Poll points to shifting political sands in Quebec

For the first time, the federal Liberals are in third place on the Island

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The Gazette, Monday, June 2, 2008

Every month, La Presse publishes a CROP poll on provincial and federal voting intention in Quebec. It is regarded as the authoritative political poll in Quebec because of the size of the sample, its regional and demographic breakouts, and the enviable track record of the CROP brand. Only Léger Marketing is even in the same league.

While polling firms in English-speaking Canada do national surveys with a sample of 250 respondents in Quebec over two or three nights, CROP usually samples 1,000 Quebecers over 10 nights. CROP not only releases an overall voting intention, but a breakdown of the vote by language group and region, French and English-speaking, Greater Montreal, the island of Montreal, Quebec City and east, and the rest of Quebec.

The sample size, extensive methodology and overall track record are the reasons that when CROP speaks, the political class listens.

For the last three months, CROP's provincial and federal trend lines have been clear. Provincially, Jean Charest's Liberals have regained their mojo, while Mario Dumont and the ADQ have fallen back to a bad third place behind the Parti Québécois. Federally, the Bloc Québécois has been steadily losing ground, with the Conservatives holding their own as the competitive federalist alternative, while the Liberals are going nowhere under a leader who has no standing in his own province.

But the new CROP monthly, published last Thursday, sees more than a continuation of the trend. The numbers are talking in a way they haven't before.

Charest and the Liberals, on the move for months, are now back in majority territory for the first time since the March 2007 election. At 41 per cent for the Liberals to 32 per cent for the PQ and only 14 per cent for the ADQ, the Liberals lead in every region of the province, and trail the PQ by only six points, 38-32, in the francophone vote. (The Liberals lead the non-francophone vote 82-6 over the PQ, with the ADQ at three per cent.) These numbers indicate a competitive two-party race between the Liberals and PQ, with the ADQ right out of the game, even in their home base of the Quebec City region, where they have fallen to a bad third place at 17 per cent, while the Liberals dominate the PQ, 47 to 29 per cent.

Best premier? Charest, 39 per cent, Pauline Marois 33 per cent, Dumont, 13 per cent. Bye-bye Mario.

If an election were held today, Charest would be returned with a comfortable majority, the PQ would reclaim official opposition status, and the ADQ would be reduced to a handful of seats, at best, from the 41 they hold in the current minority legislature. Of course, an election isn't being held today, and won't be anytime soon. Mario will be clinging to the curtains in the Salon Bleu.

On the federal side, the story is that the Liberals, at 15 per cent, have now fallen to fourth place among the federal parties, behind the Bloc at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 28 per cent, and the NDP at 16 per cent.

This has never happened before.

The real news is that the Liberals have also fallen to third place on the island of Montreal.

This has never happened before, either. Ever.

According to CROP, the Bloc narrowly leads the Conservatives 26 to 24 per cent on the island, with the Liberals at 19 per cent and the NDP at 18 per cent. All those NDP votes can't be in Outremont, supporting Tom Mulcair. And all those Conservative votes can't be in the East End. Something weird is going on in the West Island ridings, something that isn't being detected anecdotally.

When you look at the breakout of the non-francophone vote, the Conservatives are at 34 per cent, the Liberals at 28 per cent and the NDP at 21 per cent. This is hard to credit overall, because it isn't observable on the ground. Perhaps this is the one wonky poll in 20 that pollsters always warn about in their disclaimers.

In the last half century, the Conservatives have scored minor breakthroughs in the Liberal strongholds of the West Island, in the 1958 Diefenbaker landslide, the 1984 Mulroney sweep, and the free-trade campaign of 1988. These were beachheads of two or three seats.

But the Conservatives have never led the Liberals overall on the island of Montreal. This five-point spread is outside the margin of error. Perhaps it's a rogue poll. It was certainly taken before last week, a very bad one for the Conservatives, with the Maxime Bernier fiasco.

The Liberals should hope so. Because these numbers are saying that non-francophones are coming to the same conclusion as francophones - that the Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion, doesn't have it.

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