Thursday, March 06, 2014

The enigma of Quebec politics

As we head once more into a Quebec electoral campaign I am reminded of when I went door to door with a federal Liberal candidate in the 1988 election in one of those mixed anglo/allo/francophone constituencies that dot the island of Montreal. We came upon a group of francophone men standing in an open garage facing the street and chatting on a gray rainy afternoon.

Their response to the vote-seeking politician was guarded and non-committal. The candidate observed as we walked away that he found that francophones were generally reluctant to give their political views. He explained it was because of the division within Quebec between those who believed in Canada and those who supported independence. A wide gulf between the two visions is found within francophone Quebec families and this often makes politics a sensitive topic best avoided.

I think this partly explains why Quebec has so frequently been the source of so many political surprises, including the defeat of the Lesage regime in 1966, the first victory of the Parti Québecois in 1976, and most recently the unexpectedly strong showing of the Quebec Liberals in 2012. It also accounts for why, after the divisions of the 1995 referendum, so many francophone Quebeckers were allergic to the prospect of another referendum campaign.

When the votes were tallied in the 2012 election the outcome wound up being closer than anticipated, generally because the polls underestimated Liberal support (in a few cases PQ support was greatly over-estimated), a phenomenon that has appeared many times in the past. The final election survey by CROP, while understating the Liberals, accurately anticipated that the PQ would capture 32% of the popular vote.

When CROP, which has long enjoyed a good reputation as a Quebec pollster, released a poll in February giving the PQ 40% with the Quebec Liberals trailing behind at 34% and the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) a distant 16%, election fever began to warm up a cold Quebec winter.

When a political party forms a minority government, it is always looking for an opportunity to turn that into a majority. No doubt the PQ did some of their own polling to firm up their view that such an opportunity was at hand and has now called an election for April 7, 2014. However a poll released the same day the election was called by Léger Marketing gives the PQ just a two point lead over the Quebec Liberals. The PQ cannot be certain that it will win a majority. My own model that converts poll numbers into seats suggests the CROP February poll would have given the PQ a small majority, while the new Léger poll would leave them just one seat over a majority.

Here are my projections for the CROP February Poll and the just released Léger poll:

A key factor here is the CAQ vote, which has dropped over the past year and a half.  It is low enough now that the party would win just a handful of seats. This means the chances of either a PQ or Liberal majority are high unless the CAQ recovers substantial ground during the campaign. I estimate they need 23% to win at least 10 seats (they won 19 with 27% in 2012). Although they start off weak this time, the CAQ also started out in a similar position during the 2012 campaign averaging 21% in the opening surveys but improving their position significantly over the course of the campaign.

The two polls share one characteristic in common that should give rise to additional doubt about the what April 7th holds in store. This characteristic was not a feature of the CROP survey in 2012 that accurately predicted the PQ's 32% vote share. Most Quebec polling comes from Léger and CROP and in recent years they have relied extensively on online surveys, a methodology that I believe should still be regarded as experimental. As it turned out in 2012 so did CROP. If you read the methodological statement in its last election poll (at the bottom of the news story), one finds that CROP used traditional telephone polling methods for its final election poll. I hope we will see the firm do the same this year and that we will see more telephone polling generally.

Given that almost all the Quebec polling we have seen since the last election has been online and the results even there are close, there remains considerable uncertainty about what we will see come the evening of April 7.

Charter of Values and the Prospects for Quebec Independence
A key focus of debate will be the so-called proposed Quebec Charter of Values. While a majority say they support it, a Léger poll on the topic from January reports that it ranks fourth in a list of issues that respondents say will be the most important vote determinant in the next election, with health care and economic/fiscal issues ranking ahead of the Charter. It should be noted that this type of response in a poll can be misleading. For example, if the public is pessimistic and thinks that what will happen in health care or the economy won't be affected much regardless of who wins, a lesser consideration where the outcome will matter, such as the Charter of Values, could be more important.

A key finding for me was that among francophones in this survey only 30 per cent strongly favoured the Charter. Those who say they "somewhat" rather "strongly" support something are expressing uncertainty about how they feel. It is the "strongly"category that really matters when judging how the public feels about issues. Further, it is likely that those who strongly favour the Charter consist mainly of core PQ voters. It remains unclear how many of this group currently favour other parties and might therefore be tempted to switch by the Charter.

In the longer run the PQ would like to see the Charter overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada and thus hopefully, from their perspective, provide the political basis for a Quebec referendum on independence. Given that the Charter has seriously divided the pro-independence movement in Quebec, it seems highly unlikely that this could work even if the PQ achieved its hoped-for scenario. For example, former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau is among those who have denounced the Charter of Values.

Support overall for independence is not only weak, running far below 50%, when you look at the demographics of support for independence (on page 9 of this January 2014 Léger poll) by age, it is clear that it is concentrated disproportionately among the baby boom, roughly those aged 45-65. Support is weaker among both younger voters and older voters.

The polls are close, the political significance of the Charter of Values is still unexplored territory, and support for sovereignty is weak. Quebec strikes me as in a transitional phase of its history and has not yet found a clear sense of itself going forward. It remains an enigma.