Who's got the election message Canadians want to hear?

As party leaders hone their platforms and messaging ahead of this fall's election, it isn't enough to identify the issues voters care about. The challenge is convincing voters their parties are the best choice in dealing with those same priorities, as a new poll commissioned by CBC News suggests.

CBC Poll reveals that health care, cost of living and climate change top voters' minds heading into election

Federal party leaders - including, from left, the Greens' Elizabeth May, Conservative Andrew Scheer, Liberal Justin Trudeau and New Democrat Jagmeet Singh - face an electorate anxious about the cost of living and concerned about the environment, according to a poll for CBC News. (Canadian Press/Associated Press photos)

This story is part of a series, called On Guard for Me: The Uneasy Canadian, digging into the results of a CBC News-commissioned online opinion poll of 4,500 Canadians ahead of the October federal election.

As party leaders hone their platforms and messaging ahead of this fall's election, the easy part is identifying the issues voters care about. The challenge is convincing voters they are the best choice for prime minister to deal with those same priorities.

Case in point: while Justin Trudeau's Liberals are talking about the issues Canadians say they care about most heading into the fall election, a poll commissioned by CBC News suggests they aren't necessarily getting credit for it.

The cost of living, climate change and health care rank as the top-of-mind issues for Canadians surveyed, with concerns about the affordability of home ownership and basic necessities like groceries and retirement leading the list.

Those concerns help explain why the Conservatives continue to focus their pre-campaign messaging on pocketbook issues, attacking the Liberals' carbon-pricing system as a tax on consumers while vowing to reduce emissions by imposing a cap on the largest polluters to finance a green technology fund.

But the poll also suggests Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer still has work to do convincing voters he's in their corner. Just 41 per cent say they believe he understands the average Canadian family.

The findings also point to an opening for the NDP and Green Party heading into the fall election campaign.

Although two-thirds of the respondents believe New Democrats have lost their way, the party remains the second choice among voters younger than 45, and 46 per cent say they believe NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh understands the average Canadian family.

Greens, on the other hand, are seen as the most credible voices on climate change and a third of those surveyed would consider voting Green to send a message to the traditional parties.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, surrounded by fellow party-members, outlined a platform that includes expanded health care during a speech at the Ontario NDP Convention in Hamilton in June. Health care remains a leading issue according to the poll. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)

The online poll of 4,500 Canadians was conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue for CBC News between May 31 and June 10.

While polls are considered snapshots in time, subject to change depending on new developments, the themes and conclusions of this survey shed light on how the political parties are faring in their voter outreach and pre-campaign messaging.

"The numbers show the delicate balance the parties need to strike, responding to voters' concern about climate change and their ability to afford day-to-day costs," says CBC polls analyst Éric Grenier.

"It's trickiest for the Liberals, who are trying to appeal to both progressives, who care deeply about fighting climate change, and the broader middle class. A lot of those voters live in the suburbs, so they are worried about the costs of basic things like commuting to work."

Financial anxiety and the middle class

For example, the poll's finding that Canadians remain preoccupied with how they will get by financially is consistent with a survey done by Finance Canada after the 2018 budget.

It found middle-class Canadians didn't feel their lives were getting better, despite the Liberals' unrelenting messaging about "the middle class and those striving to join it."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau have positioned their tax and fiscal policies as supporting the middle class "and those working to join it." But a poll for CBC News found anxiety over the cost of living remains top of mind for many Canadians. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It's the sound bite Trudeau cabinet ministers offer up as they tout the benefits of the government's "middle-class tax cut" and tax benefits focused on families with children and low-income earners.

Still, the Liberals remain undeterred. New French-language ads released just this week resort to the same political messaging: "Justin Trudeau and his team are focused on investing in the middle class."

While health care is always a priority issue in election years, the poll done for CBC finds that Canadians now rank climate change in the top three. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say "our survival depends on addressing climate change," or that climate change is "a top priority."

