A single-issue election: The anti-Harper vote

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By now, under a typical government, a federal election in Canada called on August 2 would nearly be over. But Stephen Harper's fetish for trying to manipulate the public created an 11-week campaign instead of the ordinary 37 days. A seemingly everlasting election gives Harper's Conservatives more time to raise money while exhausting their opponents' bank accounts.

When a national Forum Poll (conducted August 2) told respondents that "the prime minister called the election earlier than expected, and it will last 11 weeks," 59 per cent said they disapproved of the early start.

There are really two federal elections going on. The Conservatives and Harper are running to energize their base. The NDP and Liberals are running to attract each other's base.

Both opposition parties are chasing the same anti-Harper voters. Some 50 per cent of Liberal voters said their second choice was the NDP in a Leger poll conducted from August 10 to 12. Among NDP voters, 44 per cent said their second choice was the Liberals.

Frank Graves of EKOS Research notes that while the NDP had the most support in the first month of the long campaign, the "promiscuous progressive" voters who have turned to the NDP could return to the Liberals -- "this swing group has been moving back and forth for over four years."

Three-quarters of Conservative voters say they are a "strong supporter" of the party (73 per cent), compared with 63 per cent of Liberals who say they are strong Liberal supporters and 55 per cent of NDP voters who say they strongly support the NDP  (an August 17 to 19 Forum Poll).

None of the leaders of the big three parties mesmerizes the voters.

An Abacus Data poll (August 14 to 17) asked, "If all three leaders came to your neighbourhood and you could only go to one of these events, which leader would you go to hear and meet?" Some 36 per cent said they would see Justin Trudeau if he was in their neighbourhood; 36 per cent would see Thomas Mulcair instead. Only 28 per cent would drop in at a Harper event down the street if the other two leaders were nearby.

Pollsters and media pundits are trying to isolate the issues. Is the economy most important to voters? National security? Health care? The trial of suspended senator Mike Duffy?

Jobs and so-called pocketbook issues are always important issues. But Harper has made taxes and a balanced federal budget issues, too.

Some 20 per cent of eligible voters called a balanced budget their "top priority" in an Innovative Research Group poll conducted from July 24 to 30. Some 16 per cent of eligible voters said job creation, and 16 per cent said "accountable government." Another 15 per cent said health care, and 14 per cent the environment. Voters were just as interested in one Conservative touchstone, tax cuts (14 per cent) but indifferent to another Harper hallmark, terrorism (6 per cent said it's a top priority).

But there is really only one ballot-box question: Do you want four more years of Stephen Harper or not?

In Vector Research polls, the share of the voters who say defeating Harper is their top issue has climbed from one in five at the beginning of the year to one in four at the opening of the election campaign. Among voters intending to vote NDP or Liberal, no other issue matters as much as beating Harper.

As the campaign opened, the tides were running against him.

When the Leger survey firm asked voters (August 10 to 12) if they're satisfied "with the government of Canada led by Stephen Harper," only 30 per cent said "satisfied," 62 per cent "dissatisfied." A big 37 per cent said "very dissatisfied" compared with barely 7 per cent who were "very" satisfied (the rest were unsure or preferred not to answer).

  • In an Abacus poll (conducted August 14 to 17), 76 per cent of voters across the country said it would be good to have a change of government in Ottawa. Some 59 per cent said it's "definitely" time for a change, up 6 points from an Abacus poll a month earlier.

The NDP and Liberals have embraced the word "change" like an environmentalist hugging a tree. Yet the change Mulcair and Trudeau represent may end up not being the change anti-Harper voters had in mind.

Voters in general are unmoved by the parties' platforms. People regard announcements and platforms as cynical promises. The voters' idea of change focuses on a different style in their prime minster and a better process in the government. Much of the Harper record is popular. At some level, voters know there are policies behind the leaders' personalities. 

Although two-thirds of the voters want someone else to be PM, they give Harper slightly higher ratings than Trudeau and Mulcair for making "good decisions" on policies such as trade deals, attracting foreign investment, and fighting terrorism (in the Abacus poll conducted August 14 to 17).

In a word-association test, Innovative Research asked which phrase best describes which leader in a July 24 to 30 poll. Who's a strong leader? Some 30 per cent say Harper, 26 per cent Mulcair.

  • Competent? 28 per cent say Mulcair, 27 per cent Harper.
  • Stands for what I believe? 21 per cent say Harper, 21 per cent Mulcair.
  • Has the best plan for the future? 22 per cent say Mulcair, 21 per cent Harper.

Ethics, however, is Harper's weak flank.

On the Duffy file, only 15 per cent think Harper acted properly while 47 per cent say  improperly "in terms of how he has dealt with this matter,"  according to the August 14-17 Abacus survey. Abacus found that the Duffy trial makes 11 per cent of Conservative supporters less inclined to vote Conservative. But history says that on election day they are likely to stick with him.

For the Liberals or NDP to benefit from the Duffy trial revelations, voters need to feel the other parties' ethics are better than average politicians, a tough standard to meet.

Meanwhile across the country, the NDP, Greens, and Liberals -- and in Quebec the Bloc Québécois -- berate one other and divide the anti-Harper vote. This progressive-versus-progressive ultimate fighting championship has kept the Conservatives in power for nine years. The voters say they've had enough. But have the opposition parties?

Marc Zwelling is the founder of the Vector Poll™ and author of Public Opinion and Polling For Dummies (Wiley, 2012). www.vectorresearch.com

Photo: Andrew Bates/flickr

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