Probing the NDP surge: middle-class credibility and more

Jack Layton talked up pocketbook pressures on the middle class in every speech

At the outset of this election, the mythical middle-class voter was the main target of all three of the Conservative, Liberal and NDP campaign strategies.

Stephen Harper’s Tories looked best-positioned, after carefully courting the coveted demographic with niche tax breaks and the Harper’s own average-guy image. But the Liberals served notice they would be competing for that turf, and eventually took dead aim at middle-class voters with Michael Ignatieff’s so-called “Family Pack” platform.

And then there was the NDP—often lost in the discussion about going after the middle-class vote. Traditionally, after all, New Democrat support skews younger and less well-off. Still, Jack Layton talked up pocketbook pressures on the middle class in every speech, and offered policies tailored for them, like a home-renovation tax break and a caregiver tax benefit.

Check out the result. The Maclean’s Election Survey, conducted for Rogers Media by Innovative Research, asked online participants in the Canada 20/20 Panel which party would do a better job protecting the middle class.

Early in the election, 31 per cent rated the Conservatives “somewhat better” or “much better” for the middle class, 25 per cent preferred the Liberals, and 23 per cent the NDP. By the Easter long weekend, the Tories were down slightly to 29 per cent, the Liberals off about five points to 20 per cent, and Layton’s NDP up a very substantial 10 point to 33 per cent—vaulting into top spot.

That significant shift tells part of the story of an election race that’s now heading into what’s shaping up as a frenzied stretch run. Pedictions that it would be a dull campaign have been left in the dust. High viewership of the TV debates and record turnouts at advance polls show that voters are anything but detached.

Layton’s base-broadening surge is, of course, attracting the most avid attention, and creating a strong chance that this will go down as a watershed election. The Maclean’s Election Survey adds some texture to polls showing the NDP charging into a strong second place.

Heading into the campaign, media attention focused primarily on Harper’s bid for a majority. Anything less, the Prime Minister said over and over, would jeopardize Canada “stability.” His stump speech painted an unsettling picture of Canada as a fragile sanctuary in a threatening world.

But that rather dire message only resonated, according to Innovative’s online panel, with the Conservative base, and mainly alienated voters outside that loyal Tory core. Only 18 per cent of participants in Innovative’s online 20/20 panel said they grew more favourably impressed with Harper during the campaign.

Both Layton and Michael Ignatieff did better on that rating. Ignatieff made a favourable impression on 34 per cent, and Layton looked better to remarkable 57 per cent. The Liberal leader did very well among Liberal voters, with 68 per cent of them saying the viewed him more favourably, and quite well among NDP and Green voters.

Since the NDP’s orange wave started and remains strongest in Quebec, it’s not surprising to see that Layton’s favourability score is highest there. Among Quebec panelists,  a remarkable 70 per cent of respondents reported having a more favourable impression of Layton than before the campaign began, above a still-healthy 52 per cent in the rest of Canada.

On impressions of Layton’s underlying attributes, Quebecers also seem to have warmed to him the most. On which leader they associate with “strong leadership,” Layton’s score rose to 31 per cent in Quebec from 14 per cent near the start of the campaign. In the rest of Canada, the climb was to 22 per cent from 14 per cent. Similarly, Layton’s image on attributes like “having the best plan” and “caring about people like me” rose smartly in Canada as a whole, but more markedly in Quebec.

When it came to probing voter attitudes on specific issues, the NDP made big gains during the campaign on protecting the middle class—a major thrust of Latyon’s stump-speech rhetoric and his party’s TV ads—and on understanding the needs of “people like me,” maintaining high ethical standards, and health care.

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives were strongly positioned, at least in the minds of our poll respondents, on crime, the economy, and cutting taxes.

The Liberals didn’t rank first on any issue asked about in the survey. Their best file is representing Canada to the world, but even on that—a seemingly natural strength for the globetrotting Ignatieff—the Liberals were only about equal with the Tories. Ask which party would do a better job on the world stage, 22 per cent said Conservatives would do a much better job than the other parties, 21 per cent said the Liberals, and about 10 per cent the NDP.

But that poor NDP result on Canada’s international image is a rarity in this campaign. And given the choice between being seen as the champion of the middle class, or the best leader to give as speech the United Nations, Layton would no doubt take the former. And it seems he’s got it.

The Innovative Canada 20/20 panel is recruited from a wide variety of sources to be representative of the know distribution of Canadians by age, gender, regional and language. The latest survey results were from 1,543 responses from April 21-25, and would have an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 2.49 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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