Federal election 2015: Polls signal a long and grinding road

If your MP seems a little downcast as she trudges back to Ottawa for the return of the House Monday, show a little sympathy. Just when all the parties are hoping for a breakthrough, the polls are bad news for everyone.

As MPs prepare to return to Parliament Hill, polling guru says all parties are struggling

As MPs return to Ottawa for Parliament's first sitting of the election year, the three party leaders are faced with polls that offer sobering news for all of them. (Mark Blinch/Reuters/Nathan Denette/Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Nobody loves the sidewalk Cassandra with his hand-lettered message of doom: "Repent! The end is nigh!" All you can do is look down and scurry on.

So, if your MP seems a little downcast as she trudges back to Ottawa, show a little sympathy. Just when all the parties are hoping for a breakthrough, the polls are bad news for everyone.

It's not that the end is nigh, exactly. It's just that a long and grinding battle is nigh — and no party has reason to rejoice.

For the ruling Conservatives, the oncoming footsteps of Justin Trudeau's Liberals sound much too close. The Liberals are still two points ahead if you average all the recent polls. That, say the Cassandras, gives the Tories little chance to win more than a minority government.

"It's still not a situation where they could reasonably expect to win a majority government with the level of support they currently have," declares Éric Grenier, a polling specialist whose website, threehundredeight.com, gathers all the latest polls into one, giant, depressing mega-poll.

It's sobering stuff for the Tories, but it's no day at the beach for the Grits. Grenier says the Liberal lead is eroding — creeping down as the months tick by — and likely wouldn't be enough to win. As it stands today, he says, the Conservatives could still eke out a narrow win. Maybe.

"The Conservatives, with the levels of support we see right now, could probably win about 130 or 140 seats," Grenier explains.

But that won't get the champagne corks popping at Conservative headquarters. With 30 new seats bringing the total in the House of Commons to 338, 140 is nowhere close to a majority for the Tories.

"That would put them ahead of the Liberals, putting them in a minority position — which would give them the win in terms of the election. But the Liberals and the New Democrats would have a majority of seats so it might be difficult for the Conservatives to continue governing."

For whom the bell tolls

Cassandras are like that. They like to share the bad news around. John Donne figured it out in the 17th century: "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

The Peace Tower bells won't be the only ones MPs hear as they head back to work in this election year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

For Eric Grenier it's the electoral math that "tolls for thee," no matter your party affiliation. His method is to look at the 2011 results in every riding, using Elections Canada's reports from each polling station. Then, he applies those votes to the new electoral map — with new boundaries and 30 additional seats at play. Finally, he tweaks the numbers again, applying the shift in the regional polls to see how each seat might go if the polls are correct.

That's a big if. But Grenier says he irons out many of the bumps in individual polls by averaging all of them, producing huge sample sizes.

"In each individual poll, you'll see fluctuations that are going to happen just because of the sample size, margin of error, things like that. When you're combining polls together, you can get a smoother trendline that can tell you a bit more about where things are actually going," he says.

So, where are they actually going? Not to the promised land. The results offer little comfort to any party, save perhaps for the Greens, who seem to be on the move in B.C. and especially on Vancouver Island.

As for the NDP — don't ask. Grenier sees the Official Opposition headed back to third-party status, with one proviso. He says the New Democrats are still ahead of where they were before Jack Layton's Orange Wave lifted them into second spot in 2011.

"On average, we're talking about a gap of maybe two points between the Conservatives and the Liberals. The New Democrats are in third place but they're polling in a better place than they were in 2011 before the campaign started. So — where will it end up in October? It's impossible to say at this point."

Ah, but haven't we heard about a Liberal surge in "battleground Ontario?" Isn't that where the election will be decided?
Maybe, says Grenier, but it doesn't look very decisive now — quite the reverse.

"Ontario's the big one and if we're looking at the numbers right now, it's really virtually dead even between the Liberals and the Conservatives."

What about that Liberal surge? Well, he says, that was then. This is now.

"When we were looking at the numbers in September, the Liberals had maybe a 10-point lead. That has now narrowed to virtually no lead at all."

So, Ontario can't make up its mind. Can anyone? To some extent, Grenier says, yes. Right now, he paints Atlantic Canada Liberal red, and the prairies Conservative blue.

"Atlantic Canada is really to the Liberals what Alberta's becoming to the Conservatives."

Quebec, though, is hard to call, with the Liberals cutting deeply into the NDP base there but the New Democrats still leading among Francophones.

Watch out for the Greens

And British Columbia?
The Green party's Elizabeth May may be the one leader gleaning good news from the latest polls. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"B.C.'s a three-way race," Grenier declares. "We're seeing that individual polls will have any of the three parties in front — so that's really one of the close dogfights. But, even there, you can't discount the Greens, who are now polling in the low double digits. Could they win a second or a third seat? That's something that'll certainly be something to watch."

Sure, for spectators, it's all "something to watch." It's always more fun when you don't know how the movie ends.
But for the politicians, ready for battle in a new session of Parliament, these polls are something to dread. Essentially, they predict not just a dogfight but an inconclusive one, ending with what the British call a "hung Parliament" — left hanging with no clear winner.

All the more reason for your MP to march doggedly on, past the Cassandra with his sign, and to set about changing those poll numbers. Otherwise, the end could really be nigh.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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