Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Contradictory polls agree on one thing: Dwight Ball's Liberals are in trouble

Three polls, three seemingly different narratives. But the numbers still point to trouble for Dwight Ball's Liberals.

Polls suggest the campaign is taking a turn for the worse for the Liberals

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball was the frontrunner when the Newfoundland and Labrador election campaign began. But two recent polls put his party in second place behind the N.L. Progressive Conservatives. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Liberal Leader Dwight Ball entered the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election as the frontrunner.

He might now be entering the campaign's final week as the underdog.

Over three days, three polls were published — each offering a different picture of the race. One showed Ball and the Liberals with a commanding lead, while another gave Ches Crosbie's Progressive Conservatives a healthy edge. The third also gave the nod to Crosbie, though by a narrow margin.

But the numbers might not be as contradictory as they appear to be at first glance.

The first poll to be published was by MQO Research, showing the Liberals with 48 per cent support among decided voters against just 36 per cent for the PCs. The New Democrats trailed in third with 11 per cent, while another five per cent of respondents said they'd vote for the NL Alliance or independent candidates.

Then, Abacus Data showed the PCs with 42 per cent support, followed by the Liberals at 37 per cent and the NDP at 15 per cent. Another six per cent said they'd vote for other candidates.

Finally, Forum Research emerged with a tight two-point margin, the PCs edging out the Liberals 42 to 40 per cent. The NDP came up third with 13 per cent and others had six per cent.

Considering the margins of error — roughly three to four points based on Forum's sample of 856 eligible voters and Abacus's sample of 700 people — there isn't much that separates the Forum and Abacus polls. They both suggest that the race is competitive, with the PCs holding the advantage.

PC Leader Ches Crosbie and Liberal Leader Dwight Ball clash during a discussion about rate mitigation and the Muskrat Falls project during the televised leaders debate at the Here & Now studio in St. John's. (CBC)

The polls' field dates were pretty close together as well. Forum was polling on May 3 and 4, while Abacus was in the field between May 2 and 5. MQO, however, was polling from Apr. 25 to May 4 — work that was mostly done before the May 1 leaders debate.

That could explain the significant difference between the MQO poll and those by Forum and Abacus. It isn't that the polls contradict each other. It's that the complexion of the race may be shifting in Crosbie's favour.

That's what MQO's own data suggest. Though the sample sizes were small, MQO found the Liberals with a 15-point lead over the PCs before the leaders debate. After the debate, that lead was down to just three points.

West is red, central is blue, St. John's is the toss-up

The polls give a good indication of where each of the parties have their pockets of strength. All three found the Liberals leading in Labrador and in western Newfoundland — the only parts of the province where the Liberals won seats after they were reduced to six MHAs in the 2011 election, and where their candidates put up monster margins of victory in 2015.

In the Abacus and Forum polls, the PCs had the advantage in central and eastern Newfoundland, leading by 11 points according to Forum and nine points according to Abacus. The PCs won only a single district in this region four years ago.

The race appears to be closer on the Avalon Peninsula, though there is less agreement on how exactly it's shaping up there. Both MQO and Forum gave the Liberals statistically insignificant leads there, while Abacus gave a more comfortable 10-point margin to the PCs. All three surveys found the NDP with its strongest results there — not surprising, considering the party is running most of its candidates in and around St. John's.

It does raise the question of where NDP votes will go in the rest of the province, where support for the New Democrats ranged from five to 12 per cent. Those will largely be orphaned votes, as the NDP is only running three candidates outside of the Avalon Peninsula.

Was it the debate, or something else?

It is difficult to determine exactly what's behind the changing tide in this election. Political observers spotted little that suggested the debate was a turning point in the race. The Forum poll even found that more debate watchers thought Ball won the debate than Crosbie.

But it's undeniable that voters in Newfoundland and Labrador are disgruntled — and the incumbent is taking the hit.

According to MQO, just 13 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians think the general outlook in the province has gotten better in the last three months, compared to 41 per cent who say it has gotten worse.

By a margin of 66 to 34 per cent, respondents to the Forum poll said that the province has gotten worse rather than better over the last four years.

And Abacus found that two-thirds of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians — including a majority of people who voted for the Liberals in 2015 — think that a change is needed. On the top issue of the economy — which two-thirds said is in poor shape — voters said they thought the PCs would do a better job of handling it than the Liberals by a margin of three points.

In the face of all this, Ball's saving grace may be that the population isn't quite warming up to Crosbie. Forum found more people disapproving of both Ball and Crosbie than approving of them. According to Abacus, 28 per cent of voters have a positive impression of Ball, compared to 27 per cent for Crosbie.

Still, more people are unhappy with Ball than with Crosbie — Abacus found 41 per cent with a negative view of the Liberal leader, compared to 30 per cent for Crosbie.

It's a bad time to be slumping in the polls, with just six days to go before the election. A lot of voters remain undecided, though, and with the margins as tight as they appear to be, that could be enough time for the Liberals to flip things back again. Crosbie's relatively soft numbers make that a definite possibility.

But this is turning out to be a more interesting election than it looked to be at the outset. For Dwight Ball, boring and predictable would have been better.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

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

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