Summertime poll has bad news for Liberals

Despite the bad economy and a new leader, the Liberals are running second

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The Gazette, Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The influence of polls on the political class can sometimes be overstated, but occasionally there is one that has an impact on decisions such as the timing of an election.

That's the kind of impact poll released by Ipsos this week for Canwest Global, indicating a Conservative summer surge to 39 per cent, with the Liberals at 28 per cent, and the NDP at 14 per cent. The Tories are up five points since the last Ipsos poll two months ago, and the Grits are down seven.

These numbers would put the Conservatives right on the doorstep of certain majority territory at 40 per cent, and should give the Liberals serious pause about the possibility of forcing an election which, in these circumstances, they would certainly lose.

The party that should be holding a double-digit lead, with a brand-new leader and a very bad economy, is instead down by double digits.

The Liberals got some cover, and some comfort, from a Decima poll released the next day showing the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat at 32 and 31 per cent respectively. But all that tells them is that, at best, they might form a weak minority government.

But it is the Ipsos poll that has got politicos, especially Liberals, talking as they prepare to go to a summer caucus next week in Sudbury. "Maybe this will bring people to their senses," says one senior member of Michael Ignatieff's shadow cabinet.

It isn't just the overall numbers that should worry the Liberals. The regional breakouts are even worse, and Michael Ignatieff's leadership numbers have gone south.

Consider: In Ontario, the Conservatives have moved out to 43 per cent to 31 per cent over the Liberals. That's huge. In a province with 106 seats, which provided as many as 75 seats to the Liberals as recently as 2004, these numbers would translate into at least 65 Conservative seats to about 35 for the Grits. The Liberals would be reduced to a party in the Greater Toronto Area.

In Quebec, Ipsos has the Bloc at 35 per cent, the Liberals at 29 per cent and the Conservatives at 20 per cent. This means only two things - the Liberals can no longer claim to be the only federalist alternative to the Bloc, and the Conservatives are gradually getting back into the game in the Quebec City region, which last year gave them eight out of their 10 seats in Quebec, with 22 per cent of the province-wide vote. They're almost there again, and any Conservative seat losses at this point would be to the Bloc, not to the Liberals. The Liberals, with 14 Quebec seats, would certainly pick up as many as 10 more with these numbers, but nothing like the 35 seats out of 75 in Quebec they were looking at in the spring, when they briefly led the Bloc, and the Conservatives' voting intention had cratered to the low teens.

So in two provinces that together provide 181 seats in a 308-seat House, the Liberals today might win 60, about half of what they would need to form a weak minority government.

And the question is, where would they pick up the other 60 seats? Answer: They wouldn't. They can't make the math work for them. In the Atlantic, a regional Liberal stronghold, the Grits lead the Conservatives by only two points, 34 to 32 per cent. There are only 32 seats in the entire region, and it's difficult to see how the Liberals could add to their total in, say, Newfoundland, where they already hold all seven seats, or in Prince Edward Island, where they hold three out of four.

In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the Conservatives are at 57 per cent, and the NDP is a distant second at 25 per cent. Alberta? Conservatives 64 per cent, Libs 21 per cent.

In British Columbia, the Tories are at 38 per cent, and the Libs are at 27 per cent, meaning the Liberals are nowhere outside the Lower Mainland around Vancouver, and this in a province with 36 seats.

Then when the leadership scores are factored in, it's clear that the Liberals have a lot of work to do on the party's program and the leader's message. On a deck of economic questions, at a time when the economy swamps all other issues, Stephen Harper dominates Ignatieff on "improving the national economy" and "managing Canada's finances." The only issue on which Iggy leads Harper is on "protecting the environment," and even there by only 45 to 41 per cent.

Conclusion: Harper's had a very good summer, and Iggy has had a very bad one. These numbers also reflect voters' displeasure with Ignatieff's election brinkmanship in June, and their unease with his bio. It's not that he's a blank page, he just hasn't filled it out.

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