Across Canada, polls suggest it’s (mostly) better to be in power during a pandemic

Politics·Analysis

Though some leaders have come down from their spring peaks, polls suggest governing leaders and parties in Canada still have more support today than they did before the pandemic began.

Nearly every governing leader and party is better off in the polls than they were in February

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most provincial premiers now have more support in the polls than they did before the pandemic started.(Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Support for most Canadian governments soared in the early months of the pandemic, as voters rattled by the crisis rallied around their leaders. Nine months later, most governing parties and their leaders still have more support than they did before COVID-19 shut the country down in March.

In some cases, ratings that were dismal when the year began have been completely upended — possibly shifting a few political fortunes in the process.

Most premiers, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, began the year rating higher on disapproval than approval. Now, nearly all of them have their heads back above water, while their parties have solid leads in the polls.

In order to get an apples-to-apples comparison, it's best to compare work done by the same pollsters. The Angus Reid Institute, Narrative Research, Campaign Research and Léger all conducted polls in individual provinces or nationwide in February — before COVID-19 was having much of an impact in this country — and over the last six weeks, as case numbers increased alarmingly.

Comparing their findings (averaged when multiple pollsters have been active in some provinces) shows that nine out of 11 provincial and federal governing leaders have higher approval ratings at this stage of the pandemic than they did before it began.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey has seen the biggest increase — though that's in comparison to the approval ratings for his predecessor, Dwight Ball, around the moment Ball announced he would be resigning. Furey's approval rating is 27 points higher now than Ball's was then.

Another Atlantic Canadian premier, Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil, is at the top of the list with a gain of 25 points. He's followed closely by Ontario's Doug Ford, who is up 24 points. That is a significant reversal for the two premiers, who both had approval ratings under 30 per cent at the beginning of the year. Now, a majority of their constituents approve of them.

Only two premiers have lower approval ratings now than they did nine months ago: Alberta's Jason Kenney and Manitoba's Brian Pallister. Perhaps it's no coincidence that these are two of the provinces with the highest COVID-19 rates in Canada.

Compounding the situation for both Pallister and Kenney is the fact that neither had positive approval ratings at the outset of the pandemic.

It's clear that there has been a significant rally-round-the-flag effect for governing leaders: seven of 11 — including all four Atlantic premiers — have experienced double-digit increases in their approval ratings. Their standings might be lower than they were at their peak in the spring, but politically, most premiers and the prime minister have benefited during the pandemic.

Most governing parties lead in the polls, at least for now

These leaders' parties also have gotten a bump in the polls over the last nine months. On average, governing parties are up 6.4 points in voting intentions since February. Only one has experienced a decline.

Some of these shifts have been significant and they range across both regions and parties. The Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Progressive Conservatives in Prince Edward Island and Ontario and the New Democrats in British Columbia — they've all experienced double-digit increases in support since February.

The biggest increases have been for the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals (+21) and Dennis King's PCs in P.E.I. (+16). John Horgan's B.C. NDP parlayed their polling gains into a majority government in the province's October election.

Scott Moe's Saskatchewan Party also won re-election in October. The party has not seen a bump in the polls since the beginning of the year — but since it had 58 per cent support in February, it hardly matters.

The Manitoba PCs are the only governing party to see its position worsen over the course of the pandemic. The party has dropped six points in polling by the Angus Reid Institute since February, putting it one percentage point behind the opposition New Democrats. Though Probe Research was not in the field in February, a new survey by the Manitoba-based polling firm has the NDP ahead by four points — the party's first lead in Probe's polling since 2012.

The Manitoba New Democrats are a rare example of an opposition party doing better during the pandemic. Six of 11 Official Opposition parties have lost support since February and only two have made gains of three points or more — the other being the Alberta New Democrats.

On average, Official Opposition parties have lost 2.4 points in the polls since February. The biggest drops have been suffered by the Greens in P.E.I. (-10) and the PCs in Newfoundland and Labrador (-9).

But it's even worse to have no official role whatsoever. None of the 14 federal or provincial parties with seats in a legislature that form neither a government nor an Official Opposition have made gains in the polls since February. On average, those parties have lost three percentage points — tough points to lose for parties that generally have lower support to begin with.

Few scheduled elections on the horizon

Though the incumbent parties in British Columbia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan were able to capitalize on their strong support with election victories in 2020, only Newfoundland and Labrador is scheduled to go to the polls next year.

Nova Scotia, which has no fixed election date law, could hold an election in 2021 since that will mark four years since the province's last vote. But an election is not legally required in Nova Scotia until 2022.

Some leaders could be tempted to call an early election, however. With the exception of the United Conservatives in Alberta and the Manitoba PCs, every governing party has a clear lead in the polls in their province, or federally in the case of the Liberals.

With a minority government in Ottawa, Trudeau or the opposition parties can kick off a new campaign whenever they like. Ontario and Quebec have an election date on the calendar in 2022 — but there's nothing to stop premiers Ford and François Legault from pulling the plug sooner.

(From right to left): Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, Quebec Premier François Legault, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Ford and Legault have improved their political standings in the polls since February. Pallister and Kenney have not.(Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

That thought may have crossed their minds already, because in a pandemic climate, there's no way to know for sure what's coming next. Successful navigation of the next stage of the pandemic could keep their buoyant polling numbers afloat throughout 2021 and beyond.

But another wave of COVID-19 (or the continuation of the current one), a botched vaccine roll-out or the impact of a gutted economy could send these positive poll numbers plummeting — just as quickly as public opinion was upended back in the spring.

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