Pessimism on climate action

The Liberals committed to reducing carbon emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels at the Paris climate conference four years ago. But many leading climate scientists say they don't believe Canada can reach that target, a sense of pessimism shared by most of those surveyed: two-thirds said the government needs to do more to address climate change.

"We know, just as smoking every pack of cigarettes causes additional health damage, every additional gigatonne of carbon we produce carries an additional cost," said Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, in an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing this weekend.

"We need the concrete details. We need people to take this seriously. They [politicians] can disagree over what policy they propose or support. But they have to be serious, meaningful policies with targets and goals to cut our carbon emissions as soon as possible."

The poll also offers some insight into the Conservatives' positioning on climate change. Eight out of 10 respondents said they needed to know the party's position on climate change, and just six per cent of respondents said they don't believe in climate change.

This month Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivered a vision for his climate policy that includes a declaration that climate change is real - an acknowledgement that may be important for the voters he needs to attract in October. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

When party leader Andrew Scheer released his emissions-reduction plan last week, he made a point of saying Conservatives believe climate change is real. And the survey points to what the party must also know — that climate change is a higher-priority issue in British Columbia and Quebec, where the Conservatives must do better this fall than they did in 2015 in order to win.

More than 40 per cent of respondents in those two provinces list climate change as a top-of-mind issue, compared to less than 30 per cent in the three Prairie provinces, where Conservative support is traditionally strongest.

The poll also suggests Canadians are less concerned about other issues championed by the Conservatives in the recent past. Only 18 per cent list deficits as a priority issue — suggesting Scheer's recent decision to scrap his original promise to balance the books in two years might not be an issue in the campaign — and just three per cent point to crime and public safety as a priority.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing all the parties as they fine-tune their messaging for the fall election is the one that they can do the least about.

The CBC survey suggests Canadians' trust in government is low, with fully nine in 10 saying politicians care more about staying in power than doing what's right.

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Commissioned by CBC News, the Public Square Research and Maru/Blue survey was conducted between May 31 and June 10, 2019, interviewing 4,500 eligible voters. Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have registered to participate in the Maru Voice panel. The data have been weighted to reflect the demographic composition of Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Because the sample is based on those who initially self-selected for participation in the Maru Voice panel rather than a probability sample, no estimates of sampling error can be calculated. However, a comparable probabilistic national sample of 3,000 voters would have a margin of error of +/- 1.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, while samples of 500 voters have a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

The poll results referenced in this article came from the following questions, with answer options in brackets:

"Please read the following statements about Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party and indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each. Andrew Scheer understands what the average Canadian family is going through. The Conservative party needs to tell us what their climate change strategy is." (Agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, disagree strongly)

"Please read the following statements about Jagmeet Singh and the NDP and indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each. The NDP has lost its way. Jagmeet Singh understands what the average Canadian family is going through." (Agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, disagree strongly)

"Please read the following statements about Elizabeth May and the Green party and indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each. I am thinking of voting Greens to send a message to the traditional parties." (Agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, disagree strongly)

"If you had to say, how serious a problem is climate change?" (Our survival depends on addressing it, it's a top priority, it's important, but not a top priority, it's not a priority but we should do something to protect the environment, I don't believe in climate change)

"Thinking about the upcoming federal election in October specifically, which issues are most concerning to you?" (Health care, climate change, cost of living, jobs/the economy, housing affordability, home ownership, government mismanagement, deficit spending, gun control, nobody to vote for, immigration, terrorism, trade negotiations, rascism, the quality of life in Indigenous communities, women's equality)

"What, if anything, are you most worried about?" (My health/health of a family member, cost of living, climate change, crime and public safety, terrorism, my job/finding a job, immigration, international relations/trade agreements, truth in the media, racism, social inequality, none of these issues worry me)

"Please read the following statements about issues in Canadian politics and indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with each: Politicians care more about staying in power than doing what's right." (Agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat, disagree strongly)


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