Politics·Analysis

Liberals end year with national polling lead as opposition parties struggle to gain ground

The Liberals have more support in the polls today than they did a year ago, with gains in every part of the country. The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc, however, are no further ahead.

Polls suggest the Conservatives, NDP and Bloc have about as much support as they did a year ago

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals have led in national polls with an average of between 35 and 36 per cent support since the end of the summer. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

If an election were held today, the Liberals almost certainly would win it — and perhaps capture a majority of the seats up for grabs, too.

What a difference a year makes.

With 2020 coming to a close, the Liberal Party is the only federal party in a much better position than it was 12 months ago. According to the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the Liberals are up 4.2 percentage points since December 2019. The Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois have hardly budged, while the Greens are down nearly three points.

Nationwide, Justin Trudeau's Liberals lead with 35.7 per cent support, compared to 31 per cent for Erin O'Toole's Conservatives. The NDP under Jagmeet Singh trails at 18.3 per cent, followed by the Bloc at 6.7 per cent and the Greens at 5.4 per cent.

A year ago, the Liberals held only a narrow 0.5-point lead over the Conservatives and were solidly in minority territory.

But today's numbers would deliver around 167 seats to the Liberals, with about 111 seats going to the Conservatives, 32 to the Bloc, 27 to the NDP and one to the Greens.

That doesn't differ much from the current standings in the House of Commons — but it does put the Liberals tantalizingly close to the 170-seat mark needed for a majority government.

Liberals up in every region of the country

The trend line for the Liberals has been very steady over the last few months, but it was a roller-coaster year for the party before that. The Liberals were neck-and-neck with the Conservatives for the first several months of 2020 before their support soared in the early days of the pandemic.

At its peak in early June, the party reached nearly 41 per cent support in the Poll Tracker. The WE Charity controversy, however, sapped Liberal strength. The Liberals dropped to around 35 to 36 per cent support through to September. They have been there ever since.

But the Liberals are still better off than they were 12 months ago. Now, by comparison, they have more support in every part of the country. They have seen modest increases of three points in Ontario and the Prairies (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) and four points in Atlantic Canada. They are also up about five points in Quebec.

The biggest shifts, however, have been in Western Canada. The Liberals now have 33 per cent support in British Columbia, a gain of seven points over December 2019. The Liberals are also up nine points in Alberta, but that still puts them 30 points behind the Conservatives.

The bump in B.C. is the most consequential in terms of seats. The Poll Tracker estimates the Liberals could win 12 more seats nationwide than they were projected to win in December 2019, and that half of those gains would come from B.C.

National polling averages since the 2019 federal election from the Canada Poll Tracker. (CBC)

But when it comes to winning a federal election, Ontario makes the difference. The Liberals haven't given up their lead in the province since the last election and are still nearly 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. Along with Quebec and Atlantic Canada, that puts about 140 seats in the Liberal column before they even get to Manitoba — more than enough to secure a re-elected minority government.

The Liberals have benefited from Trudeau's improved personal ratings. The latest poll by Research Co. givesTrudeau a net +15 approval rating. In the polling firm's final survey before the 2019 federal election, Trudeau was -13.

Conservatives haven't made up any ground

With the exception of Alberta, the polls do not suggest that Liberal gains have come at the expense of the Conservatives. Overall, the Conservative Party of Canada is exactly where it was 12 months ago.

But that's not a good thing for O'Toole, since the Conservatives would probably have lost an election held 12 months ago.

Since December 2019, the party's support has shifted by two points or less everywhere but Alberta and Atlantic Canada. The Conservatives have gained four points in Atlantic Canada but still trail the Liberals there by about 19 points. In Alberta, the Conservatives have lost eight points.

Erin O'Toole's Conservatives have just as much support today as they did 12 months ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Support for the Conservatives is still largely concentrated in Western Canada. The party has 53 per cent support in Alberta and 46 per cent support in the Prairies, with significantly more support in Saskatchewan than in Manitoba. Some polls even suggest that Saskatchewan has supplanted Alberta as the Conservatives' best provincial stronghold.

