Federal polls show a steady race — but lots of potential for swings to come

No trends are emerging in the early days of the campaign, with the polls still showing a tie between the Conservatives and Liberals after the first week.

Liberals and Conservatives still nearly tied in polls, with Liberals holding the edge in seats

The Liberals under Justin Trudeau (left) are neck-and-neck with Andrew Scheer's Conservatives in the polls, but would likely win more seats due to leads in Ontario and Quebec. (Patrick Doyle, Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

After one week on the campaign trail, the dynamics of this federal election look unchanged. The race remains close between the two leading parties and the Liberals probably are in a position to win more seats than the Conservatives.

It all suggests that the opening days of the campaign haven't moved public opinion in one direction or another — that the campaign to date has been notable less for what has happened and more for what hasn't happened ... yet.

As of the Sept. 17 update, the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker gives the Conservatives the slimmest of leads in the national polling average, with 34.4 per cent support to 34.1 per cent for the Liberals. Compared to where the numbers stood one week ago, that is an increase of just 0.6 points for the Conservatives and 0.3 points for the Liberals — in other words, no movement of any real significance.

But the competitive national race still masks a regional distribution of support that works to the Liberals' advantage.

The Poll Tracker estimates that the Liberals would have about a 67 per cent chance of winning the most seats if an election were held today, thanks to leads in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada that are likely to deliver Justin Trudeau more seats than the Conservative dominance in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba gives Andrew Scheer.

A stable trend line is the main takeaway at this stage. In no region of the country has the margin between the Liberals and Conservatives shifted by more than a single percentage point, while the Liberals' seat projection lead has only inched up by five seats, largely driven by marginally improving numbers in Quebec.

That stability suggests the Liberals momentum of the summer — slow and plodding as it was — might have ground to a halt. Of the six pollsters who published national numbers in the past week, four of them have showed no change for the Liberals compared to their previous surveys conducted in August. The other two pollsters showed increases of only one or two points.

Race for third tilting to the New Democrats?

If any trend seemed ripe to develop in the early days of the campaign, it was the NDP's struggles. The party's problems in the polls put Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats in a race for third place with the Greens under Elizabeth May.

Instead, it looks like the gap between the Greens and New Democrats might be widening.

The New Democrats stand at 13.8 per cent support in the Poll Tracker against 9.5 per cent for the Greens. This represents an increase of just over two points in the margin between the parties since last week. It's also the lowest point in the Poll Tracker for the Greens since mid-May.

The Greens under Elizabeth May (left) are falling behind Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats in the polls. (Ben Nelms/Reuters, Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The NDP's improving fortunes in the Poll Tracker are somewhat artificial; they're due in part to the release of new polling numbers by firms like Nanos Research, Ipsos and Abacus Data — firms which generally have recorded higher levels of support for the New Democrats than some other polling firms which were more active in the field before the campaign kicked off. To a lesser extent, a shift in the mix of polls in the field recently may be contributing to the Greens' apparent polling slump.

Still, it is a trend line that is worth monitoring over the coming days — particularly since the Greens had more negative headlines in the first week of this campaign than did the New Democrats.

The picture isn't rosy for the NDP, however. The party is still scoring 15 per cent or less in polls published over the last week, putting it on track for its worst performance since before former leader Jack Layton's first election in 2004.

Voter fluidity on the left

While the NDP and Green shifts are small, the largest potential for movement does seem to be on the left side of the party spectrum at the moment.

Polling by Ipsos, Abacus and Léger suggests that Conservative supporters are the ones most firm in their party preference and the least likely to switch. This might be a product of seeing no other palatable options on the ballot — Léger found that Conservatives were at least twice as likely as supporters of others parties to say that no other party was their second choice.

The Liberals have some potential to bleed support, but not as much as the New Democrats and Greens. Ipsos found only 39 per cent of NDP voters were certain of their choice, while only 31 per cent of Green voters said the same thing. A majority of Green and NDP voters told Abacus they were very or somewhat likely to switch to another party.

Léger also found supporters of these two parties were less likely to say their choice was final than those backing the Conservatives and Liberals.

This is where the Liberals might have more of an upside than the Conservatives. By margins of at least two to one, the Liberals are more often listed as the second choice of Green and NDP voters than the Conservatives are — and those Green and NDP voters are the most likely to wander around.

It means the Liberals have more potential, while the Conservatives have more certainty in their voting base. After the first week of campaigning, that may be the only major trend emerging.


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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