Cross Country Checkup

Federal election outcome could be unpredictable amid 4th wave, say strategists

While a snap election may work in the Liberal Party's favour, the fourth wave of COVID-19 could prove to be a wild card when Canadians head to the polls next month, according to political strategists.

Trudeau government triggers snap election for Sept. 20

Strategists say that while holding an election during the pandemic could cause issues during the campaign, Canadians have been willing to re-elect their governments based on pandemic response. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

While a snap election may work in the Liberal Party's favour, the fourth wave of COVID-19 could prove to be a wild card when Canadians head to the polls next month, political strategists say.

"If you're in government with a strong minority and you have these uncertainties of back to school, fourth wave ... it just seems to me that those are pretty big roll-the-dice kind of things," said Ken Boessenkool, a former campaign strategist for the Conservative Party of Canada.

Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Mary Simon today to trigger an election that will be held on Sept. 20.

The move comes less than two years after the Liberals were elected with a minority government.

Although the pandemic has cast uncertainty over a federal election — and skepticism among voters — Boessenkool says that, ultimately, provincial elections held during the pandemic have proven lucrative to parties in power.

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"Canadians are generally happy with the way governments reacted at the beginning of the pandemic," said Boessenkool, who is now a professor of practice at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University in Montreal.

"I think they're generally prepared to re-elect governments."

Timing of 4th wave could affect voters

It could all come down to timing, however, Boessenkool says.

Students, including those ineligible for vaccination, are expected back in classrooms across the country in a few weeks. 

As the pandemic's fourth wave ramps up, driven by the more contagious delta variant, what happens in schools could change how Canadians view the Liberals' decision to go to the polls.

If the delta variant infects children at higher rates than during previous waves, for example, Boessenkool believes it could have a negative impact on voters' motivation to vote Liberal.

"The biggest group of swing voters in the last four or five elections — and the group of people in Canada who gave Stephen Harper his majority — were women with children," he said.

"Right now, women with children are probably the group in Canada with the highest level of anxiety and burnout of anyone."

Infectious diseases specialists say that while the delta variant does not appear to cause an increase of severe illness in children compared with previous strains, it is more transmissible among all populations. However, right now Canada isn't experiencing a surge in pediatric cases, which experts attribute to high vaccination rates.

Composite illustration featuring Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole, centre left, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, centre, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. (Andrej Ivanov/AFP/Getty Images, Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press, Patrick Doyle/Reuters, Patrick Doyle/Reuters, Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

David Herle, a pollster and former Liberal Party strategist, agrees that the pandemic provides an unpredictable variable for election campaigns.

"If we end up in a situation where campaign events have to be cancelled or rallies become superspreader events ... I can see people questioning the government's judgment," he said.

"But I can also see such a circumstance rallying people back around the Liberal Party as the people that they would want managing the country during a pandemic."

'There's not a lot of bandwidth for extra stuff'

Political scientist Amanda Bittner, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John's, says voters have important questions about why an election is being held now given that the government hasn't lost a confidence vote.

That's compounded, she says, by the fact that many Canadians are feeling fatigued after more than 18 months in pandemic mode.

"Everybody is trying to do the best they can to hold down their jobs, to take care of their families, keep everybody safe, and there's not a lot of bandwidth for extra stuff to think about at the moment," she said.

Bittner points to the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial election, held last March in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, which saw record-low voter turnout due to confusion over voting methods.

She said she expects to see lower voter turnout for a federal election as a result of the pandemic more generally, especially in areas with high rates of COVID-19 transmission, where students are heading back to school and where public health mandates are less strict.

"Turnout will probably go down because people don't want to have to leave the house to do unnecessary things, and they might deem this to be unnecessary," Bittner said.

Whether that will have an effect on the Liberals' chances of winning an election is hard to predict, she said.

According to Elections Canada, as many as five million Canadians are expected to vote by mail in the federal election, compared with fewer than 50,000 in the 2019 vote.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Mary Simon on Sunday to dissolve Parliament, triggering an election for Sept. 20. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canadians don't resent elections

Critics have argued that the Liberal government is acting out of self-interest by calling an election during the pandemic. Herle, however, says such a decision shouldn't come as a surprise.

"Minority parliaments are a continual game of chicken between the various parties, and it's a game that has no white hats and black hats — it just has everybody operating out of obvious self-interest," he said.

It's rare for people to "resent" an election at any time, he added.

And if the recent spate of successful provincial and territorial elections are any indication, a snap election by the Liberals could move ahead smoothly despite the pandemic, McGill's Boessenkool says.

"The lesson is you can call an election and get away with it," he said.


Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News and Steve Howard.

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