Rise and Fall of the Liberals: the Trudeau and other factors that will determine their electoral success

July 15, 2019

Mr. Trudeau was the single most influential factor that propelled the Liberals to a majority government in 2015. It was also Mr. Trudeau’s handling of political crises that made the Liberals bleed in the polls for most of 2019. Having bounced back in the polls, Sussex examines the Trudeau factor and how it may be a determinant for the Liberals’ electoral success come the fall election.

The Trudeau—Canada Honey Moon

Until recently, all major federal public opinion polls were showing a strong Conservative lead over the Liberals. Some polls were showing a double-digit lead, while others only a single-digit lead. But now the Liberals’ bleeding in political support seems to have stopped, and their numbers have started to bounce back. Latest polling for both Nanos and Mainstreet position the Liberals ahead of Conservatives by 5% and 2% respectively. EKOS and Abacus latest polling maintain Conservatives ahead, however under narrower margins, at 2% and 1% respectively. Both parties are running neck and neck in national polls.

In the six years that Justin Trudeau has been the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, his ability to influence public opinion cannot be overemphasized. Flashback to early 2015, not one pollster, pundit or politico expected that the Liberals would go on to claim a majority government.

Once in government, Liberal staffers and pundits confidently held the opinion that, their party would comfortably hold a majority government at the very least for two terms. Their performance on the election and sustained support in the polls for the first two and a half years of their mandate validated the Liberal’s confidence.

Many Liberal initiatives set early on in their mandate are set to kick start only after the 2019 election such as the Clean Fuel Standard, a review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and the superclusters funding. Such confidence on a two-term mandate was also demonstrated through their policy.

Further, history validates such confidence as no first term majority government in Canadian history has ever lost the race for a second term in government.

With certainty that a second-term government was their destiny, and strong confidence in their level of public support, their policy, and their principled approach to governance, the Trudeau Liberals began a sixteen-month period where their decisions, and more specifically how these decisions were communicated re-shifted public opinion and thereby their performance in the polls.

The not so sunny ways

Minor hiccups such as the Prime Minister’s travels to the Agha Kahn island and the Omar Khadr affair raised questions which received little in the way of substantive answers. Then, onto the small business tax controversy and the Prime Minister’s India trip. Whether these two decisions were political miscalculations is up for interpretation. However, the fact that Mr. Trudeau and his Government failed to manage these crises and control the narrative is not. The combination of these issues led the Liberals and Conservatives to be relatively close in the polls at the end of 2018.

Enter 2019, in the second week of the parliamentary session, news of the SNC-Lavalin DPA affair broke, which became a news feature for 54 consecutive days in news cycles. It embroiled Trudeau and his Liberals onto a self-inflicted downward spiral concerning public support. Mr. Trudeau contradicted himself on many occasions. When providing answers, his statements on the issue only raised more questions and concerns. Once again, Mr. Trudeau had a deep impact on public opinion, only that this time his brand drove support away from Liberals. Thereafter, Conservative Premiers and the federal Conservative Party joined efforts actively campaigning against Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax. By mid-May, the electoral uncertainty of late 2018 had transformed into a scenario that foreshadowed a CPC Government, thanks to Mr. Trudeau’s mishandling of crises communications.

Dissecting the road ahead

Liberals have climbed back in the polls and are essentially tied to the Tories. The key factors that have driven Liberal support up are: (1) the Ford Government’s decline in popularity and brand association with Mr. Scheer; (2) Dissipation of media coverage re. the SNC Lavalin affair; (3) Closer public scrutiny on Mr. Andrew Scheer; (4) Return of female support to the Liberals.

Taking a deeper look at the issues, Mr. Ford’s camp wants a federal Conservative government and has been working hard to influence support for the Federal Conservatives by campaigning against the Liberal price on carbon, and stalling infrastructure projects, thereby denying Liberals of their much-coveted pre-election infrastructure announcements. In response, the public has learned to associate Ford Nation’s Ontario PCs with Mr. Scheer’s CPCs.

In response to Mr. Ford’s decline in popularity, the provincial legislature wrapped up the legislative sitting for the next five months until after federal election. There is a strong sense in political circles that the unusual move to keep the Ontario Conservatives off the news cycles was prompted as an attempt to help Mr. Scheer in Ontario.

The LPC will work hard to associate Mr. Scheer with the currently very unpopular Ford nation brand. If Mr. Trudeau can convince undecided voters that a Scheer Conservative government will resemble that of Mr. Ford at the provincial level, the impact would be influential in capturing many of the swing seats in the highly coveted 905 region—seen as necessary to form government given the large concentration of seats.

Furthermore, the dissipation of media coverage on the SNC Lavalin affair has also helped the Liberal’s surge in the polls, however this and other ethics issues will likely resurface throughout the campaign. A Nanos poll conducted in June 2019 asked Canadians to rank the top issues that would influence their vote. The survey found that ethics in government ranked highest at 73 per cent. Therefore, Mr. Trudeau’s ability to manage issues of ethics, and particularly the SNC Lavalin affairs will be key to the Liberals’ performance in the fall election.

Another Nanos poll concluded that the more people get to know Andrew Scheer, the less likely they are to want to vote for him. Knowledge of this may help or hinder the Liberals. Opinions of Mr. Trudeau are not what they once were, and Liberals have to carefully strategize how to adequately position Mr. Trudeau to capitalize on this factor.

According to Nick Nanos, female voters almost exclusively have been driving the positive trend for the Liberals in the past six to eight weeks. Nanos further added that female voters are drifting back to the Liberals after the SNC-Lavalin scandal created a significant amount of discontent. The portrayal of Mr. Scheer’s stand on abortion, and recent Liberal Government announcements on gender files have also elevated Liberal support from this demographic. Mr. Trudeau ability to keep momentum going, stray away from the SNC Lavalin affair, and appeal as the candidate who would do most for gender equality will all be key factors in retaining and growing support.

For better or for worse, most Canadians recognize Mr. Trudeau and have an opinion of him. He is both the Liberal’s strength and weakness. Though it is highly improbable that the Liberals will repeat their astounding victory of 2015, should they be elected for a second term in Government it will be thanks to Mr. Trudeau. Should they lose the upcoming election, it will also be thanks to Mr. Trudeau.