The Manitoba Progressive Conservatives have leapfrogged ahead of the governing NDP as the first choice among Manitoba voters, but they continue to be hampered by lukewarm support in Winnipeg.
It means if an election were held today, the NDP would still win despite trailing in overall popular support.
A Probe Research poll conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press found 43 per cent of decided voters in Manitoba support the Conservatives under new leader Brian Pallister, compared with 39 per cent who favour the NDP.
Three months ago, the NDP led the PCs 45 per cent to 38 per cent among decided voters.
But the Conservatives’ surge came from adding to their already commanding lead outside Winnipeg. The Tories are the first choice of 61 per cent of non-Winnipeggers — up from 46 per cent in September.
Inside the city, the NDP still dominates, with support from 50 per cent of decided voters compared with 31 per cent for the PCs and 13 per cent for the Liberals.
What’s more, the NDP continues to enjoy a sizable lead in all areas of the city except the southwest, where the governing party trails the Tories by four percentage points (40 per cent versus 36 per cent).
Scott MacKay, president of Probe Research Inc., said the NDP could win an election with fewer votes than the Tories because its support is more "efficient." Its strong support in seat-rich Winnipeg can push it over the top even while it’s being hammered in rural Manitoba.
"The Tories are almost out of the game in (Winnipeg)," MacKay said. "They’re going to have to do better in the city."
Conservative support in Winnipeg is now four percentage points below what it was in the 2011 election, when the party won only four of 31 seats up for grabs in the Manitoba capital.
Outside Winnipeg the NDP’s support has tumbled to 23 per cent compared with 35 per cent in September and 39 per cent in the October 2011 election.
Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell said he views and poll between elections as incentive for each party to work harder.
"It’s motivation to work harder and to focus on rebuilding Manitoba," he said.
The incentive is echoed by Brandon West Progressive Conservative MLA Reg Helwer, who said there is still a lot of work to be done both in rural areas and in Winnipeg.
"Being out in the community and creating relationships with those people is most important," he said. "We’ve been out knocking on doors and will continue to go out once the weather warms up."
The polling was completed just before the NDP government announced on the day of Premier Greg Selinger’s state of the province address it wouldn’t deliver on its promise to balance Manitoba’s books by 2014-2015. The government’s new target is 2016-2017.
"It must have been a dark day for the NDP," MacKay said. "They had to actually admit that their projection on the deficit was wrong. This is, in fact, the one that they ran on in the (2011) election."
But the voter survey was also completed before the PC party’s youth president was forced to resign for offensive remarks he made about aboriginal people — and before it was revealed party leader Brian Pallister had purchased a $2-million mansion in Winnipeg, causing some people to question whether he can relate to the average voter.
The poll also showed a larger percentage of young voters have moved into the PC camp — 43 per cent of those aged 18 to 34 support the Tories versus 34 per cent for the NDP.
The Conservatives also lead among Manitobans who are 55 and older, but trail the NDP in the 35-to-54 age group.
The Progressive Conservatives are the party of choice among the province’s men — 47 per cent versus 36 per cent for the NDP.
But women still prefer the NDP, which has 43 per cent of the female vote compared with 39 per cent for the PCs.
» Winnipeg Free Press, with files from Lauren Parsons