What sticks out in the polling so far is how personal this election has become.
What was supposed to be a referendum on the Trudeau Government’s management of the pandemic and the way forward has become a referendum on the character of Justin Trudeau.
The focus on character goes back to the election’s timing and justification. Three weeks ago, 56 per cent of Canadians told us we shouldn’t be having an election now: It was too risky given the pandemic and unnecessary since there was no burning issue to arbitrate. That number is now 58 per cent and holding.
Liberal Party supporters themselves were the least likely to say they wanted an election. Fact is, Trudeau went against what his own voters wanted and is now being punished for it. The inability of the Liberals to shake the negative reaction to the election call is showing up strongest in the Liberal leader’s personal approval numbers, which have tumbled since the campaign’s start.
This is in stark contrast to government approval levels, especially around the management of the pandemic. They remain resilient. Previous Trudeau strengths are now being dominated by opposition party leaders Jagmeet Singh and Erin O’Toole. NDP Leader Singh is now seen as the “Sunny Ways” leader and Conservative Leader O’Toole is stronger on many competence attributes.
Can Liberal Leader Trudeau turn this around? It’s going to be difficult. He chose the shortest possible election campaign. Changing the minds of voters twice in 36 days is a tall order. His last big chance to do this will be next week’s leaders’ debates.
The single biggest development has been the NDP’s growing support: from 16 per cent of the national vote in 2019 to 23 per cent in our latest polling for Global News. If the NDP maintains this level of support on Sept. 20, it would be the second-best performance for the NDP after Jack Layton’s historic run in the 2011 election.
What happened? It’s a combination of the meltdown of the Green Party and the shift of disaffected, progressive voters who want another option to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Where the NDP’s support is growing is also important — mostly in Ontario and BC, two provinces that are critical to the Liberal Party’s election strategy.
By slicing off support from the Liberals in these provinces, the NDP will create some very interesting party splits in the 905 suburbs around Toronto and the Lower Mainland in B.C. This could lead to some seat pickups by the NDP, but the party could also split the vote with the Liberals in such a way that the Conservatives benefit.
Keep an eye on the NDP. If the party starts moving past 25 per cent in the national polling, the Liberal Party will be in serious jeopardy.
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Platforms don’t make the man
What’s been the impact of the Party platforms on the campaign? So far, next to none. This campaign isn’t about policy. It’s a referendum on Trudeau’s leadership.
Instead, the party platforms have made the NDP and Conservatives look like they are prepared to offer an alternative to the governing Liberals. They have also been delivered in such a way that they don’t wind up shooting on their own net (as O’Toole’s climate policy did in the spring) and don’t give the Liberals anything easy to shoot at, either.
As for the Liberal platform, it presents both opportunities and threats. The opportunity is that it gives Trudeau something new to talk about other than why he called the election or Ottawa’s fumbles on the Afghanistan file.
But the Liberal platform also gives the NDP’s Singh a lot to shoot at — especially when it comes to promises on key progressive issues such as climate, inequality and affordability. Singh is at his most dangerous for the Trudeau Liberals when he litigates their record over the last six years and challenges the sincerity of their promises. If Singh does this effectively in the upcoming leaders’ debate, he could stop any post-debate momentum for the Liberals dead in its tracks.
Darrell Bricker is the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs and the author of Next: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future (Harper Collins, 2020).