Justin Trudeau's Liberals lead in year-end polls

As the year in politics comes to a close, new polls tell differing stories of the federal race on the eve of an election year. Polls analyst Éric Grenier tries to make some sense of them.

What three contradictory polls say about the political landscape on the eve of an election year

Three new polls show the Liberals under Justin Trudeau, right, still leading the Conservatives and Stephen Harper, left, and Tom Mulcair's NDP - but the polls don't agree on the strength of that lead. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A flurry of federal polls over the last few days has painted a picture of Canada's political landscape as the year comes to an end. However, what that picture shows is up for interpretation.

Three polls, all conducted in early December, have been published in the last week. The first, by Léger and published by Le Devoir, a Montreal French-language daily, on Saturday pegged the Liberal support at 38 per cent of decided voters, followed by the Conservatives at 32 per cent and the New Democrats at 19 per cent.

Two polls published on Monday — an EKOS Research survey published by iPolitics and a Forum Research poll published by the Toronto Star — also each gave the Liberals a lead, but of wildly differing magnitudes.

EKOS put it at just a single point, with the Liberals at 32 per cent and the Conservatives at 31 per cent and the NDP trailing at 20 per cent. Forum, on the other hand, gave the Liberals 41 per cent support to 33 per cent for the Conservatives and just 17 per cent for the NDP.

It makes for a confused muddle as Canadians enter a year in which a federal election must be held by mid-October.

ThreeHundredEight.com's weighted averages award the Liberals 36 per cent support at the moment, against 32 per cent for the Conservatives and 20 per cent for the New Democrats. That would seem to suggest the Liberals have arrested, and perhaps reversed at the expense of the NDP, a slow decline from the 38 per cent support they had in mid-September, while the Tories are maintaining their slightly higher recent levels of support.

Following the trends

When very different results are seen as in these three new polls, it is important to focus on the trends, both of the individual polls themselves as well as the aggregate, rather than the numbers themselves.

Léger has been recording a high degree of stability since it started releasing federal numbers this fall. Over their last three polls, the Liberals have only wobbled between 36 and 38 per cent support, while the Conservatives have stuck to between 32 and 33 per cent and the NDP between 19 and 21 per cent. Considering the potential for sampling error, that is the equivalent of no change at all.

The last three surveys conducted by EKOS have also shown some stability, with the Liberals between 32 and 34 per cent, the Conservatives between 28 and 31 per cent, and the NDP between 20 and 21 per cent. However, the Conservatives have been making steady, if incremental, increases in those polls going back to October.

Forum has shown less stability, particularly in the case of the Liberals.

The firm had the party plunging from their highs in the summer before this latest uptick of five points — but on the flip side have had the Conservatives between 32 and 34 per cent over their last five polls going back to August with no discernible momentum. The same can be said for the NDP, which has been at between 17 and 19 per cent in the last seven polls by Forum.

Context important

It is also important to consider the context. EKOS's numbers are quite low for the Liberals, but the firm has tended to have lower results for the party of late. Forum's numbers are quite high for the Liberals, but the firm has been the only pollster to ever record the party at 40 per cent or higher since Trudeau became leader. In that sense, it can be said the Liberals are doing well — but only by Forum's already bullish standards.

We can place these polls in the trends that have been apparent more widely.

The Conservatives, for instance, certainly appear to be more competitive than they were earlier in the year. The party has registered either 32 or 33 per cent support in seven of the last eight national polls. We need to go back 48 polls prior, to October 2013, to find seven surveys with Conservative support being that high.

But that uptick does not appear to have been entirely at the Liberals' expense. The New Democrats have registered 21 per cent support or less in six of the last seven polls. In the prior 10 polls stretching from September to early November, the party was at 21 per cent or higher in nine of the 10.

Ontario and Quebec

The race is still tight in Ontario, though the Liberals may have given themselves a little breathing room. The gap has widened from two to four points in the polling averages, with the Liberals at 39 per cent and the Conservatives at 35 per cent in the province. While that might be more comfortable for the Liberals, that is still close enough that both parties can plausibly expect to win 50 to 60 seats.

The race in Quebec is still primarily between the Liberals (32 per cent in the averages) and the New Democrats (28 per cent), but of note is the improvement in the Conservatives' position. The party had been averaging about 14 per cent for most of the year, but these three latest polls put Conservative support in Quebec at between 17 and 19 per cent, echoing a small uptick that appeared in November.

It doesn't mean the party is on track to sweep Quebec, but, against an electorate divided between the Liberals and NDP, it puts the Conservatives in a better position to make some gains in the province.

The poll by Léger was conducted for Le Devoir between Dec. 8 and 11, interviewing 1,521 Canadians via an online panel. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply.

The poll by EKOS Research was conducted for iPolitics between Dec. 4 and 12, interviewing 3,276 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 1.7 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The poll by Forum Research was conducted for the Toronto Star between Dec. 11 and 12, interviewing 1,658 Canadians via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the total sample is +/- 2 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

ThreeHundredEight.com's weighted poll averages include all publicly released polls, weighing them by date, sample size, and the pollster's track record. Click here to read about ThreeHundredEight.com's methodology. The sample size, field dates, and methodologies of the polls included in the average vary and have not been individually verified by the CBC.

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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