But a recent Probe Research poll suggests the Conservatives are sliding in Manitoba. The poll put the Conservatives down eight points in the province compared to the last election, awarding the Liberals a 12-point lead in Winnipeg — a city the Liberals carried by only two points in 2019.

O'Toole still has a lot of work to do to get the Conservatives competitive with the Liberals in key battlegrounds. The party is now in third place in British Columbia. One recent poll suggests the Conservatives still trail the Liberals by a significant margin in the Greater Toronto Area, where O'Toole has his seat.

In Quebec, the Conservative party has only 17 per cent support — virtually unchanged from their performance in 2019. While Léger finds the Conservatives have an eight-point lead in and around Quebec City, they are still well behind in third place among francophones across the province.

Positive trend for the NDP in B.C.

Though the polls suggest Singh's NDP hasn't made a big move over the last 12 months, the party is in a marginally better position in some parts of the country. The New Democrats are up two points in B.C. and Alberta and three points in the Prairies, though they are a bit further back in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

A number of recent surveys have been more promising for the NDP, however. The party has scored between 19 and 23 per cent in five of the last six national surveys, and has been first or second in 13 of 17 polls conducted in B.C. since the end of October.

The NDP under Jagmeet Singh has about 18 per cent support nationwide, with its strongest results coming from British Columbia. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

This bump coincides with the B.C. NDP's provincial election victory on Oct. 24 — which might be no accident. It's difficult to know for certain whether poll respondents in British Columbia are separating the provincial and federal parties in their minds, which puts into question the apparent gains for the federal NDP.

But there is some indication the federal NDP might be getting a real boost. According to Research Co., Singh's personal approval ratings are significantly higher in B.C. than in any other part of the country, and better than they were in September.

Bloc taking seats off the table in Quebec, but not making gains

Yves-François Blanchet has successfully made the Bloc Québécois a factor in federal politics again, but he has not made more progress since the last election.

In Quebec, the party has just under 30 per cent support in the Poll Tracker. That's hardly changed since 2019, when the Bloc captured 32.5 per cent of the vote and 32 seats. Holding those 32 seats is still the most likely outcome of another election.

Yves-François Blanchet's Bloc Québécois is polling at an average of just under 30 per cent in Quebec. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

According to Léger, the Bloc is the first choice of francophone Quebecers, with 38 per cent support. But they only hold a five-point lead over the Liberals outside of Greater Montreal (where they trailed the Liberals by 11 points) and the Quebec City region (where they trail the Conservatives).

Keeping their seats away from the other parties does increase the odds of a minority government, which gives the Bloc influence in the House of Commons. But to keep that influence in Ottawa, the Bloc might need to win more seats away from the Liberals to compensate for gains Trudeau's party could make in the rest of the country.

No Annamie Paul honeymoon as the Greens fall back

The Greens seem to be the party hurt most by the political upheaval of the pandemic. Down 2.6 points nationwide since December 2019, the Greens' slide has been even steeper in the two areas of the country where they have seats: B.C. and Atlantic Canada.

The Greens have lost five points in both regions, dropping them to about eight per cent. That could put some of their seats in danger — and with just three seats, they can't afford to lose one.

In the job since the beginning of October, Paul is the newest leader on the block. Without a seat or recognized party status in the House of Commons, it will not be easy for Paul to increase her profile.

Annamie Paul's Green Party has lost ground in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, the two regions where the party holds seats. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

So it could be hard going for the Greens in the polls in 2021. The party needs to hope that the brighter spotlight of an election campaign will give it a boost. One problem for the Greens, however, is that the party has tended to poll best between election campaigns, not during them.

How long that period between votes will last is anyone's guess. In 2021, very few Canadians might want to dive into an election campaign while they remain focused on COVID-19 and vaccinations. Considering where the polls stand as 2020 comes to a merciful close, the Liberals appear to be the only people with an incentive to take that plunge.

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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