Quebec Liberals narrow the gap, but CAQ still has the inside track on fall election

Two polls suggest the margin between the CAQ and the Liberals has decreased by four to six points.

Two polls show the distance between the CAQ and the Liberals is tightening

The CAQ under François Legault holds a wide, election-winning lead among francophone voters in Quebec. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Recent polls suggest Philippe Couillard's Liberals have pulled out of a dive in popular support — but that doesn't mean the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) is no longer the favourite going into October's provincial election in Quebec.

François Legault's party still holds significant advantages over the Liberals and Jean-François Lisee's Parti Québécois (PQ). But instead of a 'change' election that would sweep Couillard out of power and Legault into it, the landscape is shifting back toward a more competitive contest between the two parties.

Two polls published in the last week suggest that the margin between the CAQ and the Liberals has narrowed significantly. The surveys, conducted by Léger (Apr. 6-8) and Mainstreet Research (Apr. 7-9), put the CAQ at between 30 and 34 per cent support, followed by the Liberals at 29 to 30 per cent, the PQ at 16 to 21 per cent and Québec Solidaire at nine to 12 per cent.

Léger gives the CAQ a five-point edge. Mainstreet puts the CAQ and the Liberals in a tie.

Both firms were in the field previously in the last week of February. The two polls point to similar trend lines, with the CAQ down three points in the Léger poll and two points in the Mainstreet poll. In both cases, the Liberals have benefited by those amounts.

Neither of those shifts is statistically significant, although the fact that the trend is repeated across two surveys conducted with different methodologies (Léger does its polling online while Mainstreet uses automated telephone calls) suggests it could be pointing to something real.

Legault loses momentum

This is a change of fortunes for the CAQ, which seemed to have the wind in its sails earlier this year. Léger has now recorded a drop in the CAQ's support in two consecutive polls: the party was scoring 39 per cent at the end of January. Mainstreet didn't record a spike for the CAQ in recent months, and instead has had the party wobbling between 30 and 32 per cent over the last four polls going back to December.

It all suggests the CAQ may have peaked too soon — something it and its predecessor, the Action Démocratique du Québec, have done before.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard still enjoys wide support among non-francophone voters, but that likely won't win him many more seats. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

This rebound only puts the Liberals back to where they were over the second half of 2017. That's still good news for Couillard, though. The two surveys putting the Liberals at 26 to 28 per cent a little over a month ago indicated that, had those negative trends continued, the party might have put itself out of contention entirely.

Nevertheless, at 29 to 30 per cent, the Liberals are in tough for re-election — and at these numbers would still see their lowest vote share in their party's history if an election were held tomorrow.

CAQ still mostly in majority territory

Despite the CAQ's decrease in support, the party remains in majority territory. With support distributed regionally as it is in the two new surveys, the CAQ likely would win between 56 and 81 seats, putting the party comfortably in range of getting the 63 seats needed for a majority government.

That's because the CAQ continues to enjoy wide support among francophones. Léger gives the party 41 per cent among French-speaking voters — 16 points ahead of the PQ. Mainstreet gives the CAQ a more modest eight-point edge among francophones (though over the Liberals).

Both surveys put the CAQ down only marginally among francophones. That slide appears to have occurred mainly in the Montreal region, as the party's support is largely unchanged in Quebec City (where it is already running up the score) and has actually increased elsewhere.

At nearly 20 points, the CAQ's lead outside of the Montreal area is so wide that it's conceivable it could get close to the majority threshold without a single seat in Greater Montreal — where it already holds a dozen.

Liberal rebound, or new options for anglophones?

The two polls also give very different indications of what is happening among non-francophone voters.

According to Léger, most of the Liberals' rebound can be attributed to non-francophones; among those voters the party gained nine points, to reach 75 per cent support. While that's unlikely to deliver many new seats, it could make the difference in a few close ridings in which anglophones make up a minority of voters. The CAQ, at nine per cent support among anglos, is not in any danger of stealing away the affections of anglophone Quebecers just yet.

But according to Mainstreet, non-francophones are still weighing their options. The poll found support for the Liberals among non-francophones down eight points to 62 per cent — still comfortably ahead — but it put the combined support for smaller parties at 25 per cent, including 10 per cent for the Quebec Conservatives and nine per cent for the Quebec New Democrats.

The two polls disagree about both the trends and the support for small parties (Léger puts it at just six per cent) among non-francophone Quebecers. Nevertheless, it could be an interesting subplot to keep an eye on in this year's provincial election.

No CAQ steamroller yet

Altogether, the polls paint a portrait of an electorate that is far from making up its mind. The CAQ still has the edge thanks to its support among French-speaking Quebecers, but the Liberals have rebounded from a slump in late February that could have proved fatal had it continued.

The Liberals will have little chance of holding on if they are unable to do better among francophones. Signs of a pulse in the Parti Québécois — undetected so far — would help the Liberals reduce the CAQ's advantage in this demographic.

Legault is still the favourite to win in October. But compared to Doug Ford's Ontario Progressive Conservatives, who appear to be benefiting from an enthusiasm for change after 15 years of Liberal government in the run-up to a June provincial vote, the CAQ has less margin for error — with little more than five months to go before Quebecers head to the polls.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.