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Bricker’s Campaign Week: How vote-splitting and voter turnout will make all the difference

An Elections Canada voting place sign. File/Global News

As we reach the end of the election campaign, a few things stand out in the polling that will shape Monday’s results. They are: splitting the progressive vote in Ontario; how the images of the leaders have changed over time; and, how voter turnout will ultimately determine who wins this election.

Ipsos’s latest polling numbers for Global News show the Liberals and Conservatives deadlocked at 32 per cent with the NDP trailing in third at 21 per cent.

Read more: TikTok, videogames and more: How candidates are getting out the vote this election

Looking back to the last election in October 2019 this represents a one-point decline for the Liberals and a two-point decline for the Conservatives. The biggest movers since the last election are the NDP who have picked up five points at the expense of the Liberals, Conservatives and Greens.

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Splitting the vote

The story of vote switching is most important in Ontario where the Liberal Party defeated the Conservatives by nearly 10-points in 2019. Winning Ontario is how the Liberals won the last election while still losing the popular vote to the Conservatives. If you’re ahead 10 points in Ontario, you win the election. That’s it. That’s all.

This time, the Liberal lead in Ontario has been cut in half and is down to just three points in the critical 905. Most of the Liberal switchers in Ontario have migrated to the NDP. So, despite Erin O’Toole’s much-ballyhooed effort to move to the center in an effort to woe suburban voters in Ontario, it’s the NDP’s success that is giving the Conservatives their best chance to snatch seats from the Liberals.

Read more: ANALYSIS: How the ‘905’ earns its outsize influence on national politics

This is why Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have gone scorched earth on the Conservatives since the debates. Their goal is to demonize the Conservatives to marginalize the NDP. This is about convincing progressive voters that a vote for the NDP will elect Tories instead of progressives. It worked in 2004. It didn’t in 2006. So far though, NDP voters are staying right where they are.

Portraits of Leadership

While the preternaturally youthful leader of the Liberal Party looks much as he did back in 2015, as with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, there’s a portrait in the attic for Justin Trudeau.

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If you’re familiar with Wilde’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray, the portrait Dorian stashes away in his attic takes the punishment for all his failures and missteps. It’s similar for Justin Trudeau. He may look the same as he did when he won his “sunny ways” majority in 2015 but his portrait in the attic, comprised of polling results, has taken a beating since then.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says blackface images, video forced him to take a ‘hard look’ at his actions' Trudeau says blackface images, video forced him to take a ‘hard look’ at his actions
Trudeau says blackface images, video forced him to take a ‘hard look’ at his actions – Feb 25, 2020

What the numbers show is that Justin Trudeau (32 per cent) is now only marginally ahead of Erin O’Toole (29 per cent) and Jagmeet Singh (25 oer cent) as preferred prime minister. Such a tight race for best prime minister was unthinkable as late as last spring. What a difference a campaign makes.

Most of the leadership characteristics associated with Justin Trudeau’s previous sunny ways are now either shared with or owned by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. This includes being sincere, having high ethical standards, matching your values, offering hope, fighting for the middle class and protecting those who are marginalized. Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole is now either competitive with Trudeau or owns most attributes related to sound economic management. But, for O’Toole, these leadership strengths are as much generic Conservative Party brand strengths as they are specifically related to his personal leadership or plans for Canada.

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Which leadership qualities does Justin Trudeau now score higher on than the other leaders? Voters believe he is best suited to manage during tough economic times and is a leader who gets things done. This looks to be driven by the acknowledgment of Canadians that Trudeau and the Liberals have done a good job of managing the pandemic.

But Justin Trudeau is also seen as the leader who is most in over his head, will say anything to get elected (16-points over O’Toole) and is most likely to have a hidden agenda (six points over O’Toole).

Read more: Pandemic elections: What other countries have voted during COVID-19?

Painting the Tories as having a hidden agenda is critical to the Liberals’ closing campaign. It’s now all about demonizing the Tories to marginalize the NDP. And the Liberals have gone at it with zeal since the leadership debates.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau sharpens swipes at O’Toole as tight election race nears end' Trudeau sharpens swipes at O’Toole as tight election race nears end
Trudeau sharpens swipes at O’Toole as tight election race nears end – Sep 14, 2021

Justin Trudeau and the Liberals say they are talking about the Tory’s REAL agenda. As Trudeau repeats whenever he gets the chance, the Conservative Party is hiding from Canadians that they are pro-guns, anti-abortion, intolerant of marginalized communities and against vaccines. However, it’s tough to make this stick if you’re the party seen as most likely to have a hidden agenda. Still, they are giving it their best shot. So far though, that six-point gap on hidden agenda hasn’t closed and Liberal voters who moved to the NDP are sticking with them.

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What’s Keeping Me Up at Night?

In this final run to election day, the one thing that keeps me up at night is: turnout.

Pollsters are good at figuring out which party people will vote for. What we aren’t so good at predicting is who will vote. If we get a surprise on election day it will be because we failed again to predict which party’s voters will show up.

So far, what we are seeing in our data is that higher turnout gives a bit of a bump to the NDP while lower turnout gives a slight advantage to the Conservatives and Liberals.

Click to play video: 'Voters’ rights advocate says voter turnout could drop' Voters’ rights advocate says voter turnout could drop
Voters’ rights advocate says voter turnout could drop – Sep 10, 2021

Is this going to be a high turnout election or a low turnout election?

We know that about a quarter of voters say they are worried about the safety risks of voting in person (due to COVID). Yet Elections Canada has said that advance in-person voting was up more than 18 per cent over the last election. So, are we still voting in person just earlier than usual?

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As for mail-in ballots, Elections Canada was originally planning for about five million Canadians to vote by mail. So far they have only received requests for about 800,000 ballots and less than half have been returned.

Does the higher than usual rate of advance voting mean we should be expecting higher turnout overall or are these just safety-conscious voters avoiding crowds on election day and it won’t affect turnout numbers? Does the smaller than expected take-up of mail ballots mean that overall turnout this election will be lower than usual? I’m not sure about any of this. But it will decide who wins this election. Now you know why I won’t be sleeping much this weekend.

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).

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