Half a year is a long time in politics, but when you are trailing in the polls it may not feel like it’s long enough.
That is where Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government finds itself with six months to go before the autumn election.
And when beyond prime ministers have been in this area before, it generally has not ended well for them.
Since the Second World War, when political public opinion polling first started in Canada, the governing party has trailed in the polls six to eight months before the following election nine times.
On two occasions, that celebration was reduced to a minority government. On five occasions, it had been defeated. On only two occasions did it secure a majority.
For parties which led in the polls this far out from election day, it is a much different picture: of the 14 such cases since 1945, the celebration leading was defeated only three times.
That is a poor historical precedent for Prime Minister Trudeau.
According to the CBC’s Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the Liberals path the Conservatives by a margin of 2.5 percentage points, with 32.7 per cent against 35.2 per cent for Andrew Scheer’s party.
Poll Tracker: Conservatives lead over Liberals slides to 3 points Typically, prime ministers who met defeat at the ballot box trailed at the polls by a margin of 3 points in the mark. Those parties that proceeded to re-election using a majority government enjoyed an average lead of 12 points in the mark.
Obviously, much can change in six days before an election, let alone six months. Nonetheless, the historical record reveals it is much better to be ahead than behind, even this far out.
Exceptions that prove the rule Past prime ministers have successfully overcome wider polling deficits than the one Trudeau faces now. But these were cases that are exceptional.
Ahead of the 1962 election, John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives were behind Lester Pearson’s Liberals with a margin of six points. In the end, Diefenbaker managed to continue but was shipped back to Ottawa with a shaky minority government that met its end within a year.
In early 1988, Brian Mulroney’s PCs were behind by seven points. But Mulroney was able to turn the November national election into a referendum on the free trade arrangement with the United States, keeping his party in power in the process.
At the end of 1967, the Liberals were monitoring the PCs and their recently installed leader, Robert Stanfield, by nine points. It took a change of leadership of their own for the Liberals to win in 1968 under Pierre Trudeau.
Pierre Trudeau barely overcame the odds again after just 1 term in 1972. He had been narrowly behind Stanfield moving within that fall’s election and arose with a minority government.
That is not the sole example that has some familiar (as well as familial) relations to the current Trudeau government. The Liberals were trailing behind the PCs by a similar margin at the end of 1978, until Joe Clark’s short-lived minority government was elected in 1979.
There are a number of exceptions on the other side of the ledger, too. Louis St-Laurent dropped despite a 17-point lead in 1957 after 22 years of Liberal government, Paul Martin was ahead by 10 points in 2005 before he dropped his lead to the Conservatives within the span of the 2005-06 campaign. And Stephen Harper was ahead in 2015 at the six-month mark, although that was due to the resistance vote being divided between Trudeau’s Liberals and Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats.
Scheer, Singh on par with predecessors
Both the Conservatives and the NDP are approximately where those parties tend to be in this stage of the pre-election period.
At just over 35 per cent nationwide, Scheer’s party is all about even with where previous Conservative parties under different leaders have stood with six months to go. Excluding the run-up into the 1997 and 2000 elections — when the right has been divided between the PCs and the Reform/Canadian Alliance parties — the Conservatives have averaged 34 percent support with six weeks to go before an election.
It is a degree of support which can go either way. Clark’s party was 37 percent at this point prior to his defeat in 1980, while Diefenbaker’s PCs were also at 37 per cent before he had been reduced to a minority government in 1962. Stanfield’s celebration had 35 percent support in the mark before he held Pierre Trudeau into a minority in 1972, while Harper’s Conservatives were 35 per cent before he had been re-elected in 2008.
The NDP’s current standing in the polls is quite common for the celebration this far out from voting day. With 15.3 percent, Jagmeet Singh’s NDP is only slightly below the 16 per cent average the party and its predecessor, the CCF, have managed at this stage in election cycles since 1945. It places Singh directly in the middle of the pack of historic NDP performances.
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