Tory polling sign of political landscape’s ‘shifting sands’ and volatility from undecided voters, says pollster Shachi Kurl

The Conservatives still have a double-digit lead across every recent poll, but analysis by the Angus Reid Institute show that with potentially a year or more before the next election, half of the electorate are still open to changing their minds before casting their ballots.

While Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and his party have done a good job convincing voters they would cut the carbon tax and make housing more affordable if elected, pollster David Coletto says that as the Tory coalition grows, those voters will be seeking an acceptable government in waiting, and begin to ask ‘what else?’ The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Although the Conservatives are heading into the new year like a “runaway train” with a double-digit lead in the polls ahead of the governing Liberals, recent polling from Abacus Data showing a reduced gap between the two parties could be the first sign the Tories’ steadfast opposition to the government could be repelling the more moderate parts of its growing coalition. 

But with potentially a year or more before the next election, depending on how the Conservatives play their cards, the Tory train could either move full speed ahead to win more than half of the electorate, or fall behind to less than half that, say polling data.

According to a survey released Dec. 13, 37 per cent of respondents told Abacus Data that they would vote for Conservatives, followed by the Liberals at 27 per cent, the NDP at 19 per cent, the Bloc Québécois at seven per cent, and the Greens at five per cent. The poll was conducted online from Dec. 7-12.

While the Conservatives remained 10 points ahead of the Liberals, those results represent a five-point decrease for the opposition, and a four-point increase for the government since Abacus’ previous poll released on Nov. 30.

In a Dec. 15 interview with The Hill Times, Abacus Data CEO David Coletto said that while he cautioned against reading too deeply into a single data point, the size of the swing is “not normal.”

Abacus Data CEO David Coletto says the Conservatives have a chance to win a large majority in the next election if they can convince voters the party is an acceptable government in waiting. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“It’s rare to see any party move more than a few points [week-to-week] at any time,” Coletto explained, noting that the last big shift, following the Bank of Canada’s interest hike in early July, occurred over the course of a few weeks. 

That interest rate hike and its effect on Canadians’ mortgage renewals compounding the already high cost of living was a major factor in pushing the Conservatives to more than 40 per cent in the polls and the Liberals trailing by 19 points by the end of November, Coletto said.

“Even if some Conservatives will push back on this, a lot of the gains they have made are because people are frustrated, fatigued, or angry at the Liberals, and less about a full embrace of [Pierre] Poilievre or the Conservatives,” Coletto explained. 

However, while the frustration and fatigue voters feel towards Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) Liberal government may be what is making more and more people consider voting Conservative, Coletto said that Tory messaging on housing, the cost of living, and cutting the carbon tax has been very effective at retaining those disaffected voters who indicated they would consider a change. 

Compared to a similar survey conducted by Abacus this past April, when asked what they believe a government helmed by Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.) would do if elected, there has been a 14-point increase in the number of respondents who say they believe it would eliminate the carbon tax (58 per cent); a nine-point increase for making housing more affordable (39 per cent); a six-point increase in reducing personal income tax (36 per cent); and a five-point jump for those who believe a Conservative government would take addressing climate change seriously (34 per cent). Those four issues, alongside balancing the federal budget, are also the things most respondents think a Conservative government should do if elected.

While neither the Conservatives’ message discipline nor voters’ fatigue with the Liberal government have declined significantly, Coletto said the five-point drop in polling might be an indication that an “overly oppositional” stance has caused the Conservatives to “take their eye off the ball” on the other issues on which voters want them to focus. 

“The Conservatives will say that it’s their job to oppose and vote against the government, but the more aggressive they act, the less appealing some voters are going to find them,” Coletto explained. “But the more they act like a government in waiting, ready to offer solutions, the better they will do.”

Coletto said that as voters need no convincing that they want change, the real task for the Conservatives is presenting themselves as an acceptable alternative. However, actions like voting against the Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement or stalling parliamentary work with a voting marathon that included voting against measures they support like the federal suicide helpline only makes that task more difficult.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy sign the modernized Canada-Ukraine Free trade Agreement on Sept. 22 during Zelenskyy’s official visit to Ottawa. On Nov. 21, the Conservatives voted en masse against the legislation to enact the deal, alleging it would impose a carbon tax on Ukraine. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“The Conservatives will say they voted against the trade agreement because of the carbon tax, but that explanation sometimes doesn’t make it to the public, and all they see is the headline,” Coletto explained, adding that recent statements from Conservative MPs Michael Chong (Wellington–Halton Hills, Ont.) and James Bezan (Selkirk–Interlake–Eastman, Man.) reaffirming their side’s support for Ukraine indicates to him that the party also believes they’ve created a vulnerability for themselves on the issue.

While Coletto said he isn’t suggesting the Conservatives tone down their opposition to the carbon tax, voters are already increasingly aware and confident in the Conservatives’ promise to eliminate the pricing regime. 

“Now they’re beginning to ask ‘what else?’ and whether they feel comfortable with the idea of the Conservatives in the role of government,” Coletto said.

He added that the Liberals’ path to victory in the next election isn’t in convincing voters that they deserve another mandate, but persuading them that “even if you don’t like us, the Conservatives will be worse.”

Despite the Liberals beginning to use descriptors like “risky and reckless” in their attacks on Poilievre, if the Conservatives can remain focused on behaving like an acceptable government in waiting, they have the opportunity to not just to win, but also form government with a sizeable majority, according to Coletto.

