NATIONAL

Off to a dead heat

A new Maclean’s survey shows a tight race nationwide, but a rout underway in Quebec

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 12 2005
NATIONAL

Off to a dead heat

A new Maclean’s survey shows a tight race nationwide, but a rout underway in Quebec

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 12 2005

Off to a dead heat

A new Maclean’s survey shows a tight race nationwide, but a rout underway in Quebec

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

The outcome of the January 23 federal election is up for grabs in English Canada, but already a foregone conclusion in Quebec, according to a new Maclean’s poll. After a week on the hustings, the ruling Liberals and the opposition Conservatives find themselves in a statistical dead-heat outside of La belle province—40 per cent to 37 per cent of decided voters. And while English Canadians seem less than enthused about their options—Stephen Harper and Paul Martin are rated as “inspiring” by just 13 and 11 per cent respectively—the early advantage appears to be titling toward the Tories. The official opposition is doing a better job holding on to its supporters from the 2004 vote, retaining nine out of 10, versus just three of four for the Liberals, and is making gains in key policy areas like taxation, crime and U.S.-Canada relations. And perhaps most surprisingly, the two parties are almost tied on health care, the issue that scared many voters away from casting a ballot for the Conservatives in past campaigns.

“It’s a worry for the Liberals,” says Greg Lyle, managing director of Innovative Research Group, the firm conducting Maclean’s weekly series of telephone and Internet opinion surveys. “The last election was such a horse race, and if you are giving up more of your past voters than your competitors that puts you at a real disadvantage.”

If the numbers are worrying for Paul Martin nationally, they are catastrophic in Quebec. The Bloc Québécois now holds a 21-point lead over the Liberals with the support of 52 per cent of decided voters. Sixty-two per cent

of Quebec respondents describe the Prime Minister as “corrupt,” and just six per cent find him “inspiring,” while 60 per cent say Bloc chief Gilles Duceppe is a “strong leader.” A greater percentage of Quebecers intend to vote Bloc than Albertans will vote Tory. The Liberals recent return to the Jean Chrétien-era strategy of saying a vote for the Bloc is a vote for sovereignty shows no indications of success. “Voters don’t find Duceppe to be particularly scary,” says Lyle. “And Quebecers are sophisticated enough to know that the guy going to Ottawa doesn’t do the separating.” While the Bloc will never run the table in the province, thanks to majority anglo and allophone ridings in Montreal and western Quebec, they stand to make gains if the trend

holds. Cabinet ministers Liza Frulla and Pierre Pettigrew, who barely squeaked to victory in 2004, are prime targets, as is Martin’s Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre.

This week’s national Maclean’s survey combines the results of a one-time telephone poll and an ongoing online panel. The phone survey, which had 800 randomly selected participants, was conducted between Nov. 28 and 30, and has a margin of error of +/3.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The Canada 20/20 online panel began with a sample of more than 5,000 Canadians coast to coast. The same group of participants will be asked questions about key issues and their voting intentions throughout the campaign. This week’s representative sample of 1,310 eligible voters has been weighted according to 2001 Census data and is considered accurate within +/2.7 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Although the marathon Christmas-season election campaign got off to a relatively slow start last week, there are already issues that seem top of mind for voters. The state of the health care system, a perennial worry, tops the list in both Quebec and the rest of Canada, with 44 per cent ranking it the most important concern. After that interests diverge. In Quebec, the environment, sovereignty, and provincial autonomy are other main voter priorities. In

Sixty-two per cent of Quebecers describe Paul Martin as ‘corrupt.’ Just six per cent ‘inspiring.’

the rest of Canada, ethics is the Number 2 issue, followed by taxation and the economy.

One issue that no longer appears to be a priority is same-sex marriage. The Liberals used it as a wedge in 2004, and Harper began his campaign by promising to reopen the debate if elected, but 56 per cent of respondents say it will have no bearing on their vote.

A surprise in the early days of the campaign is the emerging strength of Jack Layton and the New Democrats. Although the party is running a distant third in English Canada with 16 per cent of decided voters, its leader is far more popular. Layton is viewed favourably by 90 per cent of NDP partisans, and unlike his opponents, seems to have crossparty appeal, scoring well with Liberal and Bloc supporters. Twice as many Canadians— 25 per cent—find Layton “inspiring” as Harper or Martin, and 45 per cent describe him as the most “compassionate.” The party receives high marks from voters on health care, the environment and education. “The stage is very nicely set for him in terms of values,” says Lyle. “The compassionate revolution screams out to be done for the NDP.” The Liberals seem to have reached the same conclusion. Martin appeared on stage last week with Canadian Auto Workers head Buzz Hargrove to dangle the carrot of a Liberal-NDP coalition. As in 2004, Layton’s challenge will be keeping his voters from bolting to the Liberals if the Tories pull ahead.

The promise of a GST cut appears to have buoyed the fortunes of the Conservatives in the campaign’s first week. And it helped the Tories rally their base: 50 per cent of Tory supporters gave the first week of the campaign a thumbs up, versus one-third of Liberals who approved of Martin’s performance. But Harper faces his own problems on the road ahead. He remains unpopular, lagging far behind Martin on questions of leadership, and is perceived as overly negative. He ties with the Liberals on who makes more unrealistic promises. Few voters list the Tories as their second choice, unlike the NDP and Liberals, so the party will have to make up ground by attracting more than its share of undecideds. That’s a challenge, because Harper’s approval rating among unaligned voters trails Martin’s by 10 points. And if the early advantage is swinging toward the Tories, recent history suggests they may have a hard time keeping it. “In 2004, the Liberals went into the campaign bleeding like a stuck pig and still won,” notes Lyle.

“This time around the situation doesn’t look nearly as desperate.”

jonathon.gatehouse@ macleans.rogers.com

MACLEAN’S/ INNOVATIVE RESEARCH SURVEY:

For complete results, see www.maclean’s.ca