Abacus poll reveals what the 2015 campaign was really all about

Survey finds more voters combined think Oct. 19 election is about change and values than see it as mainly about the economy
An election official hands back to a voter her marked ballot to place in the ballot box so she can cast her vote for the federal election at a polling station on Toronto’s Ward Island on Monday May 2, 2011. Elections Canada scrambled to staff dozens of polling stations across Canada on May 2 when the people it hired called in sick, slept late, took unauthorized meal breaks — or quit in a huff over working conditions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Thomas Mulcair, Stephen Harper, Elizabeth May, Stephen Trudeau.  NO Credit.

More voters combined think Monday’s election is about change and values than see it as mainly about the economy, according to a new Abacus Data poll conducted for Maclean’s, and that sense of what was really at stake in the campaign spells trouble for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

The Abacus survey, conducted online with 3,103 Canadians from Oct. 15-17, found that 36 per cent picked the economy, along with which leader has the best economic plan, as the top issue. Of those who feel that way, 44 per cent said they are voting for Harper’s Conservatives, 33 per cent for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, and 16 per cent for Tom Mulcair’s NDP.

But that apparent advantage for Harper is overshadowed by his weaker standing when it comes to values—encompassing the set of issues that rose to prominence in the campaign when the debate focused first on how quickly to accept more Syrian refugees, and then on the Conservatives’ position that the niqab—the veil worn by a small minority of Muslim women— shouldn’t be allowed during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

Of the 24 per cent of voters who said the election is most about picking the leader and party that best represents the values they want reflected by the federal government, fully 40 per cent said they are voting Liberal, 25 per cent NDP, and just 16 per cent Tory.

Another 23 per cent said electing a party and leader to deliver change is their top priority, and 47 per cent of those voters said they favour the Liberals, well over the 32 per cent who said they are voting for the New Democrats. (Not surprisingly, only eight per cent of “change” voters were going with the incumbent Conservatives.)

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Abacus CEO David Coletto said the formidable Liberal lead on values and change could be decisive on Monday, which suggests Harper may have made a big mistake taking such a stern line on the need to screen Syrian refugees for security reasons, and then focusing on the polarizing niqab issue, in middle section of the marathon 11-week campaign.

A key tactical problem for the Tories was that the apparent popularity of Harper’s stance on the niqab in Quebec tended to hurt Mulcair, who stood firmly in favour of the right of women to wear face coverings, eroding the NDP’s strong standing in the polls in the province.

“What’s actually happened is the Conservatives thought they had a wedge issue they could win on that has probably backfired and caused their defeat,” Coletto said. “It weakened the New Democrats in Quebec, made it clear to voters outside Quebec that the NDP can’t win, and that accelerated a consolidation of change voters around the Liberals.”

Those so-called change voters are key to Trudeau’s strong position going into Monday’s vote. Among the 60 per cent of those responding to Abacus’s survey who said it’s definitely time for a change in Ottawa, 49 per cent intended to vote Liberal, and only 33 per cent NDP.

Coletto says the Mulcair’s decision to run on a promise of balanced books, while Trudeau was touting his plan for three years of deficit-financed spending, seemed to strongly influence those Canadians craving a new direction from Parliament Hill. “Once the NDP was locked into their balanced-budget promise, I think that signalled to voters that they couldn’t offer the spending that people think is tied to more ambitious change.”

So change was a key issue for many voters throughout the campaign, and the question was which of the two main opposition parties would come out on top as the better vehicle for delivering it. Values emerged during the race as an unexpectedly top-of-mind concern, likely to the detriment of the Conservatives. And while the economy has remained a significant preoccupation, it doesn’t appear dominant enough to outweigh the combined impact the change and values factors.

Other issues the Tories wanted to highlight just didn’t seem to get any traction. Abacus found only six per cent of Canadians felt keeping taxes low was the top issue, and just four per cent felt picking the party and leader who would keep Canadians safe was what the election was all about.

With taxes and security hardly registering, and values going against him, Harper reverted in the final stage of the campaign to emphasizing overall economic competence. But Coletto said it would take a major change of heart on in the ballot box on the part of a lot of voters to make that concern definitive on Oct. 19.

“If voters who haven’t voted yet, and haven’t locked in their votes, step into the voting booth and ultimately decide that the election is not about change, but is about the economy, then the Conservatives have a chance,” he said. “They don’t have a big advantage among voters who think that way, but they do have an advantage.”

The Abacus survey was conducted online with 3,103 Canadians aged 18 and over from Oct. 15-17, from a large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians, recruited and managed by Research Now, one of the world’s leading provider of online research samples. 

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 plus or minus 1.8 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, education, and region.