For 1st time since 2016, popular support for Pallister Tories dips below NDP, poll suggests

A new poll suggests 41 per cent of decided and leaning voters would vote for the NDP if an election were held in Manitoba tomorrow, while 37 per cent would vote for the Progressive Conservatives.

Poll released Friday suggests 41 per cent support for NDP, compared to 37 per cent for PCs

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister during a COVID-19 news conference in March. Support for Pallister's Progressive Conservative party has fallen since September, a new poll suggests, especially among women voters. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Popular support for Manitoba's governing Progressive Conservative party has fallen lower than support for the Opposition NDP, a new poll suggests, for the first time since the Tories took office four years ago,

Roughly four in 10 — 41 per cent — of decided and leaning voters polled in recent weeks said they would vote for an NDP candidate in a hypothetical election, according to the data from Probe Research.

That's compared to 37 per cent of respondents who said they'd vote for the Progressive Conservatives, marking a six percentage point drop in popularity since polling done just a few months ago.

"In September, the Conservatives still had a comfortable handle on power here and they were by far the more popular party," said Scott MacKay, president of Probe Research, on Friday. "This is has been a really dramatic shift of recent."

Probe surveyed 1,000 Manitoba adults between Nov. 24 and Dec. 4, choosing a random and representative sample of the population. Respondents were asked which party's candidate they'd be most likely to support if a provincial election were held tomorrow.

The obvious factor influencing the rapid fall in Progressive Conservative support is the COVID-19 pandemic, MacKay said Friday. Research done earlier in the fall showed Manitobans were anxious and upset about the government's handling of the pandemic, and some felt leaders were not doing enough or were delaying action.

But MacKay said there are likely other factors at work, possibly including Premier Brian Pallister's own political style.

"The way he communicates, I think he has a very … severe kind of approach, and I think he can be very intimidating to people sometimes," MacKay said.

"I'm not sure that that style plays to everyone, and it could be that it really doesn't work well with women voters."

PC support falling among women

The gap between Progressive Conservatives and the NDP was wider in Winnipeg, the poll suggests, where support for the Tories fell to 30 per cent compared to 46 per cent for the NDP.

The governing party has also lost a "significant chunk" of support from women voters in the province, the poll suggests, falling from 37 per cent in September to 29 per cent this month.

The NDP, however, have made gains among female and male voters, at 45 per cent and 35 per cent respectively. Nearly half of male voters (46 per cent), however, still prefer the Progressive Conservatives.

MacKay said the drop in Progressive Conservative support might be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The governments of the right, like the Pallister Conservatives, aren't really purpose-built for these kinds of pandemics and these kinds of crises," he said. "I think it's hard for conservatives to really open the treasury wide and, you know, to restrict people's freedoms and other things."

The NDP, on the other hand, may be coming off better.

"It could be, you know, that people look at the NDP and they regard … their kind of stimulus orientation that they have as being more sincere and really a part of their ideology," he said.

Not a nail in the coffin

Manitoba's other parties continue to trail behind the NDP and Conservatives, the poll suggests. The Manitoba Liberals were placed at 14 per cent — a loss of two percentage points since September — in the polling and the provincial Greens were up by one point to six per cent.

Fifteen per cent of all participants surveyed said they were undecided.

Pallister offered an indifferent response to the Probe poll. In an emailed statement, he said his government's top priority is to ensure the health-care system is there for everyone, especially the most vulnerable, during the pandemic.

"I don't care about polls, I care about Manitobans," he said.

Pallister has told Manitobans in recent weeks that they don't need to like him, but MacKay said that's not quite true for the premier.

"I think this is true about Mr. Pallister, and that can be very commendable, that he really does want to do the right thing and he is not going to be led by the polls. And I think that's a rare thing in politics nowadays," MacKay said.

"But the fact is, the mechanics of politics and elections do involve the leader of the party connecting in some way with the electorate, and I think he does have trouble with this."

But MacKay said lower support for the Progressive Conservatives now doesn't necessarily mean a change of government to come. The Tories still have three years in their mandate, he said, and will still be in office when the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror.

There's also no guarantee that Pallister will continue as the party's leader in another election, he added.

"It could be that when we talk about rebuilding the economy and getting started again and having sort of a sensible, prudent approach to reopening, that the Conservatives will look good — they will be seen as the sort of natural governing party for that kind of era," he said.

"I really wouldn't write the obituary of the Pallister Conservatives just yet," he said.

The Probe survey was commissioned by the Winnipeg Free Press. Probe used modified random digit dialing and had a live voice operator invite respondents to fill out a survey online.

With the sample size, the poll says with 95 per cent certainty the results are within +/- 3.1 percentage points of what they would have been had Manitoba's entire adult population been surveyed.