Exclusive poll probes the images of federal party leaders

Abacus Data poll: Mulcair’s mystery is a double-edged sword

As part of a wide-ranging poll about the leaders’ images, Abacus Data finds ‘both vulnerability and potential’ in the NDP leader’s numbers

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair arrives at a rally in Kamloops, B.C. on Tuesday Sept. 1, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair arrives at a rally in Kamloops, B.C. on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

To many Canadians trying to make up their minds in the federal election campaign, the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair still remains by far the least familiar of the three main party leaders, and yet, that hasn’t seemed to hamper him much in persuading a wide swath of voters to think of him as a plausible prime minister.

An exclusive online opinion survey by Abacus Data for Maclean’s probed what voters were thinking about a month into the campaign, and discovered an almost paradoxical mix of lingering uncertainty about who Mulcair really is, and a growing comfort with his leadership attributes.

Related: Read the previous Abacus poll: Race tightens as NDP support slips

Not surprisingly, Stephen Harper is the most familiar leader, with 82 per cent of respondents saying they think they have a very good, or, at least, pretty good, idea about the man who has been Prime Minister since 2006. When it comes to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau (running for PM for the first time, but a famous figure since his much-photographed childhood as Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son), 66 per cent feel they know him very, or, at least, pretty well.

But only 54 per cent feel that level of familiarity about Mulcair. “It suggests both vulnerability and potential,” says Abacus CEO David Coletto. The risk is that the other parties will finally find a way to exploit that uncertainty to define Mulcair on their terms; the opportunity for the NDP is that there’s still a chance to present Mulcair to undecided voters they way they want him to be seen.

The Abacus findings suggest that, so far this year, voters are mostly feeling better about Mulcair, as they see more of him. The firm asked a set of questions about leadership impressions last January, then posed them again in August to see how the three rivals’ images are evolving. Mulcair’s persona tended to show the most improvement.

Slideshow: The lighter side of the Abacus poll
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For instance, when asked which leader would be the best CEO of a large company, Harper was chosen by 44 per cent in late August, down from 47 per cent last January, while Trudeau’s best-CEO rating fell six points to 17 per cent. The number of those surveyed who saw Mulcair—leader of a party traditionally at odds with business—as the best CEO rose nine points to 39 per cent. “He is clearly seen as competent,” Coletto concludes. “People have a comfort level with him, even though their understanding of who he is and where he’s coming from isn’t as great as the two other leaders.”

Beyond Mulcair’s leadership image, there’s the matter of the NDP looking like a fully competitive contender to win its first-ever federal election. Abacus polling released earlier this week found the three-way race is extraordinarily tight, with the NDP at 31 per cent, the Conservatives at 30 per cent, and the Liberals at 28 per cent.

So Abacus asked its respondents to agree or disagree with this statement: “Since there has never been an NDP federal government before, I worry about what the NDP will do if elected this time.” Overall, 46 per cent said they were worried, while 40 per cent were not worried, and 14 per cent were unsure.

You might imagine that those 46 per cent who agreed they are worried are not voting NDP. But Abacus found, to the contrary, that 21 per cent of declared NDP supporters are at least somewhat worried about what the party they’re backing will do if it actually wins on Oct. 19.

In fact, the firm found the same mixed feelings among some NDP voters regarding last spring’s breakthrough win for the party in Alberta’s provincial election, when a substantial minority of NDP voters also admitted they did so with some misgivings.

“People were so sick and tired of the Progressive Conservatives in Alberta that they were willing to roll the dice on change,” Coletto says. “That’s where some (federal) New Democrat supporters are: ‘The NDP change is not perfect, I’m not sure what they are going to do, because they have never been in government, but—you know what?—I’m willing to take that risk.’ ”

About the poll

The Abacus survey was commissioned by Maclean’s and conducted online Aug. 26-28, with 1,500 Canadians aged 18 and over. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of more than 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 the same size is +/- 2.6 per cent, 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.


Abacus Data poll: Mulcair’s mystery is a double-edged sword

  1. Actually Harper would make a terrible CEO.

    He doesn’t encourage initiative.

    He doesn’t delegate.

    He doesn’t create a strong team.

    He controls.

    He silences.

    The outdated image of how a CEO should look and behave that too many Canadians have is reflected in Canadian businesses that lag in innovation and productivity so maybe that’s where they get the idea of what a good CEO is like.

  2. see, the worried thing is misleading in intent. i’m to the left of the ndp, and worried mulcair is going to end up like bob rae. that’s a different kind of worried than the centrist narrative would pre-suppose.

    i think the results of this, and other polling, are obvious: canadians like the historical image of the ndp. the party of tommy douglas and stephen lewis. the part of universal healthcare, foreign aid and pacifism. and just the broad idea of being socially democratic: the party that will swing canada back on a direction towards scandinavian style governance. mulcair, himself, is seen mostly as a titular head of a set of ideas, rather than a driver of them, himself. people are voting for the car, not the driver. and, i think that would have been entirely predictable c. 1995. eventually, generational change was going to catch up to the historical record.

    but, it’s a strange plot twist, as the ndp has moved out of it’s place of moral superiority at exactly the same time as the generational shift has placed them in front. is the ndp that exists in voter’s minds the same ndp that actually exists in front of us today? and, how quickly will people be able to align their perceptions to the reality? to me, that’s the issue that determines if they can win this or not.

    • also, i need to point out that you’d have to be nearing retirement to have any memory of justin trudeau’s childhood. i’m not a young person. i’m in my mid-30s. and i’ve read quite a lot about his father. but, i was three years old when he took his walk in the snow. and, the first time i’d ever heard the name “justin trudeau” was at his father’s funeral. if you were ~20 in 1975, you are probably still too young to remember trudeau as a kid, and yet you are ~60 today.

      these people no doubt exist. but they’re not representative of the general voting public.