What began as a boring election turned into a seismic shift, with Stephen Harper’s Conservatives finally winning a majority, and the NDP graduating to Official Opposition because of the orange surge in Quebec.
The expected incremental change election turned into a seismic shift for all of Canada’s federal political parties. For the Conservatives, the 2011 election should be considered a capping achievement: Stephen Harper moved from merging the former Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties to winning two minority governments and finally forming a majority Tory government. For the Liberals, it was an election mired in futility with a leader whose personal brand was damaged by the Conservatives even before the writ was dropped. The Jack Layton New Democrats registered a breakthrough in Quebec and are now Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, largely at the expense of a tired Bloc Québécois. Even Canada’s Greens managed to win their first federal seat.
A look at the Nanos nightly tracking numbers for CTV News and the Globe and Mail reveals a number of key narratives. In a sense, the election outcome was driven by personality, powerful regional forces and the ground war fought by party election machines. As the only research organization releasing publicly available nightly tracking in the campaign, Nanos captured the ebb and flow, direction and mood of voters throughout the 2011 national election journey.
As he emerged from Rideau Hall on day one of the campaign, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had two clear messages: that he would seek a majority mandate; and that Canadians should be wary of a Liberal/NDP coalition supported by the Bloc. The Harper Conservatives had a significant advantage out of the gate with an 11-point in lead over the Liberals. Two weeks prior to the election, Nanos had the Conservatives at 38.6 percent with the Liberals at 27.6 percent, the NDP at 19.9 percent, the BQ at 10.1 percent and the Greens at 3.8 percent nationally. The Conservatives were well organized and well funded and had just released a pre-election budget. The one possible vulnerability was related to the opposition narrative on the defeat of the government on a contempt of Parliament motion.
From a research standpoint, what is critical to observe is that throughout the campaign the Conservatives maintained their advantage over the opposition parties of anywhere from 5 to 14 percentage points (figure 1). The Harper win was never in serious doubt. The only issue was the possible magnitude of the win and how the popular vote would convert into seats in the House of Commons.
Harper’s personal scores on competence, trust and vision were strong and he enjoyed a comfortable advantage for most of the campaign over the other federal party leaders in the daily Nanos Leadership Index (figure 2).
For about two-thirds of the campaign, the trend line was relatively stable, with the Conservatives enjoying an advantage over the second-place Liberals. The New Democrats registered an initial drop in the first week, with an increase in Liberal support suggesting that the Liberal objective of consolidating the non-Harper voter universe was possible. As the campaign entered its second week, support for the New Democrats cycled to a low of 13 percent nationally, largely on a softening of support in the battlegrounds of Ontario and Quebec. This would be the NDP low-water mark in the 2011 election and the Liberals would soon see their hopes as fleeting.
As the campaign unfolded, the first leading indicator of possible growth for the Layton New Democrats emerged on the Nanos Leadership Index. Starting April 11, a little over 10 days into the campaign, Layton started to outscore Ignatieff. With a focus on issues that Canadians cared about such as health care and a comparatively positive campaign with a seemingly amicable leader in the public lens, the NDP numbers started to move — specifically in the province of Quebec, where Layton soon captured the top leadership spot. In contrast to Layton’s comfortable and friendly demeanour, Gilles Duceppe was edgy and aggressive. Lacking an issue such as culture or identity to galvanize Quebecers, the Bloc campaign and Duceppe were adrift and without focus. As with the Mario Dumont effect, when Quebecers embraced the ADQ leader and propelled him and his party into second place in the 2007 provincial election, Quebecers were moving toward Layton and the New Democrats.
