Survey suggests COVID-19 will be on voters' minds in upcoming Sask. election

Saskatchewan will be one of the first Canadian jurisdictions to hold an election during the pandemic. Will COVID-19 issues matter in the election?

34 per cent of respondents said they didn't yet know who they would vote for

How the province has handled the COVID-19 pandemic may be a key factor in how Saskatchewan voters choose between NDP Leader Ryan Meili (left) and Premier Scott Moe. (The Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan will be one of the first Canadian jurisdictions to hold an election during the pandemic. Will COVID-19 issues matter in the election?

New survey data from the University of Saskatchewan's Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research (CHASR) suggests COVID-19 will be on Saskatchewan voters' minds when they place their votes. The CHASR survey, conducted in partnership with PostMedia News and CBC Saskatchewan from Sept. 1 to 3, asked a representative sample of 400 Saskatchewanians their thoughts about Saskatchewan politics. The results provide us with an early peek into the issues that may dominate the campaign.

The survey found that COVID-19 is an important factor to voters. More than six in 10 respondents stated that issues related to COVID-19 will be important in determining their vote in the provincial election. 

COVID-19 is particularly important to the voting decisions of women, lower-income respondents and respondents with school-aged children. There is also a large geographic gap: more than seven in 10 big-city residents (70 per cent for Saskatoon and 77 per cent for Regina) state COVID is important to their vote, while only half of smaller city (51 per cent) and rural (50 per cent) residents said the same.

More than a third of respondents (34 per cent) stated they didn't know who they would vote for if a provincial election were held today. These undecided voters appear quite focused on COVID-19 issues. Almost four in 10 state COVID-19 issues will be very important to their vote choice, and 76 per cent state they will be either very or somewhat important. 

COVID-19 issues are also important to decided voters. The Saskatchewan Party enjoys a strong lead over the NDP with respect to general support: when asked who they would vote for, twice as many respondents (29 per cent) stated they would vote for the Saskatchewan Party than stated they would vote for the NDP (14 per cent). A strong majority of each — 58 per cent of Saskatchewan Party supporters and 76 per cent of NDP supporters — stated that COVID-19 issues will be important to their vote decision. 

It's not surprising that COVID-19 is on voters' minds. But when we drill down to specific issues, the results are not always what we might expect. COVID-19 has had a considerably disruptive impact upon education, but when asked to identify the most important issue to them in Saskatchewan politics, only 8 per cent of respondents mentioned education. (Among those who stated COVID will be important to their vote choice, 18 per cent mentioned education.) 

When asked if the provincial government's back-to-school plans would be relevant to their voting intentions, only 30 per cent stated yes. Among parents of school-aged children, the number drops to 22 per cent. 

Instead, voters remain focused on the traditionally important issues: health care (mentioned by 29 per cent of respondents as the most important issue) and the economy (mentioned by 23 per cent). COVID-19 has of course had large implications for both of these, and among those who stated COVID issues will be important to their vote choice, 53 per cent mentioned health care as the top issue, and 44 per cent mentioned the economy. 

So while COVID-19 is important to voters, it will likely be blended with larger issues and their perceptions of the government's overall performance. Already sitting with double the support of the opposition NDP, the Saskatchewan Party may even enjoy a COVID-19 advantage: when asked which party is closest to them on COVID-19 issues, respondents were three times more likely to select the Saskatchewan Party (30 per cent) than the NDP (10 per cent).  

The Saskatchewan Party's COVID advantage is even more apparent when we consider just those individuals who state that COVID issues will be important to their vote, with 61 per cent stating the Saskatchewan Party is closest to their personal opinion on COVID.

Further, while COVID-19 has had negative economic effects worldwide and incumbent governments tend to be punished by voters during times of economic hardship, the Saskatchewan Party has little reason for concern on this front, as six in 10 respondents felt the economy is either improving (27 per cent) or neither improving nor declining (34 per cent). 

Overall, then, while the CHASR survey results suggest COVID-19 issues will matter to the election, they also hint that the public's concerns will not hurt, and indeed may help, the incumbent Saskatchewan Party. 

All of this may, of course, change if the number of COVID cases in the province increase sharply. Incumbent governments are sometimes punished electorally for natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes and public health crises.

In these situations, voters appear to consider how well prepared the incumbent government was to deal with the issue and/or how well the government managed the disaster when it occurred. Voter perceptions of government preparedness and response can make the difference between the disaster being politically relevant or politically inconsequential.

Given this, we might expect the two major parties to focus their attention on the framing of COVID response and management, with the opposition NDP seeking to establish a narrative of ill-preparedness and inadequate response, and the incumbent Saskatchewan Party trying to frame it as measured and appropriate issue management. 

Monday's New Brunswick election, which returned the incumbent Progressive Conservative government, suggested that voters were seeking continuity and stability during the COVID crisis, rather than looking to punish the government for any perceived errors in managing the greatest public health crisis in a century. The CHASR survey results suggest this may also be the case in Saskatchewan.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Loleen Berdahl is professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan and incoming executive director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.


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