The challenge for the Conservatives in maintaining the coalition needed for that majority, Coletto said, will be balancing its messaging on those core issues with broad appeal while tempering those positions that excite the base—like defunding the CBC—but may be alienating to more moderate voters. 

While the Conservatives still maintain a double-digit lead across every recent poll, analysis by the Angus Reid Institute indicates that with potentially a year or more before the next election, half of the electorate are still open to changing their minds before casting their ballots. 

Forty-one per cent of respondents said they intended to vote Conservative, followed by 24 per cent for the Liberals, and 20 per cent for the NDP, according to the Dec. 14 survey conducted online from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1.

Beyond that snapshot, the analysis also looked at the possible futures the Conservatives could expect based on their access to “soft” voters from other parties, the commitment of their own base, and how potential political scenarios and strategies could affect their vote share in the next election. 

With 14 per cent of those who said they are considering supporting the Conservatives defined as “soft” or not fully committed, the worst projected outcome would leave the party with only 27 per cent of the vote in the next election. The greatest of possible futures, however, could see the Conservatives double that support, ascending to 54 per cent of the total vote share. 

In a Dec. 19 interview with The Hill Times, Angus Reid Institute president Shachi Kurl said that while the Conservatives’ smaller lead at the beginning of 2023 had seemed to become a “runaway train” as it picked up speed and distance from the trailing Liberals, as the calendar rolls into 2024, “it behooves us all to remember that these votes are not locked in.”

Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute says that while she believes he will stay, replacing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader would have the biggest impact on reducing undecided voters considering voting for the Conservatives. Photograph courtesy of the Angus Reid Institute

Despite what she described as a “historic year” for the Conservatives—noting that this kind of Conservative lead had not been seen for well over a decade, and was primarily fuelled by Canadians’ anxiety over pocketbook issues like housing and groceries—the dynamics of voter sentiment have changed very quickly to get to this point, and could do so again. 

Kurl said that similar to issues surrounding crime and public safety, issues on the cost of living are both “ideologically insensitive,” meaning that, regardless of political label, “it can cause voters to cross the street without having to think very deeply about ‘who do I stand for and what is that party all about?’”

Kurl said that while the Conservatives have spent much of the year effectively communicating on cost-of-living issues, the Liberals had spent much of that time “caught in [the Conservatives’] headlights.” 

However, while the economic factors have lined up advantageously for the Conservatives, neither the economic landscape nor the vote intention of half of the electorate could be taken for granted.

“The sands have been shifting, and they could do so again,” Kurl explained, but added that it would take far more than a slight improvement to the economy to drive the Conservatives down to the worst-case scenario of 27 per cent support.

One of the most enticing scenarios for reducing the likelihood of undecided voters supporting the Conservatives would be the Liberals replacing Trudeau as leader, Kurl said. In that scenario, the share of undecided voters who would consider voting Conservative would drop by 11 points.

“I personally think he’ll stay,” Kurl said. “But were he to leave and a different leader replaced him, a lot of soft Liberals would turn back to hard.”

While the Conservatives would also lose much of those soft Liberal and NDP voters if there were to promise to fire the head of the Bank of Canada or defund the CBC—both promises that would firm up their own base of support—commitments to protect public health care and a continuation of Poilievre’s stance on not reopening the abortion debate would significantly increase the likelihood uncommitted voters from all three parties would support the Conservatives. Additionally, while committing to repeal the carbon tax would repel potential Liberal supporters, it would entice a similar amount of support from undecided NDP voters and galvanize its own base.

For Coletto, the lesson for the Liberals is to stop trying to litigate the carbon tax. 

“[The Liberals] have lost that fight,” Coletto said. “If that’s the hill they choose to die on, they’re going to die.”

However, Coletto clarified that he isn’t suggesting that the Liberals should make a full retreat and eliminate the tax themselves. Instead, they should try and pivot the debate away from the carbon tax and onto other measures that can be taken to reduce emissions and address climate change.

But climate change and how seriously a Conservative government would act to address it is only one metric by which voters will judge the acceptability of a Poilievre-led government, Coletto said. He noted there is also an opportunity for the Liberals on other popular social issues, with a drop in the number of potential Conservative voters who believe the party should scrap the national dentalcare or national childcare program, and those who say the Conservatives should restrict abortion access.

While the Conservatives haven’t said they would do any of those things, “politics is about perception,” Coletto explained, adding that the Liberals should use the next year to shape voters’ perceptions of how a potential Conservative government would act once in power.

Coletto said if Poilievre keeps his caucus focused on what Canadians care about, his party has a good chance of not just winning, but also clinching a large majority. But as more people come on board, it increases the risk of alienating those more moderate voters if the party appears to only be concerned with exciting its base and opposing the Liberals. 

“Ultimately, I don’t think the Liberals are going to be able to convince voters that they deserve another mandate,” Coletto said. “It’s whether or not those voters think the Conservatives are ready and if they feel comfortable with Mr. Poilievre and his party deciding the future of the country.”

“There are plenty of examples around in Canada: Dalton McGuinty in 2011, and Kathleen Wynne in 2014 in Ontario, and Christy Clark in 2013 in B.C.,” Coletto said. “All governments that probably should have lost because they’d been in office for so long ultimately got re-elected because the alternative, the main alternative, became unacceptable to enough people.”

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