Politics·Analysis

Liberals step up attacks with 2 weeks left, but Conservative campaign most negative, data shows

The Conservatives lead other major federal parties in the amount of negative attacks on Twitter and in press releases this campaign, but at the midpoint of a close race the Liberals are increasingly turning negative, an analysis by CBC News shows.

CBC analysis looked at official press releases and tweets since the start of the campaign

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. An analysis of tweets and press releases suggests the Conservatives have sent out the most negative communications - but the Liberals have increased their attacks since last week's debate. (Images provided by the Canadian Press)

The Conservatives lead other major federal parties in the amount of negative attacks on Twitter and in press releases this campaign, but at the midpoint of a close race the Liberals are increasingly turning negative, an analysis by CBC News shows.

CBC News analyzed more than 1,800 press releases and tweets from official party and party leader accounts since the start of the campaign. We categorized them as either positive, negative, both positive and negative or neutral. (See methodology below.)

Overall, the Conservatives have put out the highest volume of negative communications to date, the analysis revealed. The party tends to put out communications attacking the Liberals about as often as they promote their own policies.

That doesn't mean the Conservatives were the only party to go negative early on. At the outset of the campaign, the Liberals went after Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on Twitter for his 2005 stance on same-sex marriage and other Conservative candidates for anti-abortion views or past social media missteps.

But almost half (47 per cent) of Conservative communications have been negative or partly negative. The share of negative messages is 37 per cent for the NDP, 26 per cent for the Liberals, 18 per cent for the Greens and 13 per cent for the Bloc Québécois, which has run the most positive campaign.

Liberals, NDP step up attacks

While the Conservatives have been consistently negative since the start of the campaign, other parties have become markedly more so in the last two weeks.

The uptick in attacks appears to be driven by two factors: the climate marches across the country on Sept. 20 and 27 and the French-language debate hosted by TVA on Oct. 2.

The NDP and Greens took aim at the Liberals' environmental record around the time of the climate marches. It was also during the last week of September that the Liberals announced a number of environmental policies they would enact if re-elected, which were promptly criticized by the NDP and Greens.

The tone of Liberal communications turned markedly critical during the TVA French-language debate on Oct. 2. This was the first debate Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took part in, and the Liberal war room put out press releases and tweets countering statements made during the debate by Scheer and the Bloc Quebecois' Yves-Francois Blanchet.

The TVA debate also marked the first instance during the campaign of the Liberals targeting a party other than the Conservatives with critical tweets and press releases. The party took the Bloc leader to task over his environmental record, among other things.

Liberals the target of most attacks

The Liberals were the target of more than two-thirds (70 per cent) of negative or partly negative communications.

The Conservatives have yet to target a party other than the Liberals with a critical press release or tweet.

The Liberals also have been the primary target of the NDP and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.

While these two parties may be closer ideologically to the Liberals than to the Conservatives, the NDP and Greens are focused on stopping progressive voters from rallying around the Liberals. University of B.C. political science professor Gerald Baier said this reflects a co-ordination problem on the centre-left.

"The NDP and Greens, I think, would presumably prefer the Liberal record on the environment to what the Conservatives would do, but at the same time their main points are against the existing government," he said.

The lack of Liberal attacks on the NDP and the Greens is telling, Baier said.

"It suggests that they know that their path to a majority to some degree is to appeal to some of those NDP and Green voters," he said.

It also could be because the Liberals may need the support of those parties to govern in a minority Parliament, Baier added.

NDP and Green attacks against the Liberals have focused largely on the environment, while the Conservatives have zeroed in on themes of accountability, taxes and spending.

Environment, taxes the two biggest themes

Much of the official party communications focus on the campaign trail, specific candidates and where the party leaders are.

The two policy exceptions are the environment — a popular subject for all parties except the Conservatives — and tax policy, on which the Conservatives have focused. Affordability and housing are also common themes.

Methodology

CBC News analyzed every press release and tweet from official party and party leader accounts since the start of the campaign. We categorized each communication as positive (if the focus was promoting a party's own policies or candidates), negative (if the focus was criticizing another party), both positive and negative (if the communication was equally split between the two) or neutral (leader itineraries, event announcements). We also kept track of the topics of communications and who, if anyone, was targeted.

We did not include retweets and treated identical tweets in English and French as one communication.

To keep the project's scope manageable, the methodology excludes other platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, radio, television and print ads.

It’s widely known that most people don’t like negative ads, so why do parties rely on them when election time comes around? Political strategists say even though people say they don't like them, they are one of the most effective tools for changing public opinion. But there are unofficial rules, and if they aren’t followed they can be disastrous for parties. 7:21

About the Author

Tara Carman

Data Journalist

Tara Carman is an investigative journalist who specializes in finding the stories buried in big data. She has more than a decade of experience reporting in B.C., across Canada and overseas. She joined CBC News in February 2017. You can reach her at tara.carman@cbc.ca or on Twitter @tarajcarman.

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