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Comebacks, Challenges, And The Connoisseur's Curse
On The LPC's Challenges And Opportunities
One of the benefits of writing for myself is that I am (painfully, at times) aware of how attentive my audience is. It is, mostly for good (although less so in campaigns when people literally wake me up with their poll dooming), an incredibly attentive, high information readership. It’s a connoisseur’s publication, and with it comes a lot of readers who know a lot of things.
One of the things that my readership knows is that the Liberals are in the shits, polling wise. It’s really bad, and there’s little to say to cloud that fact. Right now. Of course, there’s no election today or tomorrow, and if the Tories’ polls rose as interest rates spiked, it’s hard to sit here and make the case that rate cuts can’t induce a little bit of a reversal, so the takes are more than a little ahead of themselves. And as much as I appreciate a robust polling environment, there’s only so much value in talking about polls in specific so far out when the aggregate says the same shit.
So, when one of our best pollsters comes out with some genuinely novel data, as Abacus has this week, it’s worth looking at. David Coletto’s writeup of the results is worth reading. But what’s most interesting is the sub 20% of both current Liberal and NDP supporters think the CPC will win the next election, and 40% of 2021 LPC voters who have switched and 51% of current NDP supporters would be more likely to vote LPC if Poilievre was likely to win the next election.
Far from suggesting that people have accepted the inevitable, Abacus’ data makes the case that the public is unhappy with the Liberals, which we know, but also that the risk of Poilievre would be a motivator – if people were convinced he would win. Clearly, despite my mentions, they’re not yet sold he’s an inevitable as much of the discourse suggests.
Talking about polling to people who don’t pay attention to it is best described as talking about why the Leafs can’t call up an extra forward to your Uncle who doesn’t understand the salary cap or how waivers work. It’s much less a conversation than two people talking past each other in sequence. People fundamentally don’t believe the polls despite the fact that polls in Canada are quite good, partially because of legitimate poll failures (Trump twice, UK 2017, Alberta 2012, BC 2013) and partially because of cases where the media coverage misconstrued the actual polling evidence (Brexit, US 2022). More to the point, they certainly don’t believe polls two years out mean the sum of jack and fucking shit for who will win.
Scepticism is certainly justified – there’s been a lot of governments left for dead at midterm that have come back, but that’s not what this column is about. What it’s actually about is that people don’t believe Poilievre is a lock, and certainly progressives don’t. And if they don’t believe that Poilievre will win, then there’s little reason to be surprised that the Liberals aren’t yet benefitting from the traditional squeeze to the most electable anti-Conservative option.
The point at which the Liberals numbers go from concerning to terminal is the moment they actually try to tank Poilievre with a fear campaign and it doesn’t work, but that moment hasn’t come yet. Poilievre has spent millions – which he has to spend, and good for him – on a relentlessly positive ad campaign. It’s Harper’s sweater vest, except with a bigger ad buy behind it and Poilievre’s kids are young enough to look cute in the B-roll. (Full disclosure: I’ve never once heard the ads, but I’ve seen them about 40000 times while watching NFL this season.) The kids do look cute, and he looks normal.
It’s also not going to matter when the Liberals eventually go on air with an ad blitz of their own about crypto as a way to opt out of inflation and banning all vaccine mandates and all the other crank lunacy that Poilievre’s said. We see them trial ballooning the eventual TV spots with all these digital videos – they’ll find the one that works best and hit him with it, in time. Will it matter? It’ll probably blunt his rising favourables (up to 40% per Abacus, and the ascent coinciding with the ad blitz’s start), when it comes. But what will matter is how the economy is when the election’s called, and whether people come to believe that Poilievre will win.
Another two years of columns from everyone about how Trudeau’s dead and Poilievre’s inevitable will probably have the effect of hurting Poilievre. We know the NDP have taken some ex-Liberal voters – mostly because if they’re losing working class voters to the CPC (they are) and are at 18% still nationally, they have to have gained some Liberals – and the Greens are at 5% per Abacus and up across all polls right now. We know that those voters are open to a squeeze message if they think Poilievre can win. And we know that the Liberals will be the only way in most important seats to stop the Tories.
If you think Poilievre’s going to win, great! Bully for you, genuinely. But let’s not pretend that the current state of play doesn’t represent the likely high point for the Tories. The government is telegraphing an austerity budget in 2024 solely to reduce demand and force the Bank Of Canada into rate cuts, and if that happens, a lot of people who bought in the last 5 years and are suddenly worrying the water’s getting too high will be able to exhale.
There’s a political illiteracy to a lot of the certainty in the government’s demise, which is a hell of a sentence to write coming from me. I know my history, I get it, and for those who really hate Justin Trudeau they’ll dismiss this as the mere grasping at straws of a Liberal hack. But it’s as much the truth that the Liberals would be up shit’s creek without a paddle if the election was today as it is to point out that overconfidence this far out is a sign of intellectual vacuousness, and specifically a vacuousness I have been guilty of plenty of times.
Abacus makes clear the government has real and substantial issues, and it echoes the fact that there isn’t an apparent silver bullet. But it also makes clear that the public haven’t priced in a Poilievre victory to the degree that the online consensus has. And the fact that they haven’t should give those hoping for a comeback heart, because it means that the traditional Liberal squeeze message still has time to win some voters back.
Whether or not the Liberals have it in them to do it well is unclear. But as much as Abacus shows where they’re failing currently, it also makes clear the road back exists – and that the consensus that Poilievre will win hasn’t broken through to anyone outside the walls of connoisseurs publications like this one.