New Brunswick·Analysis

Higgs's popularity has soared, but PCs still struggling to unlock the francophone vote

Premier Blaine Higgs heads into summer enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon because of his handling of COVID-19.

PC minority government is scoring record-high approval ratings

A political poll has showed Premier Blaine Higgs is enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon because of his handling of COVID-19. (CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs heads into summer enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon because of his handling of COVID-19.

But it's not yet enough for a breakthrough among francophone voters, who are still practising political distancing from the Progressive Conservatives.

Overall, the PC minority government, which was on the verge of being toppled just three months ago, is scoring record-high approval ratings in the midst of the pandemic.

The Angus Reid Institute recently had Higgs with the highest approval rating of any premier in Canada at 80 per cent.

And Narrative Research, formerly Corporate Research Associates, says the government's 81 per cent satisfaction result is the highest it has ever recorded in New Brunswick since it began polling more than 40 years ago.

Even 74 per cent of francophone voters, chronically cool to Higgs since he became PC leader in 2016, told Narrative they're mostly or completely satisfied with his job performance.

Yet many of those satisfied francophones remain reluctant to actually vote for him.

The Liberals had 51 per cent support compared to 32 per cent for the PCs among decided francophone voters.

"Among francophones in the north, we're seeing an increase in support for the PCs, but not necessarily enough that we can see them winning many seats in northern New Brunswick," says the CBC's polling analyst Éric Grenier.

Majority for PCs if election held now

CBC’s polling analyst Éric Grenier said while support for Premier Higgs by francophones in northern New Brunswick has increased it may not lead to winning more seats in the next election.

The overall 18-point PC lead provincially over the Liberals means a majority government for Higgs would "almost certainly be the result" if an election were held now, Grenier says.

But the seat gains would most likely come in the Fredericton and Moncton areas.

The Liberals say the high poll numbers reflect satisfaction with the province's collective effort on COVID-19, one that includes Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell and, not incidentally, an all-party cabinet committee on which Liberal leader Kevin Vickers sits.

"It's a combination, it's not one specific government or one specific political party," says Liberal MLA and health critic Jean-Claude d'Amours.

But PC party executive director Andrea Johnson says a lot of the credit goes to Higgs.

"I think it shows the majority of the province has confidence in how the premier has led this government and the province through this pandemic."

D'Amours says the high marks for Higgs also reflect a national phenomenon. 

"People are looking for their politicians to take care of them, and if you look across the country, the approval rating of each government is pretty high."

Grenier agrees and says another aspect of the New Brunswick trend is matched elsewhere: many voters are satisfied with their provincial governments but won't necessarily cast ballots to re-elect them.

"Even though they might like the way a leader is handling this particular issue doesn't mean they would vote for them in an election," Grenier says.

Francophone support for PCs has grown

Liberal MLA and health critic Jean-Claude d’Amours said the high rating is a combination of all the work done by the all-party committee. (CBC)

That's not to take away from the PC progress among francophone voters. The 32 per cent support is double what Narrative found last fall.

At that time, the PCs were at 16 per cent among francophones, in third place behind the Greens at 20 per cent and the Liberals at 55 per cent. 

But the gains are unlikely to allow the PCs to challenge Liberal dominance in heavily francophone ridings.

"The [Liberal] lead isn't as big as it was just a few months ago," Grenier says.

"But a lot of the seats they won in northern New Brunswick were won by such huge margins that even if we see a 10 to 20 point swing between the two parties, it still might not be enough to flip a lot of those seats." 

When Narrative measured party support in northern ridings, as opposed to among francophone voters, the Liberal lead over the PCs was 43-39, within the poll's margin of error and thus a statistical tie. 

Grenier says that might allow the PCs to make gains in northern ridings with mixed English-French populations. 

PC hopes of broadening support among francophones have been hampered by the premier's own inability to speak French and his involvement three decades ago with the anti-bilingualism Confederation of Regions Party.

He has said repeatedly that his views on language rights have changed since then.

The PCs elected a single francophone MLA in the 2018 election, Robert Gauvin in Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, but he quit the party in February to sit as an independent.

Gauvin left over a plan to close some small-hospital emergency departments at night, saying  the government wasn't sensitive to the realities of francophone and northern New Brunswickers. 

The hospital plan was quickly reversed but d'Amours says the controversy, and other concerns such as some Service New Brunswick outlets remaining closed, explain the poor PC results in francophone and northern areas.

"All those things combined still create confusion when you're saying 'do I want to support this one or that one?'"

Historical support for Liberals remains

PC party executive director Andrea Johnson said the poll results reflect the work Higgs has done to lead the province. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Johnson says the Liberal support must reflect historical voting patterns because Higgs's commitment to the entire province is clear.

"A rising tide lifts all ships," she says. "His focus is the entire province and his being the calm in the storm, leading us through the pandemic, gives people across the province confidence in him. How that relates at election time is anyone's guess." 

Angus Reid's poll sampled 237 New Brunswickers between May 19 and 24. The results for the province had a margin of error of 6.4 percentage points.

Narrative's poll was conducted from May 1 to 20 and sampled 800 New Brunswickers. The satisfaction numbers are considered accurate within a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points in 19 out of 20 polls.

The margin of error for the voter intention numbers, based on a smaller sample of 503 respondents, was 4.4 percentage points.

Those margins of error would be even higher among the smaller regional and linguistic sub-samples.

The numbers represent a snapshot in time, so it's not a foregone conclusion the PC honeymoon will last. 

Higgs has talked about using the COVID-19 recovery to springboard to a sweeping overhaul of how government works. 

Such an initiative might not enjoy the same consensus support as his pandemic response, and could trigger the kind of backlash seen over the hospital plan.

"Whether these kinds of numbers would hold right through to an election is another question entirely," Grenier says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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