Support for most Canadian governments soared in the early months of the pandemic, as crisis-ridden voters gathered around their leaders. Nine months later, most ruling parties and their leaders still have more support than they did before the country was shut down by COVID-19 in March.
In some cases, the ratings, which were grim at the beginning of the year, have been completely turned upside down – which may have changed some political events in the process.
Most of the Prime Ministers, along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, started the year higher with disapproval than approval. Now almost everyone has their heads above water while their parties have solid clues in the polls.
To get an apples to apples comparison, it is best to compare the work of the same pollsters. The Angus Reid Institute, Narrative Research, Campaign Research and Léger conducted surveys in individual provinces or across the country in February – before COVID-19 had a major impact in that country – and for the past six weeks when the number of cases rose alarmingly.
A comparison of their results (averaged when multiple pollers were active in some provinces) shows that nine out of eleven provincial and federal government leaders have higher approval ratings during this phase of the pandemic than they did before it began.
Newfoundland and Labrador Prime Minister Andrew Furey saw the biggest surge – though that was around the time Ball announced his resignation when compared to his predecessor Dwight Ball’s approval ratings. Furey’s approval rating is now 27 points higher than Ball’s back then.
Another Atlantic Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia, tops the list with a 25-point win. He is followed by Doug Ford from Ontario, who is 24 points ahead. This is a clear reversal for the two prime ministers, who both had an approval rating of less than 30 percent at the beginning of the year. Now a majority of their voters agree with them.
Only two premieres now have lower approval ratings than nine months ago: Jason Kenney from Alberta and Brian Pallister from Manitoba. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these are two of the provinces with the highest COVID-19 rates in Canada.
The situation for Pallister and Kenney is compounded by the fact that neither of them had positive approval ratings at the start of the pandemic.
It is clear that there has been a significant rally-for-the-flag effect for heads of government: seven out of eleven – including all four Atlantic Prime Ministers – saw their approval ratings rise by double digits. Your position may be lower than it was at its spring peak, but politically most prime ministers and the prime minister benefited from it during the pandemic.
Most ruling parties are leading the polls, at least for the time being
The parties to these leaders have also gotten a bump in polls in the past nine months. On average, the governing parties have recorded an increase in voting intentions of 6.4 points since February. Only one has seen a decline.
Some of these shifts have been significant, spanning 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 – all have seen double-digit support gains since February.
The largest increases were seen in the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals (+21) and Dennis King’s PCs in PEI (+16). John Horgans BC NDP poured its electoral winnings into a majority government in the provincial elections in October.
Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan Party also won re-election in October. The party hasn’t seen a bump in the polls since the beginning of the year – but since it had 58 percent support in February, it hardly matters.
The Manitoba PCs are the only ruling party whose position has deteriorated as the pandemic progresses. The party has lost six points in the Angus Reid Institute poll since February, one percentage point behind the opposition New Democrats. Although Probe Research was absent in February, the NDP is four points ahead, according to a new poll by the Manitoba-based election bureau – the party’s first lead in Probe’s polls since 2012.
The Manitoba New Democrats are a rare example of an opposition party doing better during the pandemic. Six out of eleven official opposition parties have lost support since February, and only two have won three or more points – the other being the Alberta New Democrats.
On average, the official opposition parties have lost 2.4 points in the polls since February. The largest declines were recorded by the Greens in PEI (-10) and the PCs in Newfoundland and Labrador (-9).
But it’s even worse not having an official role at all. None of the 14 federal or provincial parties with seats in a legislature that form neither a government nor an official opposition have won elections since February. On average, these parties have lost three percentage points – difficult points for parties that generally have less support at first.
Only a few planned elections are on the horizon
Although the incumbent parties in British Columbia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan were able to capitalize on their strong support through election victories in 2020, only Newfoundland and Labrador are expected to vote next year.
Nova Scotia, which has no set election date law, could hold an election in 2021 as it will be four years after the province’s last vote. However, an election is not required by law in Nova Scotia until 2022.
However, some leaders may be tempted to hold early elections. With the exception of the United Conservatives in Alberta and the PC in Manitoba, each ruling party has a clear lead in their provincial elections or in the federal liberals.
With a minority government in Ottawa, Trudeau or the opposition parties can start a new campaign at any time. Ontario and Quebec have elections on the calendar for 2022 – but nothing is stopping Prime Ministers Ford and François Legault from pulling the plug earlier.
(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 position in the polls since February. Pallister and Kenney haven’t. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)
That thought may already have crossed their minds because in a pandemic climate there is no way of knowing for sure what is coming next. Successfully navigating the next stage of the pandemic could keep her buoyant polling numbers afloat throughout 2021 and beyond.
But another wave of COVID-19 (or the continuation of the current one), a botched vaccine rollout, or the impact of a gutted economy could cause those positive poll numbers to decline – just as quickly as public opinion was stirred up in the spring.