Last week, Counsel Research was among the first to show a tightening election race between the Liberals and Conservatives, with sustained momentum from the NDP – trends that have been validated in subsequent public polls.
We believe this reflects the early release of the Conservative and NDP platforms – while the Liberals had a lackluster first week. But there is still plenty of time for the Liberals to regain their footing, having sparked a debate this week about two-tier health care and landing a major new announcement on housing affordability. All campaigns are now showing signs of strength in what will be a spirited fight to the finish.
One-third of the way into Canada’s 44th general election, most voters have not tuned in as Canadians make the most of the dog days of summer. The election is still buried on newscasts behind the rise of the Delta variant and the crisis in Afghanistan. We expect most voters to start paying close attention after Labour Day, when kids are back in school and the debates take place on September 8 & 9.
This remains a critical stage of the campaign, however, as parties position themselves for the sprint to the finish line. Counsel Research’s large-sample research on issues of importance to voters provides us with additional insights that help to explain each party’s current strategy – and how seeds planted in the first phase of the campaign may bear fruit at the ballot box.
Note that this analysis is largely predicated on the voter universe for each main party:
- Core voters – those who plan to vote again for the same party as last election;
- Soft voters – the coveted vote switchers who cast their vote for a different party last election, but plan to switch their vote this election; and
- Swing voters – potential voters who are open to changing their vote from the last election, but have not yet decided to do so.
Cost of living
When asked to choose the top 5 most important issues facing Canadians, 46% of those surveyed chose cost of living – more than any other issue, beating COVID-19 in second place. It is also a top issue for “soft” Liberal, Conservative and NDP voters – which means that parties could be rewarded by emphasizing these measures to lock in their vote.
This explains many of the early announcement choices by the main parties. The Liberals have emphasized their $10/day child care plan, which targets a significant cost for young families, and a permanent increase to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors. The Conservative platform launch emphasized their policy to give Canadians a December GST holiday, a 50% rebate on mid-week restaurant purchases and a 75% tax credit on child care expenses for low-income families. More recently, the NDP have announced a plan to cap cell phone bills.
A subset of cost of living, housing affordability rates a special mention as a top issue for NDP vote switchers – and the fourth highest priority for Liberal voters. This has been contested ground early in the campaign, with all three parties releasing significant new policy proposals:
- The Conservative plan included novel ideas like requiring municipalities to increase housing density near new federally funded transit projects.
- The NDP promised $5,000 for renters whose rents exceed 25% of their income.
- The Liberal housing plan addressed both affordability and supply, and included a $40,000 tax free savings plan for first time home buyers.
For Liberal supporters and swing voters (those who would consider voting Liberal), COVID-19 remains the top issue – but it is a significantly lower priority for Conservative voters. It should be no surprise then that the Liberals spent the early days of the campaign emphasizing their support for mandatory vaccination for air and train travel between provinces – creating a clear cleavage with the Conservatives, who would only support mandatory testing for these travellers.
The Conservative campaign should be wary, as our research shows support for this particular measure for approximately half of voters who would consider voting Conservative.
Additionally, half of Conservative core supporters and swing voters are in favour of vaccine passports, and a further one third of Conservative supporters and swing voters support allowing businesses to refuse service to non-exempt unvaccinated people.
This creates a potential wedge issue that may reappear later in the campaign if the Delta variant becomes a greater concern with the return of school.
Environment and climate change
A top issue for the Liberal and NDP voter universe, environment and climate change have been conspicuous for their relative absence early in the campaign. To date, only the NDP have announced a policy committing to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, while the Liberals announced support for climate adaptation including 1000 new firefighters to address the wildfires that are now an annual occurrence. Expect to see a greater emphasis on climate change in the next phase of the campaign as both parties fight for progressive votes and the Liberals spell out how they plan to achieve their new climate target.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, will hope that their climate policy is good enough to keep NDP voters from switching to the Liberal camp out of fear for a Conservative government.
Issue differences between parties
Each party’s supporters have their own pet issues. Cracking the Liberals’ top 5 issues is long-term care, which was featured in an announcement last week to train 50,000 personal support worker and increase their wages to $25/hour. NDP core supporters favour a wealth tax, which featured prominently in their platform release before the election – a vein that the Liberals are also tapping with their promise to increase corporate taxes for banks and insurance companies.
Conservative core supporters have three issues that don’t crack the top 5 for the other parties – namely reducing taxes, returning to balanced budgets and jobs. Erin O’Toole addressed jobs with his “job surge plan” to subsidize rehiring over the next six months, which also rates highly with Conservative swing voters, but has been largely silent on the other points. This may reflect his effort to focus on expanding the Conservative voter universe beyond core supporters, including a concerted effort to appeal to workers through announcements emphasizing labour representation on corporate boards, pension protections and the gig economy – which looks like a play for traditional NDP votes (this positioning could also make it easier for the NDP to support an O’Toole minority government, a possibility that Jagmeet Singh is not dismissing).
Values by party
Beyond policy issues, we know that voters are motivated by their impression of party brands and leaders. These considerations may also explain the approach of campaigns as they seek to firm up support.
Potential Liberal swing voters are most attracted to the core values of the Liberal party – which may be why the Liberals have sought to emphasize major differences with the Conservatives on issues like abortion and two-tier health care early in the election. Erin O’Toole has responded in part by emphasizing support for the opioid crisis and mental health, which could help to soften the blow of these critiques by staking out policy ground in new areas.
Even though government scandals have not yet surfaced as a major factor in this campaign as they were in 2019, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been consistent and vocal in his attacks on Justin Trudeau – which could reflect the fact that our poll shows NDP vote switchers place a higher value on ethics than Liberal vote switchers. This appears to be a deliberate strategy to cast doubt in the minds of voters about the Prime Minister, given Mr. Singh’s lead in popularity.
Finally, Conservative swing voters place a high value on the competence of party leaders – which may indicate that they are giving Mr. O’Toole a good hard look before committing to switch their vote to the Conservatives. As the newest major party leader, this election is Mr. O’Toole’s chance to make a good first impression.
There are still 25 days left in the campaign, and we fully expect narratives to shift, opposition research to drop, and the polls to change. Our multi-partisan team is closely following the policy announcements from each party – and paying attention to which voter groups they are appealing to. We are here to help you to understand these developments and how they impact your industry.
Counsel surveyed 3,499 people over the period of August 16 – August 18, 2021, using the Lucid Exchange Platform, which blends a variety of partner panels. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 1.7 percent, 19 times out of 20.