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Winter of discontent: Over the holiday break, party in power usually loses support

The Secret Bench, a sculpture of a boy and a girl on a bench, is covered in snow, in front of the National Archives building in Ottawa on Dec. 27, 2012.


When the House of Commons rose early for the winter break, many observers felt that the opposition parties had lost a golden opportunity to hit the Conservatives hard over the government's "reset" of the F-35 file. They may have been right: an analysis of polling in recent years suggests that the winter break can be a chilly one for the party in power.

But time away from Parliament Hill is not always bad for the government. Over the long summer break, when the party in power is freed from the daily barrage of criticism in the House of Commons, governments have been just as likely to lose support as they have been to gain it.

Over the last seven summers, however, the governing party has actually seen its numbers slightly improve by an average of just under 1 per cent. That is hardly dramatic, but it does suggest that summer breaks are not necessarily positive or negative to a government, and might have actually been beneficial of late.

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That does not seem to be the case for the shorter winter breaks. Over the last seven winters stretching back to 2005-2006, the party in power has lost support between December and January five times, with the opposition party increasing its support in five cases as well. On average, the governing party has lost just over two percentage points of support before and after the holidays, compared to an almost three-point gain for the opposition.

The last two winters breaks, however, have had little effect on national voting intentions. The Conservatives gained less than a point between December 2011 and January 2012, while the New Democrats lost just over a point. During the break in 2010-2011, the Liberal opposition and the Conservative government's support hardly budged at all. Things were also stable in the winter of 2007-2008, when both parties increased their support by less than a percentage point.

But there have been more significant changes over recent winter breaks. Between December 2009 and January 2010, the Conservatives dropped from an average of 37 per cent in the polls to less than 33 per cent, while the Liberal opposition picked up two points. Over the winter break of 2008-2009 (during the prorogation and coalition affair), the Conservatives lost seven points and the Liberals gained five. And between December 2006 and January 2007, the Tories dropped one point over the winter break while the Liberals picked up six.

The election campaign of 2005-2006, however, is a great example of how a winter break can be an amenable time for political change. The theory goes that the holidays give voters the chance to discuss politics among family and friends and opinions are more likely to shift or crystallize. That certainly may have happened over the break in 2005-2006, as Paul Martin's Liberals were headed to another large minority government when the campaigns took a break for Christmas.

The Liberals were averaging 36 per cent in polls taken during the month of December 2005, compared to 30 per cent for the Conservatives. These numbers held straight through to the week before Christmas. Polling firms stepped out of the field over the holidays, but in the week after New Year's Day the Conservatives had gained four points and were leading in the polls with 34 per cent to 32 per cent for the Liberals. During the entire month of January, the Conservatives averaged 37 per cent to 29 per cent for the Liberals, representing a seven-point gain and loss for each party, the largest swing over the last seven winters.

On Jan. 23, 2006, the Conservatives took 36 per cent of the vote to 30 per cent for the Liberals, and Stephen Harper's current run in power began. The break had been devastating to the Liberal campaign, in large part due to news that the RCMP was investigating allegations of impropriety by the finance minister's office of the time (the finance minister was eventually cleared).

Could the winter break that just passed usher in similar changes in national voting intentions? If the average changes in government and opposition support over the last seven winters occurred now the New Democrats would move ahead of the Conservatives. But no change of any great significance is just as likely for either of the two parties.

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But these winter breaks certainly have the potential for big shifts: the opposition has made gains of five points or more and the government has dropped four points or more in three of the last seven years. The first survey of 2013, however, suggests the status quo may prevail. The early break might have saved the Conservatives a little grief.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at .

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