What is Happening to Federal Conservative Support in BC?

As we await the pending Cabinet shuffle that is rumored to be happening any day now (delayed likely due to the tragedy in Lac-Megantic), I thought a quick review of where the Harper Conservatives stand in terms of vote intention was in order.

Our latest poll released at the end of June had the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP basically tied for first with the Tories slipping behind the Liberals for the first time since we started tracking vote intentions in 2011.  That’s a seven-point drop in two months for the Conservatives, and the lowest point we have ever had them in our tracking.

Looking at ThreeHundredEight.com‘s  latest popular vote projection (as of July 8, 2013), the Liberals lead with 35% of the vote followed by the Conservatives at 29%, the NDP at 24%, the Greens at 6%, and the BQ at %.  Since the May 2011 election, that’s an 11-point drop for the Conservatives and a six-point drop since the projection in May 2012.

But is the Conservative decline in support consistent across the country or are they facing tougher challenges in certain regions of the country?

The Conservatives and the Coasts

Looking at the table below, we see that Conservative support has dropped the most in Atlantic Canada (down 19 points since the May 2011 election) and in British Columbia (down 16 points since the May 2011 election).

The drop in Atlantic Canada is likely the result of backlash to the EI reforms and an exaggerated boast in support for Justin Trudeau in the region.  In our own polling, Justin is most popular in Atlantic Canada.

But the Tory decline in BC is more interesting since it has traditionally been a region that the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, and the Conservative Party could count on for support winning at least 36% to 45% of the vote since 1997.

Moreover, BC is set to gain six additional seats bring its total to 42.  So the stakes are even higher in BC as its clout in the House of Commons increases to match its population growth.

So, what is happening in BC and should the Tories be worried? CPCvote

In trying to explain the disproportionate decline in Conservative support in British Columbia, I test drive two hypotheses that I think might explain what is happening in the province.  Where possible, I reference data we have collected over the past year.

Hypothesis 1. The Energy Debate is Depressing Tory Support

The Conservative Party’s majority coalition is built around dominance in the Prairies, British Columbia, surburban and rural Ontario, and New Brunswick.

Although BC and Alberta have 21% of the seats in the House of Commons, 29% of the Conservative MPs elected in 2011 come from those two provinces.

For many years, the interests and values of British Columbians and Albertans aligned.  They shared similar values about the role of western Canada in confederation and they expressed their regional angst by voting for the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.  But in the last few years, the economic and environmental concerns of the two neighbouring provinces have moved in opposite directions.

Our research on energy issues conducted last year found that respondents in BC and Alberta were on opposite sides on a number of issues.  For example, while 74% of Albertans agreed that “all Canadians benefit from the wealth generated from the Alberta oil sands” only 35% of British Columbians shared the same view.

Similarly, while 63% of Albertans supported building the Northern Gateway Pipeline, only 24%  in BC support building the pipeline to ship raw crude oil or bitumen to the BC coast.

As aggressive supporters of the oil and gas industry with a significant political base in Alberta, the Tories are in a difficult political situation.  Albertans expect them to promote pipelines and development of the resource but most British Columbians are skeptical of claims about the economic benefits of the project and transportation infrastructure to their province.

During the BC Election, we conducted a survey of over 1,000 British Columbians for the Sun News Network.  The survey included some questions about energy policy.

When we compare responses with federal vote intention, the dilemma faced by the federal Conservatives is clear, as is the reason why they have seemingly softened their position on tankers and pipelines.

tanker copy

When it comes to oil tanker traffic off the coast of BC, almost all British Columbians oppose increasing the amount of tanker traffic with a third of NDP supporters (33%) and 25% of Liberal supporters (25%) supporting a complete ban.  In contrast, 28% of CPC supporters support allowing an increase in tanker traffic off the coast of BC but the majority of the Harper Government’s supporters (72%) either support a complete ban (10%) or think there should be a limit to the amount of traffic.  The tanker issue is not black or white, but is more like a shade of gray.

NGP copy

The same is true when it comes to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline.  While Conservative Party supporters are more likely to support the project completely (CPC 31% vs. NDP 6%, Liberal 13%), a majority of CPC supporters share the view of Premier Clark and want conditions attached to the project before they would support it.

Thus, an aggressive pro-energy development stance in BC is not likely to gain much support.  But, it is worth noting the similarity in views between Liberal and Conservative supporters.  While NDP supporters are far more likely to be opposed to NGP outright, Liberal and Conservative supporters are closer on the issue giving the Tories an opportunity to polarize the debate like Christy Clark was able to do during the provincial election.  It is the NDP that might have the most difficulty finding common ground on the issue with its supporters if the issue is central to vote choice in 2015.

As an aside, we also asked respondents to select the federal political leader they think will best look out for the interests of British Columbia.  Harper leads, but barely.  And 32% said none of them.

Which leader do you think will best look out for the interests of British Columbia? [rotated]

Stephen Harper – 25% Justin Trudeau – 18% Tom Mulcair – 14% Elizabeth May – 12% None of them – 32%

Conclusion – The evidence here suggests that energy issues may be hurting Conservative support in British Columbia.

