September 18, 2019

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Opinion

Pallister set to make political history

Tory leader poised to be least popular to ever win consecutive majorities

Few elections in Manitoba's political history have been won by unpopular leaders, yet Tory Leader Brian Pallister is set to make history by winning consecutive majorities, a Probe Research poll suggests.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Few elections in Manitoba's political history have been won by unpopular leaders, yet Tory Leader Brian Pallister is set to make history by winning consecutive majorities, a Probe Research poll suggests.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister is on the verge of making political history: against long odds, he is poised to become the least popular political leader ever to win back-to-back majority mandates.

A new poll by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg shows that 54 per cent of respondents disapprove of Pallister's performance, while only 40 per cent approve. That produces a net approval score of minus-14.

Normally, leaders with that kind of negative popularity rating do not find themselves as the presumptive frontrunners in an election. But according to the same poll, Pallister's Tories continue to enjoy the support of 40 per cent of respondents, with the NDP and Liberals mired in second (29 per cent) and third place (21 per cent) respectively. Those numbers, if they hold through election day, will likely produce a second majority government.

Students of this province's electoral history will know that this is not the first time Pallister has overcome middling personal popularity numbers to win an election.

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Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister is on the verge of making political history: against long odds, he is poised to become the least popular political leader ever to win back-to-back majority mandates.

A new poll by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press and CTV News Winnipeg shows that 54 per cent of respondents disapprove of Pallister's performance, while only 40 per cent approve. That produces a net approval score of minus-14.

Normally, leaders with that kind of negative popularity rating do not find themselves as the presumptive frontrunners in an election. But according to the same poll, Pallister's Tories continue to enjoy the support of 40 per cent of respondents, with the NDP and Liberals mired in second (29 per cent) and third place (21 per cent) respectively. Those numbers, if they hold through election day, will likely produce a second majority government.

Students of this province's electoral history will know that this is not the first time Pallister has overcome middling personal popularity numbers to win an election.

In the 2016 election, pre-vote polls showed the Tories with 46 per cent support even though Pallister's personal popularity lagged well behind with a plus-one net approval score. Pallister was able to overcome his own low popularity because of two factors: first, voters' overwhelming appetite for change after 17 years of NDP government; and the severely low approval numbers for NDP Leader Greg Selinger, who had a whopping minus-44 net approval score.

How unusual would it be for a party leader to win two majorities while trailing his own party in popularity? Although there will always be some outliers, in general winning parties have popular leaders.

That is not to say that a leader's high personal popularity always translates into electoral success. A good case in point is federal Green Leader Elizabeth May, who consistently gets very strong approval numbers that exceed, by a large margin, the support her party gets at the ballot box.

It is much harder to find a historical examples of a party that enjoyed sustained electoral success with a leader who was considerably less popular. If Pallister is going to buck history, he will do it largely because no other leader in this campaign has been able to capture the imagination of voters.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew, straining under the weight of a particularly vicious attack campaign from the Tories about his checkered past, actually has better overall popularity numbers (41 per cent approval; 43 per cent disapproval) for a net score of minus two. However, that makes voters ambivalent at best about Kinew.

The leaders of the other two parties suffer from what we might call the Elizabeth May-effect: Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont has a net approval rating of plus-15 (42 per cent approval; 27 per cent disapproval) while Green Leader James Beddome (36 per cent approval; 20 per cent disapproval) is plus-16. However, those positive ratings have not translated into support from deciding or leaning voters.

Even with he lackluster support for other leaders or parties in this campaign, it would be unusual verging on remarkable for Pallister to win a second majority while straining under his own lack of personal support. In fact, it's nearly impossible to find a comparable scenario in any Manitoba general election for which there is at least some polling data.

In 1988, a snap election brought on by a surprise vote of non confidence — triggered when NDP MLA Jim Walding voted against his own party — is one of the only examples of a leader winning an election with a low personal approval or popularity rating.

In that election, a pre-election Free Press poll showed that then-Liberal Leader Sharon Carstairs was the top choice to lead the province, with the support of 40 per cent of respondents. Tory Leader Gary Filmon was the choice of just 24 per cent, and NDP Leader Gary Doer, who was elected leader two weeks into the campaign, was third at just 19 per cent.

History will show that Filmon's Tories won a minority mandate but the real story was Carstairs, whose popularity helped her party go from one to 21 seats. Still, the role of premier suited Filmon well, and his personal popularity would grow steadily throughout his time as premier, helping him win two consecutive majorities, in 1990 and 1995.

The 1999 election was an outlier to the leader-party popularity equation, to some extent. In that campaign, Filmon was the top choice to lead the province of respondents in a pre-vote Free Press poll. However, his personal popularity did not save him when all the votes were cast; the NDP under Gary Doer won a very slim majority mandate.

Despite lagging behind Filmon in 1999, Doer's personal popularity grew and was regularly named in polls as the top choice to lead the province, even by voters who identified as Tories. That translated into solid majorities in 2003 and 2007.

The same dynamic continued in the 2011 election. In a pre-vote Probe/Free Press poll, the NDP had 46 per cent of province-wide support and then-leader Greg Selinger got a 54-per-cent approval score, for commanding net rating of plus-22, which he translated into a 37-seat majority mandate.

Which brings us to the 2019 campaign. History has shown us that parties with unpopular leaders typically don't win consecutive elections.

If he is able to triumph again, Pallister will have the comfort of knowing that he not only won an election, he opened a new chapter in this province's political history.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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