Trudeau's poll numbers took a hit over vaccine delays — but the Liberals escaped the worst

The prime minister's approval ratings have slipped but the Liberals still lead in the polls. And now more vaccines are on their way.

Polls suggest the party itself hasn't suffered in the polls as much as the PM did

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has seen his approval ratings drop in recent weeks, but the Liberal Party he leads still holds an edge in the polls over the Conservatives. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Delays in the delivery of vaccines sapped Canadians' esteem for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — but polls suggest there hasn't been a corresponding slippage in support for the Liberal Party he leads.

Not yet, at any rate. Voting intentions often move after other indicators of voter sentiment start to shift. But with recent announcements about more vaccine shipments arriving soon, the Liberals might avoid taking the hit that was coming their way.

As was the case for most governing leaders across the country, Trudeau's popularity soared at the outset of the pandemic. COVID-19's rallying effect tapered off somewhat as the pandemic dragged on, but Trudeau was still polling better at the end of 2020 than he was at the start of it.

News in mid-January that there would be delays in vaccine deliveries, and that Canada was falling behind in international vaccination rankings, coincided with a decline in Trudeau's own personal ratings.

According to a recent survey from the Angus Reid Institute, Trudeau's approval rating has dropped by five points since mid-January to 45 per cent.

The risk of over-promising, under-delivering

Abacus Data found that the share of Canadians saying they have a positive impression of Trudeau fell three points to 36 per cent, while the number of those with a negative impression increased five points to 42 per cent.

The timing probably isn't a coincidence. Trudeau's repeated assurances that Canada would receive a specific number of vaccines by a specific date put him in danger of over-promising and under-delivering something over which his government had only limited control.

So it isn't surprising that after those delays were announced, Abacus reported that the number of Canadians saying that Trudeau has done an excellent or good job procuring vaccines had dropped 15 percentage points.

Léger has also found that public satisfaction with the measures put in place by the federal government to fight COVID-19 has fallen to 56 per cent from 66 per cent before the New Year, while an Ipsos/Global News poll found approval of Trudeau's response to the pandemic down six points from early January to 54 per cent.

Those are some significant drops after what had been a rather steady public opinion environment for Trudeau. But while the Liberals are down a little, they have not seen as much of a shift in their own support.

Liberal lead in the polls largely untouched

According to the CBC's Canada Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, Liberal support across the country stands at 34.9 per cent, down just 1.2 percentage points since Jan. 27.

Recent polls have shown an inconsistent trend line.

The most recent Léger survey has the Liberals at 36 per cent, unchanged since mid-January, and ahead of the Conservatives by seven points. Both Abacus and Ipsos have the Liberals dropping three points since January, but still ahead of the Conservatives by one and three points, respectively.

The Angus Reid Institute pegged the Liberals at 34 per cent, down a single point since January but leading the Conservatives by three.

While it's not a positive trend line for the Liberals, it certainly doesn't look like the bottom is anywhere close to falling out for them.

This isn't the first time we've seen support for the Liberals proving to be more resilient than support for the prime minister.

According to polling by Abacus Data, the share of Canadians with a positive view of Trudeau plummeted 11 points in early 2018 — around the time of his controversial trip to India. In the same polls, however, support for the Liberals slipped by just three points.

Trudeau's positive ratings tumbled by 12 points between December 2018 and April 2019 during the SNC-Lavalin affair, but the Liberals only suffered a four-point drop.

This is largely because a party leader's ratings and those of the party he or she leads are only linked to a certain point — because even if voters sour on a leader, they need to prefer the options available to them before they take their votes elsewhere.

Conservatives struggle to capitalize

The Conservatives haven't benefited from the Liberals' modest drop. The party currently sits at 30.1 per cent support nationwide in the Poll Tracker — down 0.5 points since Jan. 27. Instead, it's the NDP that has picked up some of the Liberals' slack.

Polls suggest Erin O'Toole, who took over as Conservative leader in August, has not made a positive first impression with Canadians.

While Trudeau's personal ratings fell, Abacus found that O'Toole's positive score was unchanged at 20 per cent, while his negatives increased by two points to 30 per cent.

The Angus Reid Institute found just 29 per cent of Canadians holding a favourable view of O'Toole (down three points since January), while his unfavourable rating increased four points to 51 per cent — just one point behind Trudeau, who benefits from having higher favourables and fewer undecideds than O'Toole does.

Polls suggest the Conservatives under leader Erin O'Toole have been unable to make much headway in popular support, despite recent struggles for the Liberals. (Sean Kilpatrick /The Canadian Press)

O'Toole's problematic personal ratings make it difficult for the Conservatives to capitalize on Trudeau's own worsening numbers — a phenomenon they've experienced before.

The same thing happened to the previous Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer. Drops in support for the Liberals over the India trip in 2018 and SNC-Lavalin in 2019 did not result in big spikes for the Conservatives — in part because Scheer had problems with his own personal poll numbers.

More vaccines could turn things around for Trudeau

It's clear that the appeal of the alternatives matters — and that voting intentions don't always follow the leader.

According to polling by Abacus Data during the 2019 federal election campaign, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh saw his positive ratings increase by 14 points. But by the end of the campaign, Abacus had the NDP down one point from its pre-campaign standing.

Nevertheless, a leader's declining poll numbers should get parties thinking about whether their own support will be next. Had further vaccine delays continued to sap Trudeau's popularity, it's likely that the Liberals would have started to feel the effects more directly.

Instead, new vaccine shipments are imminent and should put Canada on track to reach its targets by the end of March. Any rise in Canada's international vaccination rankings could correspond with a rise in Trudeau's support.

Indications of a potential rebound might already be emerging. Polling by Morning Consult, an American polling outfit that has been tracking the approval ratings of global leaders, recently reported an uptick in Trudeau's approval rating.

It could be a blip. But after a tough few weeks, there's no doubt Trudeau and the Liberals will be happy for any signal that they've made it through in one piece.


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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