Hypothesis 2: We are Returning to a Pre-1993 Electorate in BC

In that same survey of British Columbians conducted during the provincial election, we asked a also number of questions about federal politics.  Our survey found that in late-April 2013,  federal vote intention in BC was: CPC 34%, NDP 31%, LPC 27%, Greens 8% among committed voters.  Twenty-two percent of respondents were undecided.

We also found that 46% of BC Liberal supporters would vote Conservative while 33% would vote Liberal and only 4% would vote for the federal Conservatives.  In contrast, 60% of BC NDP supporters would vote for the federal NDP while 16% would vote Liberal and 12% would vote for the Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper.

But our survey also profiled the BC electorate and segmented the electorate into five unique voter segments based on their answers to a number of policy questions.  The exercise was similar to what the Pew Center had done in the United States on the U.S. electorate.

Our segmentation analysis divided the electorate into five voter groups that we called: Conservatives, Pro-Business Liberals, Secular Pacifists, Populist Social Democrats, and Progressives.  Details on the five segments can be found here.

What I found most interesting in the analysis of these profiles was their federal political behaviour and vote intention.  For example, when asked how they voted in the 2011 election, 72% of Conservatives voted for the CPC while 59% of Pro-Business Liberals voted CPC.  These two groups were the most important segments to Tory success in the province.  But the Conservatives also won 36% of Secular Pacificists and 38% of Populist Social Democratic.

When we asked about their current federal voting intentions, the Tories lost support among all four groups and almost all of the support went to the federal Liberals.  Tory support among Secular Pacificists dropped 17 points, from 36% to 19%.  But it also dropped by 17-points among “Conservatives” from 72% to 55%.  Among members of the Conservative segment, 55% said they would vote CPC while 25% would vote Liberal and 16% would vote NDP.

This takes me back to the hypothesis that the party system in BC is shifting back to one that looked more like 1988 than 2011.


Well, just like the Mulroney Tories in 1984 and 1988, the current Harper Conservatives have become mainstream and associated with the problems in Ottawa.  They are no longer Reformers or Canadian Alliance politicians pushing against the grain.  They are government and have been government for over seven years now.  The silencing of backbench MPs and the problems with the Senate seem more like the behaviour of a “central Canadian” party than one with roots in the Reform movement of the 80s and 90s.

Look at the results of the 1988 federal election in BC:

NDP (Broadbent) = 37% and 19 seats PC (Mulroney) = 35% and 12 seats Liberal (Turner) = 20% and 1 seat Reform (Manning) = 5% and 0 seats

But in 1993, the Reform Party stormed into Parliament by sweeping Alberta (52% and all by 4 seats), taking 36% of the vote in BC, and 27% of the vote in Saskatchewan at the expense of both the PCs and NDP who were left with little support in a region of the country that had traditionally a base of support.  Many former NDP and PC supporters joined together and voted Reform.

And the Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative parties have done well in BC since winning 43% of the vote in 1997, 49% in 2000, 36% in 2004, 37% in 2006, 44% in 2008, and 46% in 2011.

With the populist streak of the Reform movement all but purged from the Harper Government (at least in policy and behaviour), a vote for the NDP or even the Liberals might be a way to “send a message” to Ottawa.  It’s still too early to see if this hypothesis plays out but it may be one reason why Tory support in BC is down 16-points since May 2011.

One counter argument to this hypothesis is that the electorate in BC is looking increasingly like that from 2004.  In that election, the Tories won 36% of the vote to the Liberals’ 29% and the NDP’s 27%.  The success of the Tories in 2008 and 2011 was more a function of the failure of the Liberals (pro-business Liberals went to the Tories while Progressives and Populist Social Democrats went to the NDP).  The share of the vote won by the Liberals in 2008 and 2011 was 19% and 13% respectively.  With the Liberals seemingly back in contention, it seems plausible that the decline in Tory numbers is caused by a shift back to historic support for the Liberal Party in BC.

Bottom Line

Tory support is down across the country so what is happening in BC is not an aberration.  But the drop in support is greater than in other regions of the country so something different is likely happening in BC.

It could be that the Liberals, with Justin Trudeau as leader, have returned to their traditional level of support.  In that case, the province is just more competitive – like in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections.

Alternatively, energy issues along with other challenges facing the government (backbench protests, ethics issues, slow growth, etc) could be driving a wedge between Conservative supporters giving the Liberals an opening to rebuild its support.

Or perhaps, the Conservative Party, in the words of former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, is  “morphing into what we once mocked.”  If so, then that might explain the larger drop in Conservative support in BC than in the rest of the country.

But the drop is likely worrisome for the Government and may have an impact on the coming Cabinet shuffle.  I’ll leave that speculation to others, but I’ll be watching to see who gets promoted or dropped from BC.

David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248

E: david@abacusdata.ca

W: http://www.abacusdata.ca

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