Analysis

Polls give Justin Trudeau's Liberals little to celebrate this Canada Day

A year ago, the Liberals' re-election odds were looking good. No longer.

Conservatives in Quebec and the NDP in Ontario put pressure on the Liberals

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party is effectively tied with the Conservatives in the polls. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

It's their third Canada Day weekend governing the country — and the Trudeau Liberals have a lot less to celebrate than they did in previous summers.

With little more than a year to go before the 2019 federal election campaign kicks off, the Liberals are facing a closer race than a first-term majority government might expect. The party's lead in the polls has disappeared and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing pressure from both the Conservatives in Quebec and the New Democrats in Ontario.

When Trudeau marked his first Canada Day as prime minister, he was still enjoying his post-election honeymoon. The Liberals held a 16-point lead over the Conservatives and Trudeau's approval rating was 31 points higher than his disapproval score.

The honeymoon was over by the time his second Canada Day rolled around in 2017, but the Liberals were still in a strong position — ahead of the Conservatives by five points and with Trudeau's net approval rating at +11.

The Liberals held good leads in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada — the same kind of numbers that gave them a majority in 2015.

That's no longer the case.

The CBC Poll Tracker puts the Liberals at just under 35 per cent support, with the Conservatives at just over 34 per cent. The New Democrats, at 19 per cent, are up four to five points over where they stood on Canada Days past.

Of the four pollsters who have reported results in June, two have given the Liberals a narrow lead while the other two have put the Conservatives ahead — a textbook sign of two parties in a tie.

The Liberals are only narrowly ahead in B.C. and trail the Conservatives by five points in Ontario. Their support in Atlantic Canada is still robust and the party retains its wide lead in Quebec — but the Conservatives have made significant gains in that province, showcased by the party's impressive byelection win in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord.

Though some polls have suggested his spat with U.S. President Donald Trump has helped Trudeau, his own approval rating has also tumbled — to a net -11 points over the last five polls.

The result is that the Liberals likely would lose their majority if these numbers were repeated on election day. The odds of a minority government headed up by either Trudeau or Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would be about three-to-one in favour right now — potentially giving kingmaker powers to Jagmeet Singh and the NDP.

Shifting sands in Quebec

Quebec has long been key to the Liberals' hopes for a re-elected majority government in 2019. While the party has seen its support slip elsewhere in the country, Trudeau remains more popular in Quebec today than he was in 2015 when the Liberals took 40 seats in the province.

Quebec has seen the most significant shifts in support since the last election. Both the Liberals and Conservatives have seen gains while the New Democrats have watched their support crater; the party captured just 8.6 per cent of the vote in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord, down 21 points from its 2015 performance.

The Bloc Québécois is still in the midst of its leadership turmoil. Martine Ouellet was booted out as leader by party members in early June and a few of its dissident MPs have returned to the fold, but it's still not clear what kind of ending this story will have for the sovereigntist party. There are few indications it will be a happy one.

The Conservatives have taken advantage, recruiting former Bloc leader Michel Gauthier to campaign for the party during the recent byelection. This past week, Scheer promised to support Quebec having a single tax form. It's a move that's aimed directly at the nationalist voters who have supported the Bloc in the past and are poised to elect François Legault's conservative Coalition Avenir Québec party to power in October.

Conservative gains in Quebec narrow, not wide

But despite the significant swing in support toward the Conservatives in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord — the party gained 36 points — there are signs that the Conservatives could struggle to replicate that success elsewhere in the province.

Former junior hockey coach and newly-elected MP Richard Martel is very well-known in the riding. He was undoubtedly the key factor in the Conservative victory. Recruiting him was a coup, but the party will not be able to find dozens of Martels to run for them in 2019.

Instead, the Conservatives' support in Quebec — now polling at about 20 per cent — puts the party in range of only a few pick-ups in the province. With their current numbers in Quebec, the Conservatives are in play in as many as 18 seats. That's an improvement over the 12 they currently hold, but the party's support remains limited to a few regions of the province in and around Quebec City and in central and eastern Quebec.

Richard Martel (left) gave Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer his first seat gain in a June 18 byelection in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A new CROP/Cogeco poll illustrates the Conservatives' limited potential for new seat gains, with the party trailing the Liberals by 14 points outside of the two main urban centres, by 20 points in the Montreal suburbs and by 29 points on the island of Montreal itself. Only in the Quebec City region do the Conservatives hold a lead — but they already occupy most of the seats there.

The Liberals are still better positioned to win seats the NDP and Bloc could give up in and around Montreal. The Liberals are still in a position to pick up some 20 seats in the province, making up for some of the losses the Liberals could suffer in the rest of Canada.

Ontario NDP boosts federal party

Ontario is the province that could deliver the Liberals the most losses if the current polling holds its pattern until next year. The gains the NDP seems to be making in the province should be particularly troubling to Trudeau. Though two of the four pollsters reporting in June found the NDP stagnant in Ontario, Nanos Research and Ipsos have put the New Democrats at 26 and 28 per cent, respectively.

The NDP hasn't consistently polled over 20 per cent in Ontario since before the 2015 federal election — and the Liberals haven't been below 35 per cent since then.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is hoping to build on Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath's breakthrough in June's provincial election. (Galit Rodan/Canadian Press)

But it's difficult to separate the Ontario NDP's performance under Andrea Horwath in the recent provincial election — and the collapse of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals — from the federal polling numbers.

It may be no coincidence that the last time Trudeau's Liberals registered over 40 per cent in any poll in Ontario was just before the official start of the provincial campaign. And despite the federal NDP's gains, there has been no corresponding improvement in Singh's personal numbers in the province.

An ephemeral electoral halo?

It wouldn't be the first time the federal New Democrats have been buoyed by the success of their provincial counterparts. The federal party experienced a boost in Alberta after Rachel Notley's historic win in 2015 and in British Columbia after John Horgan's breakthrough last year.

Even the federal Liberals got a bump in Ontario after Wynne's unexpected majority victory in 2014.

The question for Singh and the NDP is whether the boost the federal party has gotten in Ontario — and the hit the Liberals have suffered — will hold, or will turn out to be mostly the product of voters' confusion between the two levels of government.

Either way, it's an opportunity for Singh's New Democrats to exploit. Ontarians are willing to give the party a hearing, as Canadians were willing to do in 2015 after the party's win in Alberta.

But it's the sort of opportunity the New Democrats have squandered before. If Singh can avoid doing that again — and if Scheer can build on his own opportunity for growth in Quebec — things could get worse for Trudeau's Liberals by the next Canada Day.

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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