If it isn't the economy, what is it with the Charest government?

Unemployment is at a 30-year low but Liberals are still unpopular

Québec - prochaines élections 2007

The sign posted in the war room of Bill Clinton's successful first presidential campaign pinpointed what was really supposed to matter to the voters. It said: "It's the economy, stupid."
Except when it isn't. Quebec governments are supposed to stand or fall at election time on the economy. Eight years ago, a couple of Universite de Montreal political scientists observed a connection between the unemployment rate and a government's chances of re-election:
When unemployment was lower at the election than it had been at the previous one, or at nearly the same level, the government was usually re-elected. It had happened four out of five times since 1960 when the jobless rate met those conditions. And the election later that year made it five out of six.
Since then, however, the trend appears to have hit a losing streak. In the last election, the Parti Quebecois government was defeated even though the unemployment rate had improved since the previous vote.
And now the Charest government is in danger of having the same thing happen to it in the next one.
Last Friday, Statistics Canada reported Quebec's unemployment rate last month was the lowest in 30 years, at 7.7 per cent. In April 2003, when the last election was held, it was 9.1 per cent. Nearly 140,000 more Quebecers were working last month than at the last election.
Yet only two days earlier, La Presse had published the results of CROP's October poll, which showed had there been an election last month, the government would have lost.
CROP projected the Liberals and the PQ were tied in province-wide popularity. But much of the Liberal vote is concentrated in a relatively small number of non-francophone ridings on the island of Montreal , while PQ support is more evenly distributed across French Quebec.
Anyway, the key indicator between elections isn't party preference, it's the government's satisfaction rating. The latter is an even more reliable predictor of the next election than the unemployment rate.
An election is usually a plebiscite on the incumbent. And when more voters tell pollsters they're dissatisfied with a Quebec government than express satisfaction, the government almost always loses.
The only exception in the last eight elections was the last one, when the second-term PQ government ran up against another trend: Since 1960, no Quebec government has won a third term.
CROP reported that in October, despite the record-low unemployment rate, 54 per cent of its respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the government, to 41 per cent who said they were satisfied.
In the sparsely populated francophone regions outside Montreal and Quebec City where Quebec elections are decided, the level of dissatisfaction rose to 59 per cent, against 37 per cent who expressed satisfaction.
Although rural voters are supposed to be uncomfortable with PQ leader Andre Boisclair's admissions of past cocaine use and his homosexuality, his party held a comfortable 16-point lead in popularity among them.
While every rural region has been affected by plant closings in the forest industry in the past year and a half, the government was already unpopular in the regions before that.
And there's no obvious connection between the government's unpopularity and the regional unemployment rates reported by StatsCan.
Every month, the agency reports the average unemployment rate for the previous three months for every economic region in the country. The figures for October show in most rural regions of Quebec, the unemployment rate had held steady or declined, sometimes significantly, from three years ago.
So if it isn't the economy, then what's the Charest government's problem? Since the spring, the government has avoided the unforced errors and controversial decisions that characterized its first three years in office. And it's made a series of announcements intended to boost its popularity before the election.
CROP reported an eight-point jump in the government's satisfaction rating between June and August. But what looked as though it might be the start of a comeback has since stalled.
The unemployment rate says the Liberals should be coasting toward re-election. Instead, with the rate at a 30-year low, they're in danger of becoming the first governing party in more than 30 years not to win a second term.
So maybe it's not the economy, stupid, after all.

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