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Canadian Political Leaders: The midpoint reset

November 5, 2017

By Bruce Anderson & David Coletto

Halfway between the 2015 and the 2019 elections and with two new opposition party leaders, it’s a useful moment to take stock of what people know and perceive about the three individuals leading Canada’s largest political parties.

Here are the highlights:

Mr. Trudeau is obviously better known than his rivals, and 84% say they have a very good idea or a pretty good idea of what kind of person and leader he is.  For Mr. Scheer, the comparative number is 28% and for Mr. Singh 22%.

When we compare what people say they know about the three main leaders today compared to what people said they knew at the start of the 2015 election, both Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh are well off where the two opposition leaders were at the start of the last federal election.

Heading into the 2015 campaign, Mr. Harper was very well known having been prime minister for almost a decade but so too was Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair with at least a majority of respondents saying they had at least a pretty good idea about what kind of person and leader they both were.

Mr. Trudeau has established a largely positive reputation. 48% say they have a positive view of the PM, 31% negative.  For Mr. Scheer, results are 16% positive, 20% negative.  For Mr. Singh: 17% positive; 18% negative.

For both opposition leaders, the numbers are both good news in that they start with no strong negatives, but they do face a challenge because they need to attract attention in a cluttered communications market where it is arguably harder than ever to grow a share of voice. But both have much more neutral and undefined images than when Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau were elected their party’s leaders in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

A few months after Mr. Mulcair became NDP leader in March 2012, he had a greater profile than Mr. Singh. 36% had a positive impression of Mr. Mulcair while 21% viewed him negatively.
Similarly, a few months after Mr. Trudeau became Liberal leader in April 2013, 40% viewed him positively compared with 26% who had a negative impression of the new Liberal leader.

When we ask respondents to rate how well a number of words and terms describe each party leader, Mr. Scheer’s strongest positive attributes are “smart, principled, and a leader”.  His least favourable ratings are “tough, interesting, and understands people like you.”
For Mr. Singh the top positives are “smart, good heart, principled and interesting” while the less favourable numbers are for “good ideas, tough, understands people like you”.
Mr. Trudeau’s top marks are “good heart, smart, interesting” while his weaker ratings are for “tough and understands people like you.”
Comparing the image of Mr. Trudeau to his two competitors reveals that he has an advantage on all of the items, which has to do with the fact that he is better known, but also relatively well liked as political leaders go.
Of note: Mr. Scheer trails both the others on “interesting, smart and good heart” and Mr. Singh trails both the others on “understands people like you”.  On most other items the gaps between the two opposition party leaders is slight.
Looking at only Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) who will make up the largest generation in the electorate in 2019, Mr. Scheer trails Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Singh on almost all attributes. The largest gap is on people feeling he has a good heart, is interesting, and is ethical.

Among women, the gap between Mr. Trudeau and the two opposition leaders are similar on most attributes except for “interesting” where Mr. Scheer trails both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Singh and “understands people like you” where Mr. Singh trails both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer.

We also asked whether Andrew Scheer was seen in a more positive light than Stephen Harper on a range of attributes.  On several of the items tested, there was a mild tendency to see Mr. Scheer as a better choice than Mr. Harper: especially on being open and approachable, having a different approach to politics, ideas and vision for Canada.  The only area where Mr. Harper was seen as better was in terms of “how strong a leader he is”, but the gap is slight.
When we look at only those who currently say they would vote Conservative, Mr. Scheer is viewed as better than Mr. Harper on all the attributes we tested, especially when it comes to how approachable and open he is, his approach to politics generally, his vision for Canada, and the ideas he has for Canada.
Among those who would support another party or are currently undecided, views are more muted. Mr. Scheer is perceived to be better than Mr. Harper when it comes to how approachable and open he is while doing worse when it comes to how strong a leader he is. For most other attributes, non-Conservative supports don’t see much difference between the two or are unsure.
These results demonstrate that one of Mr. Harper’s perceived shortcomings as a leader was his lack openness and approachability. So far, those paying attention to Mr. Scheer’s actions in Ottawa are noticing an improvement on this front.

UPSHOT

According to Bruce Anderson: “How people feel about opposition leaders today is not always relevant to how they will be perceived in two years – and Justin Trudeau is a case that makes that point very vividly.  At the same time, these numbers show that Mr. Trudeau remains a highly valuable asset for his party – his personal reputation is strong and includes good regard for his empathy as well as his brainpower.

For his opponents, there are no big negatives to be concerned about, although Mr. Scheer may reflect on the challenge of becoming better known and the need to be seen as “interesting”.

That all three leaders get weaker marks for “understands people like you” may be a reflection of the fact that many voters doubt that any leader can really get their experience.  That all three get weaker marks for being ‘tough’ may be a reflection of the fact that voters are putting less emphasis on this attribute and parties are choosing leaders who reflect a stronger emphasis on “good heart”.

According to David Coletto: “There’s still a lot of time for Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh to introduce themselves to Canadians and offer an alternative to Prime Minister Trudeau. But the data suggests they have some catching up to do if we compare them to recent newly elected opposition leaders.

Since leadership is such an important factor in vote choice, building a positive, well-known brand is vital in politics today. Certainly, election campaigns have the tendency to change the public’s knowledge and perception of leaders. Comparisons are starker and voters pay greater attention to the choices on offer. However, the pre-election period is still important in shaping opinions, defining the criteria by which voters will assess leadership attributes, and affecting the number of voters accessible to a party.

What’s clear in this data is that Mr. Trudeau has a head start in terms of awareness and image. For me, his greatest asset remains the fact that most Canadians believe he has a good heart, is interesting, and he is accessible. If voters believe you are open-minded and have the best intentions than they will forgive you when you make mistakes or decisions they disagree with. If you’re interesting, they will pay attention when you speak or share your views.

It’s also clear that Mr. Scheer faces a challenge in competing with two leaders who are viewed as more “interesting” than him, especially when we consider the perceptions of millennials, whose influence on Canadian politics will continue to grow. Getting noticed is half the battle these days.”

METHODOLOGY
Our survey was conducted online with 1,500 Canadians aged 18 and over between October 20th to October 23rd, 2017. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians.

The Marketing Research and Intelligence Association policy limits statements about margins of sampling error for most online surveys. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of 1,500 is +/- 2.5%, 19 times out of 20.

The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

ABACUS DATA INC.
We offer global research capacity with a strong focus on customer service, attention to detail and value-added insight.  Our team combines the experience of our Chairman Bruce Anderson, one of Canada’s leading research executives for two decades, with the energy, creativity and research expertise of CEO David Coletto, Ph.D.


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