In a sense, the NDP was very well positioned on a number of fronts. First, its level of accessible voters among Bloc supporters was strong. In terms of policy, many NDP positions including views on social issues, the environment and foreign policy aligned well with the views of Quebecers. Of note, it was also the only federalist party with no “ethical baggage.” Also, Quebecers were the group of Canadians most uncomfortable with the concept of a Harper majority and were the least likely to embrace the Harper “ask” of a majority mandate. The New Democrats in Quebec witnessed the alignment of the appeal of Layton’s personality, policy and lack of negative party baggage. After a week of positive personal performance on the part of Layton, the Nanos numbers captured an NDP surge in Quebec with a dramatic corresponding collapse of the Bloc Québécois (figure 3). By the end of the campaign, Layton’s numbers improved to such an extent that he challenged Stephen Harper on the leadership index.
For all the drama of the “orange surge” in Quebec, one must remember that there was not a correspondingly large contagion effect outside of Quebec. In terms of the national Nanos tracking numbers, the increase in NDP support in Canada’s second-largest province buoyed up the national support for the NDP and propelled it into second place, ahead of the Liberals. A look at Canada outside of Quebec suggests that the impact of the Quebec orange surge was largely clustered in pockets of voters across the country where the New Democrats had done well in the past either federally or provincially. For many Canadians, there was no dramatic orange surge — it was more a feeling that the New Democrats were doing better in this election than the past.
The Prairie provinces, throughout the election, remained a bedrock of Conservative support, with the Tories enjoying support at or above 50 percent on any given day of the campaign. In Atlantic Canada the closing race tightened into a threeway race between the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democrats. In British Columbia, the New Democrats were also registering a good showing behind the front-running Tories in that province.
At the start of the campaign, Ontario was considered a key battleground that would have an impact on the outcome of the election. Although the Conservatives began with a comfortable advantage, the Grits gained ground in the first half of the campaign to be competitive with the Tories, but in the last week the New Democrats were picking up steam in Ontario with a bit of a spillover effect from the Quebec surge. The high point for the New Democrats was the one-day Nanos numbers on the Saturday before the vote (table 1). That day was marked by a story of a past visit to a massage parlour by Jack Layton. On that one day Layton registered a score on the leadership index higher than Harper, with very strong trust scores. It is likely that for some voters, the perceived smear campaign encapsulated what was wrong with politics.
Fast-forward one more day to Sunday and the statistical tie turned into a significant advantage for the Tories. In the face of speculation about an NDP coalition, support for the Conservatives increased and moved decidedly in favour of the Tories in the one-day Nanos Sunday numbers. Setting aside the shifts in support, the vote splits and campaign machinery converted the Tory numbers into seats.
With a campaign organization nurtured to identify, motivate and effectively get out the vote, the Conservatives had a distinct advantage in terms of converting political movement into seats. As the election returns rolled in, it was clear that the Conservatives had more effectively deployed their resources in Battleground Ontario. With an increase of about 8 percent in the popular vote in Ontario, they picked up an additional 20 seats (figure 4). This illustrates the focus, effort and smartness of the Conservative campaign team in not only taking advantage of a vote split in Ontario but having the resources to convert the vote split into seats to successfully assault Liberal Fortress Toronto.
For the NDP in the province of Quebec, outside of a limited number of riding pockets, there was little orange organization. The New Democrats relied on the good old-fashioned selfpropelled foot power of motivated voters to register their victories in Quebec.
On the ground-war front, the Greens were another interesting case in point. Their strategy of focusing resources on electing their leader with less emphasis on a national campaign won the day, but their overall level of support in this election dropped from a high of 6.8 percent in 2008 to 3.9 percent in 2011.
The once mighty Liberals, led by a leader whose brand was damaged by relentless Conservative attack ads, found themselves flat-footed in the face of NDP momentum and squeezed by voters who either wanted to send a message by voting NDP or preferred a Harper majority.
All in all, most of Canada’s major pollsters captured the election results accurately with another very positive research showing for Nanos.
With that, the 2011 national election will be one for the history books, the long-term impact on our political landscape still untold. Harper has his majority. Layton is ensconced in Stornoway. The Liberals have been dealt a defeat and the Greens have elected their first MP.