Economy, not terrorism, remains Canadians' top vote driver

While security and terrorism are bound to dominate the return to Parliament next week, the economy is still what will decide the next election, polls suggest. Analyst Eric Grenier looks at what the numbers say about Canadians' election issues.

Polls suggest that while terrorism is on voters' minds, economy is still most important issue

French President François Hollande, right, talks to Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian next to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, as they leave a crisis meeting on Jan. 10 following the attacks in Paris. Hollande's approval ratings increased in the wake of the attacks and hostage-takings that left 20 people dead, including three gunmen. (Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, beleaguered French President François Hollande has experienced a significant boost in public support. But on this side of the Atlantic, concerns over national security and terrorism remain low on Canadians' priority list, according to polling data.

Recent polls in France have recorded historic gains for Hollande. One survey, conducted by Ifop, showed Hollande's approval rating bounding from just 19 per cent in December to 40 per cent in the wake of the attacks. The pollster has not seen such an increase in popular support for any president since François Mitterand more than two decades ago.

Though admittedly smaller in scale, the attacks in Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and Ottawa in October did not have the same degree of effect on Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approval ratings.

However, his numbers did improve.

The data is thin, but polls conducted after the attacks, in which two soldiers were killed in separate incidents, suggest a gain of about two to three points in Harper's approval ratings, while Abacus Data found those holding a positive opinion of the prime minister increasing from 27 to 34 per cent.

It should be noted the polls in this comparison were not done immediately before or after the attacks. The increases in Harper's personal numbers could have been motivated by other factors.

Terrorism a growing concern for Canadians

Nevertheless, it is clear that the attacks pushed the issues of national security and terrorism into the minds of Canadians, something the events in Paris may prolong.

A series of polls by Abacus Data show how the issue gained in importance in the past few months.

In March 2014, only four per cent of Canadians listed public safety and terrorism as one of their top three issues. That hardly budged over the next few months, registering at six per cent in August.

But as Canada's Armed Forces became committed to the war in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the fall, the issue became one of the top three for 11 per cent of Canadians. That increased significantly to 18 per cent in the wake of the Oct. 22 Ottawa shooting, settling at 16 per cent in mid-December. Similar data is not yet available following the Paris attacks.

However, public safety and terrorism remains just one issue among many. At 16 per cent, public safety and terrorism were listed as a top three issue as often as the environment was. And it still trailed at some distance health care (54 per cent) and job creation (35 per cent), the importance of which was unchanged by the events of October.

An election issue?

The Conservatives do have good reason to bank on the issue as one that plays in their favour. One in four Conservative supporters told Abacus it was one of their top three issues, compared to 17 per cent for supporters of the Liberal Party and just eight per cent of New Democrats. 
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, front, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, top left, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau leave the funeral of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, in Longueuil, Que., on Nov. 1. Vincent was one of two soldiers killed in a pair of attacks in October, which police said were carried out independently by radical converts to Islam. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Whether or not the issue will sustain even its current level of importance, however, is another question entirely.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Environics found that world conflict/war and terrorism/security were the most important issues facing Canadians for 28 per cent of respondents, cited more than anything else. Prior to the attacks, the issues registered less than one per cent.

But by the second quarter of 2003, Environics found this was the top issue for just 1.5 per cent of Canadians, with health care, the economy, and jobs back on top. The bombings in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005 had no discernible effect on what Canadians rated as their top issues of concern.

In the end, terrorism and security remains low on the list of priorities for Canadians when casting a ballot. A poll conducted by Nanos Research in November found that 72 per cent of Canadians, when given a choice between two options, said the "track record of the government on issues like the economy and jobs" would influence how they vote. Only 16 per cent said "foreign policy issues like fighting the war on terrorism" would be the deciding factor.

With the attacks having occurred so close to home, the effect on François Hollande's political standing in France is more acute and could have important consequences (a poll showed his Socialist Party making gains, rather than the anti-immigration National Front). But in Canada, the 2015 election seems likely to be decided on the issue that still ranks as Canadians' top concern: the economy.

The most recent poll by Abacus Data on leader impressions and top issues was conducted between Dec. 18 and 20 and interviewed 1,438 Canadians via an internet panel. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply. The questions asked were as follows: "Do you have a positive or negative impression of the following people?" and "What are the top three most important issues facing Canada?" Respondents were then given a choice of 13 options.

The poll by Nanos Research was conducted between Nov. 15 and 18 and interviewed 1,000 Canadians via the telephone. A margin of error of +/- 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20, is associated with the sample. The question asked was as follows: "If a federal election were held today, which of the following would be more important in influencing your vote? The track record of the government on issues like the economy and jobs or the track record of the government on foreign policy issues like fighting the war on terrorism?"

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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