Polls suggest Liberals would still win an election despite WE controversy — but only if the bleeding stops

The Liberals have taken a hit in the polls due to the WE controversy but the political capital they've built up through their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is cushioning their fall — for now.

Liberals' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has given them a cushion that might not last

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approval ratings have dropped by 11 percentage points since May, according to one poll. But that still puts him in better shape than he was in early 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

After soaring in the polls for months thanks to the government's handling of the pandemic, support for the federal Liberals is now taking a hit from the WE Charity controversy.

But that outbreak-induced polling surge has provided Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a bit of a cushion — one that likely would still win him an election if one were held today.

That may not be the case for very long if the Liberals can't arrest their slide in the polls, however.

After COVID-19 shut the country down, the Liberals saw their support increase significantly. It rose from just under 30 per cent in early March to over 40 per cent at the beginning of June, according to the CBC's Poll Tracker.

Since then, the Liberals have been dropping.

Four different pollsters have conducted surveys since July 13, when Trudeau first apologized for his failure to recuse himself from the decision to award the WE Charity the contract for a summer student grant program. They've all recorded drops in Liberal support.

Compared to surveys conducted before July 3 — when the government announced it was dropping its partnership with WE and the ethics commissioner said he was looking into the matter — Abacus Data put the Liberals down four percentage points in its latest poll. The Innovative Research Group (IRG) had the Liberals down just a single point, while EKOS Research recorded the Liberals slipping six points.

The most recent survey, by Léger, put the Liberals down five points since the end of June — ending a remarkably steady stream of polls showing the Liberals hovering around the 40 per cent mark.

On average, these four pollsters have put the Liberals down four points compared to pre-WE polling. The Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois each have averaged a gain of one point.

The Poll Tracker — which is designed to react more slowly to new trends outside of the urgency of an election campaign — has the Liberals down 2.3 points since their peak in early June.

Trudeau's own personal ratings have taken a bigger hit. According to Nanos Research's rolling four-week poll, Trudeau is the preferred choice as prime minister of 34 per cent of Canadians. That's down seven points from mid-June. The Angus Reid Institute (ARI), which pegged Trudeau's approval rating at 55 per cent in May, now puts it at 44 per cent.

It's clear that the WE controversy is at the root of this drop in support for both Trudeau and the Liberals. Among those polled by IRG who said they had read, heard or seen something about the prime minister in recent days, 72 per cent pointed to the WE controversy — and among those people, 66 per cent said it gave them a less favourable impression of Trudeau, compared to just five per cent who said it improved their image of him.

Liberals, Trudeau still better off than before the pandemic

While these shifts in public opinion are significant, they nevertheless leave the Liberals in a better position now than they were before the COVID-19 outbreak.

In early March, the Poll Tracker put the Liberals two percentage points behind the Conservatives in national support. The Poll Tracker currently puts the Liberal lead over the Conservatives at 10 points. Even the worst recent poll for the Liberals still gave them a lead of three points.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals surged in the polls after the COVID-19 outbreak spread in Canada, rising from under 30 to over 40 per cent nationally. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

With a 10-point lead, the Liberals would be favoured to win a majority government. But even if that lead was reduced to three points, the party likely would still win a bigger minority government than the one it currently has (the Liberals lost the popular vote by 1.3 percentage points last October, after all).

Trudeau's own approval had fallen to 33 per cent in ARI's polling in February. It was 35 per cent just before the last election. While the prime minister's latest result of 44 per cent approval is the outcome of a big reduction over the last few weeks, it's a number Trudeau would have been lucky to get last fall.

Conservatives not benefiting from Liberal slide

The reason that the picture for the Liberals is rosier than it otherwise might be is that the governing party's main opponent is not taking advantage of its current troubles.

The Conservatives have the same level of support in the Poll Tracker now that they did when the Liberals were at their pandemic peak. No national poll has awarded them more than 31 per cent support among decided voters in over three months.

Regionally, the party is trailing the Liberals by double digits in the key battlegrounds of Ontario and British Columbia and has less support in Quebec than it did last fall.

The Conservatives' current lack of a permanent leader undoubtedly is a handicap. Andrew Scheer, who announced in December he would resign once his replacement was chosen, has only become less popular since losing the election in October.

From left: Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Derek Sloan, Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay and Leslyn Lewis. Polls do not suggest any of them would give the party an immediate boost in support. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

But it's not a given that his replacement will be better placed to capitalize on Liberal woes. Polling by Léger in June found that former cabinet minister Peter MacKay scored no better than a generic Conservative leader. Ontario MP Erin O'Toole, the other front-runner in the party's leadership race, did worse.

The latest survey from IRG found that fewer than 20 per cent of respondents held a favourable view of the two Conservative front-runners. Polls suggest Derek Sloan and Leslyn Lewis, the other two contestants, remain largely unknown to voters.

First, do no (more) harm

If the Liberals halt their slide in the polls, they could end the summer in a relatively decent position — perhaps a better one than they could reasonably have expected to be in at the beginning of 2020.

But how likely is it that the party can stop the bleeding?

According to ARI, just 29 per cent of Canadians see the WE controversy as "overblown" and just 12 per cent believe it is a "simple mistake or error in judgment." The rest are split over whether it was criminal or merely unethical.

How that opinion splits is important, though. It is predominantly Conservative supporters who see the government's actions as possibly criminal, while it's mostly Liberals and New Democrats who see it as unethical (but not criminal) or a simple mistake.

ARI found that Trudeau's approval ratings have taken the steepest dive among NDP and Conservative voters. But they are still higher among these groups than they were before the pandemic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared on stage during WE Day UN in New York in 2017. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Because of the political capital the Liberals have built up through their handling of COVID-19, the party has a chance to weather this storm. While the Conservatives remain stagnant, the Liberal base is enough to win an election. The supporters they've picked up in the last few months — the ones they have not lost because of the WE controversy over the last few weeks — give them some wiggle room.

But the pandemic is also far from over and Canadians' views of the federal government's handling of the emergency are dimming. Léger found satisfaction with the government's management of the crisis is down six percentage points since the end of June to 73 per cent. Satisfaction with provincial and municipal handling of the outbreak has dropped just three points over that time.

And more political fallout from the WE controversy is likely; Trudeau will testify at committee on Thursday and the Bloc has announced it might try to force an election in the fall if Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau do not resign.

Still, despite the hits they've taken, the Liberals would be the favourites to win a snap vote now. But they'll lose that edge if the hits keep coming.


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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