The Olympic bump


It has been speculated by various sources at various points that there is some benefit to the Conservative side in putting off an election until after the Olympics in Vancouver. That the resulting surge of patriotism will result in a similar surge of optimism about the country and support for the government that happens to be in charge at that time.

This perhaps sounds very plausible. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Either way, it would be nice, just this once, to sort out whether there’s any data to support this particular adventure in amateur strategizing.

Canada has twice hosted the Olympics.

In 1976, the Summer Games were in Montreal and Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were in power. We won five silver and six bronze medals. But it would be another three years, though, before Trudeau faced the prospect of re-election. And when he did, his side was promptly dispatched in favour of Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives, who promptly threw away their hold on government and were replaced by Trudeau’s Liberals.

In 1988, Calgary hosted the Winter Olympics with Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives in government. We won two silver and three bronze. And we had an election that fall. Mulroney’s side held on to power, but claimed 42 fewer seats than it had in 1984.

Still, perhaps the Olympics had momentarily boosted Mulroney’s fortunes. Perhaps Mulroney would have suffered outright defeat had it not been for the country’s infatuation with Elizabeth Manley.

Well, here, courtesy of Carleton’s archive of public opinion research, are the findings of Gallup for 1988 under “preferred political party.” The exact dates of each survey don’t appear to be available beyond the month, but given the results and the question here, it wouldn’t seem to matter. The Olympics that year were held in mid-February. The federal vote was held in mid-November.

Liberal 27.6
NDP 23.4
PC 23.1

Liberal 31.4
NDP 24.3
PC 21.1

Liberal 27.6
NDP 24.8
PC 21.1

Liberal 29.0
PC 23.9
NDP 21.3

Liberal 27.0
NDP 22.0
PC 19.7

Liberal 30.3
PC 24.2
NDP 22.9

JULY (1)
Liberal 27.5
PC 26.7
NDP 19.7

JULY (2)
Liberal 28.6
PC 26.2
NDP 20.8

Liberal 27.9
PC 26.8
NDP 23.4

Liberal 28.4
PC 24.0
NDP 19.9

PC 30.9
Liberal 21.6
NDP 14.7

PC 31.4
Liberal 22.9
NDP 20.5

PC 30.7
NDP 21.6
PC 17.9

PC 29.0
Liberal 23.4
NDP 13.9

Liberal 40.3
PC 28.8
NDP 19.4

Liberal 32.7
PC 31.9
NDP 24.6

PC 36.6
Liberal 33.5
NDP 20.8

Now, it is entirely possible that data exists, somewhere else, that supports the original thesis. It’s even possible that, if you look deeper into Gallup’s data, there is better evidence of some Olympic bump. On both counts, I welcome, nay plead for, any applicable precedent.


The Olympic bump

  1. I think these data demonstrate one of two things: either Canadians are fickle, or public opinion polls are completely useless.

    I personally don't think Canadians are fickle.

    • I'm not so sure. I think what you see in that poll is what a good move backing free trade was for Mulroney. He surged in the polls by galvanizing free traders. He stalled a bit when Turner started to gain steam, but finally won with good advertising and a great GOTV effort.

      Also, unlike today, there were a lot more undecided voters, who switched. In other words, many Canadians followed politics but were unsure what party they liked (I guess you can call that fickle). Today most of those voters seem to not follow politics, while those that do are pretty certain about their choice.

  2. I don't know if I've ever seen that theory actually advanced by anyone. I know I've seen speculation that one of the reasons the Liberals wanted to take down the Tories before the Olympics is that they were afraid of that effect. I doubt you'd ever get a Liberal to admit that even if it were true.

  3. OCTOBER (3)
    PC 30.7
    NDP 21.6
    PC 17.9

    That's quite the poll. :P

  4. Oh, yes we are. Just ask the RCMP. But this besides, I see nothing in those numbers to suggest "fickleness" anyhow.

    As for polls, as long as they're used for support and not illumination, of course they're useless. Polls designed to prove a thesis are bad science.

  5. 1. Bumps in approval (particularly from stuff like the Olympics) are short-term events if they happen at all. The data you have, Mr. Wherry, isn't specific enough (though Kudos to you for digging it up).

    2. Clinton in 1996 provides a good American example for which there is lots of data. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics (the US won 101 medals, to 65 in Germany, 63 in Russia. 44 Golds to 26 by Russia) started on July 19th, ended on August 4th. The data (see below) show the possibility of a bump around opening ceremonies. However Clinton had similar approval numbers earlier in June to his Olympic numbers. Moreover any bump didn't last longer than a few weeks after Atlanta. The change in poll numbers could also be attributable to reduced voter attention on politics.

    96 Aug 16-18

    96 Aug 5-7

    96 Jul 25-28

    96 Jul 18-21

    96 Jun 27-30

  6. I think there'll be a short-term bump, but the House will be sitting for at least one of those two weeks. If there is a major problem with the Games, that could be a very long fortnight for Herr Harper.

  7. Here is a thought – the CBC has the best coverage of the Olympics. If more people are watching the CBC, does this mean more will watch CBC news than say, CTV or Global?

    • Yeah, but did they not lose their coverage to CTV, which is the best national media friend Stephen Harper has?

  8. Here is a graph of Reagan's approval ratings in 1984. The LA Olympics went on from late July to early August. Reagan's number's skyrocketed, though part of this might have been the fading of a Democratic convention bounce.

  9. Another big difference between Calgary 1988 and Vancouver 2010: Canada didn't win a single gold in 1988, but Canada will probably win a record haul of medals in 2010. That sort of thing does wonders for national morale (just ask the Australians).

    • It would be interesting to see some Australian polling data from 2000 then.

  10. It is one factor, combined with full scale economic recovery, another year of stimulus cheques, incompetent opposition and near majority numbers right now; (barring disaster) Harper will be asking Canadians for a majority mandate next fall..

  11. The Olympics are pregnant???

  12. How did that Olympic Bump work out provincially for Robert Bourassa?

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