Justin Trudeau vulnerable on Iraq, but has it hurt him?

Polls suggest that Canadians still support the mission in Iraq, but show mixed results for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.

Polls suggest that Canadians still support the mission in Iraq, but show mixed results for Liberals

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau votes against an air combat mission against ISIS in the House of Commons on Oct. 7. Polls suggest Trudeau may be politically vulnerable over his decision not to support the government motion authorizing Canada's mission. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Two new polls suggest Canadians remain broadly supportive of Canada's mission in Iraq as well as the prime minister's judgment related to the fight against ISIS.

But while the polls also indicate that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau could be vulnerable on the issue over his opposition to Canada's mission, the results are mixed on whether or not it has hurt his party's support.

A survey by EKOS Research (see methodological statements below) suggests 58 per cent of Canadians either strongly or somewhat support the mission in Iraq, compared to 39 per cent who say they are opposed. 

But when EKOS gave respondents the choice of options, 42 per cent favoured a "non-military response such as aid and assistance to refugees." Another 21 per cent of Canadians preferred limiting involvement to airstrikes, while 23 per cent favoured a "fuller military response including airstrikes and ground combat."

Combined, support for a military deployment to the region of some kind stood at 44 per cent. This suggests that, while the mission as is meets with the support of Canadians, opinions are mixed on the kind of mission they would prefer. 

Nevertheless, a second poll conducted by Abacus Data found 54 per cent of respondents thought Stephen Harper had shown good or acceptable judgment in dealing with the threat posed by ISIS, with just 23 per cent saying he had shown poor judgment.

This compared quite favourably to the opinions Canadians expressed concerning the opposition leaders: 39 per cent thought both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau had exercised good or acceptable judgment. But while just 19 per cent thought Mulcair's judgment was poor, 28 per cent said the same for Trudeau.

Whither Liberal support?

This may put the Liberals in the most delicate position of the three major parties. EKOS found that 90 per cent of Conservative voters supported the mission in Iraq, while 60 per cent of New Democrats were opposed, aligning with the parties' respective positions. Opinion among Liberal supporters was mixed, with 53 per cent in favour and 45 per cent opposed.

Abacus's numbers on judgment point to bigger problems. Among supporters, all three party leaders found broad support for their judgment on the ISIS threat. But among those that Abacus identified as "persuadable" voters (i.e., those who expressed a willingness to consider voting for a party), Trudeau had the highest percentage of those thinking he had shown poor judgment: 22 per cent, compared to just 12 per cent for Harper among persuadable voters and nine per cent for Mulcair.

Whether or not this has hurt the Liberals' support levels, however, is unclear.

The same EKOS poll put Liberal support at 39 per cent, virtually unchanged from where the party stood in the company's previous two surveys, including the one conducted before the Iraq debate unfolded. EKOS also showed support for the Conservatives and New Democrats to be holding relatively steady — suggesting the Middle East mission has had no effect on national voting intentions.

But the Abacus poll showed a significant drop in Liberal support, to 32 per cent this week from 38 per cent in mid-September. This is especially remarkable as Abacus has been showing a steady trend line since the beginning of the year, with no party gaining or losing more than three points between any two surveys.

Liberal support fell particularly steeply in Ontario, where the party slipped nine percentage points to just 32 per cent (two points up on the Tories). The New Democrats made a nine-point gain to reach 28 per cent, the highest result for the NDP in Ontario in any poll since February. To put that into context, the Liberals have averaged 43 per cent in polls conducted in Ontario over the last five months, with the NDP averaging 18 per cent.

Notable shift

So is this notable shift in support from the Liberals to the NDP an anomaly or a sign of things to come?

It should be noted that although the EKOS poll painted a very different picture of the race in Ontario (the Liberals were at 49 per cent, followed by the Conservatives at 32 per cent and the NDP at 16 per cent), it was conducted before Abacus's survey. Both were taken after the vote on the mission had been held, but as Abacus's survey is the more recent it could be registering any impact that criticism of Trudeau's position has had.

His comment about "whip[ping] out our CF-18s to show how big they are" may not be behind any of this recent change, however. While Abacus's polling found that 30 per cent of Canadians had seen or heard about this statement, after watching a video clip of the comments a majority said they mostly or strongly agreed with him (including 62 per cent of "persuadable" Liberals).

And on the question of whether it would make voters more or less likely to cast a ballot for his party, the result was a wash.

Will the mission in Iraq be a turning point on the road to 2015? More data in the coming weeks may give us a better idea.

EKOS Research surveyed 1,511 Canadians online and 160 via the telephone between Oct. 10 and 15 for iPolitics and Radio-Canada. As the poll included random online and telephone interviews, EKOS assigns to its results a margin of error of +/- 2.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The questions asked in English and French were as follows: "If a federal election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?", "As you may have heard, Canada will be sending aircraft and personnel to Iraq and Syria to join in coalition airstrikes against ISIS (the Islamic State), but they will not be involved in ground combat. To what extent do you oppose or support this mission?" and "Of the following options, which do you think would be the best Canadian response to the ISIS problem in the Middle East?"

Abacus Data surveyed 1,248 Canadians online between Oct. 15 and 17. As the poll was conducted online, a margin of error does not apply. The questions asked in English and French were as follows: "If a federal election was held tomorrow, which one of the following parties would you vote for in your constituency?", "For each of the three leaders of the main political parties, please indicate if you think they have been showing good judgment, acceptable judgment, or poor judgment when it comes to how to deal with the ISIS terror threat.", "Have you seen this clip or heard about it before today?", "Do you agree or disagree with the point Mr. Trudeau was making?" and "Does Mr. Trudeau's comments make you more inclined to support him, less inclined to support him, or do they have no impact on your likelihood to support him?"


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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