support base or take aim at each other’s. As well, having seen how the NDP leadership race may have affected their national support, it will be interesting to see if there is any change in the support for the Liberals reacts following the conclusion of their leadership race which is now underway. The Bloc’s story is also one of stability—but given that stability in their context means remaining at support levels that produced their worst electoral result since the party began competing in elections—stability is more akin to stagnation, indicating that the Bloc has yet to reconnect with the voters who turned to the NDP in 2011.