Poll Tracker: Pandemic boosts Liberals back into majority territory

Liberal support spiked over the government's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and is holding as the Conservatives search for a new leader.

Aggregation of polls suggests Liberals have taken a wide lead over the Conservatives

Polls suggest the Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likely would win a majority government if an election were held today. The Liberals secured only a minority government in last fall's federal election. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals are enjoying support they have not seen since their post-2015 election honeymoon and would very likely secure another majority government if an election were held today, according to the latest projections from the CBC's newly re-launched Poll Tracker.

The problem for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is that the global pandemic that has helped boost his party's support is also one of the things preventing him from sending the country back to the polls in order to regain the majority he lost in the 2019 federal election.

According to the Poll Tracker's aggregation of all publicly available polls, the Liberals have the support of 40.3 per cent of decided voters, an increase of just over seven percentage points since the October vote. The Conservatives, under outgoing leader Andrew Scheer, trail with 28.4 per cent, a drop of six points.

This swing between the two parties now puts the Liberal lead at 12 points, wider even than their margin of victory in the 2015 election that first brought Trudeau to power.

Accordingly, the Poll Tracker estimates that the Liberals would be able to win around 186 seats if these support levels were replicated at the ballot box, more than the 170 needed to form a majority government. Their chances of winning at least that many seats with these levels of support are estimated at nearly four-in-five.

The Conservatives would be reduced to around 101 seats, a loss of 20 compared to their current standings in the House of Commons, with virtually no hope of coming out ahead in the seat count.

As the Liberals have surged and the Conservatives have slipped, the other parties have held steady. The New Democrats are at 15.6 per cent support and the Greens (who will choose a new leader in October) are at 6.1 per cent, virtually unchanged from where they stood on election night.

The Bloc Québécois has fallen about three points in Quebec and stands at 29 per cent in the province. The party likely would win around 27 seats with this level of support, with the NDP taking 22 seats and the Greens two.

Liberal support spiked as country shut down

It's clear that the governing party has received a boost as a result of the COVID-19 crisis — as have most parties governing provinces across the country. On Mar. 2, when the Poll Tracker made its last estimate before Trudeau began his daily pandemic press conferences, the Conservatives stood at 32 per cent, followed by the Liberals at 29.8.

Since then, the Liberals have jumped 10.5 percentage points. Their support level has stabilized at around 40 per cent since the beginning of May.

While it cost them their competitive standing with the Liberals nationwide, this shift in support also robbed the Conservatives of their lead in British Columbia and allowed the Liberals to pull ahead in Ontario by a significant margin.

The Liberals were taking a hit in Quebec in the early weeks of the pandemic, when polls were recording more dissatisfaction in that province with the federal government's handling of the crisis than elsewhere in the country — a trend that briefly pushed the Bloc ahead in voting intentions. But since the end of April, the Liberals have re-taken the lead there.

But the Liberals have seen their support grow most disproportionately in Western Canada. Compared to the 2019 election, the Liberals are up 10 points in Alberta and the Prairie provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba and 13 points in British Columbia. They are also up 11 points in Atlantic Canada, but just four points up in Ontario and six points up in Quebec.

The Conservatives have experienced their biggest slide in the West as well — down 13 points in the Prairies and 18 points in Alberta. That slide would not put as many seats in danger as the Conservatives' seven-point drop in B.C., however. The party has fallen only three to four points in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Next Conservative leader unlikely to boost support for now

There are a number of factors working in the Liberals' favour. National emergencies tend to produce a 'rally-around-the-flag' effect which sees support for governments increase. Opposition voices are harder to hear when the government is giving daily briefings and the House of Commons is operating at reduced capacity.

The Conservatives also lack a permanent leader ever since Scheer announced in December his intention to step aside. His own popularity has plummeted in recent months — just 19 per cent of Canadians have a positive impression of him, according to Abacus Data, down from 33 per cent at the end of the election campaign — and none of his potential replacements have caught fire with the public.

Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates, left to right, Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay, Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis. Polls suggests none of them would give the Conservatives an immediate boost in support. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole, the two front runners for the Conservative leadership race, are struggling to gain traction. Abacus found 25 per cent of Canadians did not know enough about MacKay to form an impression of him; that number rises to 36 per cent for O'Toole. And those numbers ballooned to 56 and 64 per cent, respectively, when we include the people who said they had "neutral" impressions of the two candidates.

Léger found that neither MacKay nor O'Toole would help to boost the Conservatives much in the short-term. Conservative support remained unchanged when MacKay's name was mentioned as the party's hypothetical leader. It dropped three points with O'Toole swapped in — and even more when the names of Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, the other two contestants, were tested.

Starting point for the murky road ahead

Scheer was little known when he became Conservative leader in 2017. While he didn't win the last election, he did make gains in both the vote and seat counts against a Liberal leader who had been seen as nearly unbeatable when Scheer took over the party's reins.

MacKay and O'Toole are in a similar position (though MacKay is much better known than O'Toole is now, or Scheer was then). They also might have a lot less time in the job before hitting the campaign trail — minority governments generally survive for less than two years and Trudeau will be 10 months into this term by the time the winner of the leadership race is announced.

The pandemic, however, makes an election call exceedingly risky. The potential blowback from calling an election for political gain in the midst of a national emergency could be ruinous.

The experience of the United States, which has had many problems organizing primaries as the virus spreads, offers a sobering example of the challenges of holding an election in the midst of a pandemic.

In other words, we probably aren't going to the polls soon — and much will change between now and whenever the next election is called. The severity of a potential second wave of COVID-19 is unpredictable, as is the state of the economy when the next election takes place.

It's very unlikely that voting intentions will hold constant, but whatever swings do occur have to start somewhere. As the opposition parties hammer away at the government, the Liberals will be trying to maintain the good will their handling of the pandemic has fostered. No one can assume they'll be able to do that, with all the unknowns that remain in the months and years ahead.


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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