It’s easy to get preoccupied about what goes wrong in politics and forget that there’s good news too. Competition is flourishing again.
Many have been frustrated with political outcomes over the last 20 years because of weak or unstable competition. Small-c conservative voters struggled through the Chretien years as their party had splintered and seemed doomed to perpetual failure. Later, progressive voters found themselves splitting votes in ways that elected a conservative government three times.
But if you thought this syndrome might never end, it now looks like it might.
Heading into the next election, it looks like voters will have three distinct choices, in terms of what kind of government they prefer. People with considerable skill lead all three parties.
Polls, including a detailed survey by Harris Decima recently, offer plenty of insight into what each leader must do to succeed.
Although leader of the Official Opposition, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair is not as well known as the leader of the third party. Roughly 70 per cent have an opinion of him, while 85 per cent have a view of Mr. Trudeau. Winning a larger share of voice is going to be a challenge, given Mr. Trudeau’s ability to pull cameras and draw crowds, especially now that the Liberals are ahead in the polls.
Mr. Mulcair has other hills to climb, too.
- Of the three main leaders, only 16 per cent think the NDP leader most shares their values. Jack Layton built his success largely on this perception, and it is critical to NDP growth prospects.
- Only 14 per cent think Mr. Mulcair is best equipped to handle economic issues, 7 points behind Mr. Trudeau, and 26 points behind Stephen Harper.
- The NDP leader risks more leaky support than his rivals: among NDP voters, 25 per cent think Mr. Trudeau most shares their values and would make the best PM.
For Justin Trudeau, the main challenge is the large gap between the 56 per cent who say they like the Liberal leader, and the 30 per cent who are convinced he would make the best PM. This gap is caused by uncertainty about whether he has enough experience, solid judgment and could handle economic issues. His perceived strengths (shares your values, cares about people like you) might be enough to propel his party to second place, but to win in 2015 he will need to work to strengthen perceptions on the weaker indicators.
From a sheer numbers standpoint, the biggest opportunities and risks lie in Ontario and among women. In Ontario, Mr. Trudeau leads Mr. Harper by 8 points on “shares your values” but trails the PM by 5 points on “would make the best PM.” Among women, Trudeau has a 15-point lead over Harper on “shares your values.” But the lead shrinks to 6 on “would make the best PM”.
For Stephen Harper, the math of his path to a fourth straight win is not complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. His experience, especially on economic issues, is his strength, but with his party trailing the Liberals with all income and age groups, both genders, urban and rural Canada, he has two alternatives.
- To convince more people that he shares their values.
- To undermine confidence in Mr. Trudeau’s ability to handle the economy The second option may no longer work so well. So far, CPC attack ads have landed weakly. Even among Conservative voters, 36 per cent maintain a favourable view of Mr. Trudeau; only 52 per cent have an unfavourable view.
Trailing Jack Layton on “shares your values” wasn’t a big problem, because most voters weren’t prepared to vote in an NDP government. But today, on this attribute, Mr. Harper trails Mr. Trudeau by 15 points among women, 9 points among higher income households, 4 points among those over 50, 19 points in Quebec, and 8 in Ontario. These gaps must be addressed if the Conservative leader is to win again in 2015.
As the leaders tour the country over the summer, they will hear echoes of these polling numbers, and make efforts to strengthen their competitive position. All three parties have access to resources, talented leaders and offer different policy mixes. This bodes well for the electoral season ahead.
Bruce Anderson is one of Canada’s leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC’s popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.