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bruce anderson

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's "At Issue" panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Lyndon Johnson famously argued that there's no point in being president if you're not going to do something with the power you have. He felt he had to say it because people around him were suggesting he not push too hard for controversial reforms that he believed in.

In politics, this tension never goes out of style. Some leaders relish in deftly tacking with the wind. Others thrive on the challenge of pulling public opinion to somewhere it isn't sure it wanted to go.

Stephen Harper's style is well understood by now. But over the next nine months, we'll learn which of these two styles comes more naturally to Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair.

So far anyway, Mr. Mulcair loves that old-style NDP religion. He's crusading for a vision that many Canadians like to hear but usually don't vote for, because while there are plenty of progressives in Canada, most of them have a pretty pragmatic, careful streak when it comes to economic policy preferences.

On some issues, Mr. Mulcair wants people to follow a path that would disrupt the status quo, but doesn't do much to reassure people when it comes to their anxieties about what could go wrong. Talk about hiking taxes on business, and after the visceral "main street over bay street" reaction is done, voters wonder if it's really an idea with only good consequences.

On pipelines, the NDP leader appears to be saying: whatever you don't want, we will oppose. Here again, this can be like offering voters a sugar high – a rush of satisfaction at knowing that the average voter is powerful, followed by quiet doubts about whether this is really the best way to run a country.

The bottom line is this: to convince Canadians to embrace a new approach, one that they have tended to think has too many risks, you need to work to dissipate, rather than stoke the worry. Of course, if the goal is simply to rally the base and save what you have, the opposite is true.

Where Mr. Trudeau will net out is not yet clear. He has accumulated lots of political capital, and spent little of it so far.

But as the clock ticks down to election day, the positions he takes on some of the trickier issues, such as pipelines and carbon pricing, will signal whether his instinct is more to challenge Canadians or to reassure them and reflect their mood.

In polling, the way you phrase a question on any given issue can produce a vastly different reaction from respondents. Yes, this is a warning about the potential for polling to mislead, but it also reveals that on many issues, people are open to being persuaded.

Ask people if they want a carbon tax, plenty are tempted to say no. Ask if taxes should be arranged so that they encourage people to reduce emissions, even more say yes.

Similarly, ask people if they want a new oil pipeline built nearby, and the first instinct of some might be a "no." But ask the same people if Canada needs to build pipelines to get energy from where it is found to homes and businesses and new customers abroad, and more people will say yes.

Numbers like these point to the most fundamental choice for leaders. Do you build an agenda based on current public desires and preferences, or build a constituency for the ideas you believe are necessary?

Jean Chretien and Paul Martin are often credited with being willing to take great political risks by eliminating the federal deficit. But many of their decisions carried little risk because the public was already massively on board with the end goal. Mr. Chretien preferred to tack with the wind, not shake things up too much.

Brian Mulroney, on the other hand, sampled both approaches. After an early move to de-index seniors' pensions, the Conservative prime minister endured a highly publicized tongue-lashing from a woman named Solange Denis as she protested on Parliament Hill. He blinked.

But later, Mr. Mulroney was more interested in making change happen and in winning public support for the things he cared about. On free trade, the creation of a national sales tax, and the Meech Lake Accord, lots of voters disagreed with the prime minister. He and his party accumulated a lot of scar tissue. But Mr. Mulroney preferred to spend political capital and understood that leadership was about trying to convince people you're right, not letting them convince you to give up the fight.

All three of the current party leaders are facing the toughest fight of their careers.

Whether they pin their hopes on playing public preferences back to voters, or building confidence in ideas that might feel a bit risky, will tell us a lot about who they are. How voters react will tell us a lot about who we are.

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