Analysis reveals telling trends in public perceptions of party leaders

Analysis reveals telling trends in public perceptions of party leaders

Published November 12, 2015

The news cycle has been awash these past few weeks with efforts to make sense of the resounding Liberal victory in Canada’s 42nd federal election. However, few of these ruminations are informed by detailed data beyond publicly available polls and vote tallies. Public opinion data collected by Vote Compass throughout the campaign thus represent a veritable treasure trove of insights into one of the most decisive electoral upsets in recent Canadian history.

Drawing upon the millions of responses collected over the course of the 72-day federal election campaign, Vox Pop Labs has generated a time series graph of Canadians’ ratings of each leader’s overall competence and trustworthiness. While they cannot be taken as proxies for vote intention, popular perceptions of leaders’ trustworthiness and competence are often telling indicators of campaign dynamics, and help to shed light on the electoral fortunes of the respective prime ministerial candidates. This becomes especially apparent when these perceptions are plotted over time, revealing notable trends in public sentiment toward the respective party leaders.

The big story this election was the stunning turnabout in Mr. Trudeau’s fortunes, his party having entered the campaign in a distant third place only to overtake both the NDP and the Conservatives in the days leading up to the election. Public perception of Mr. Trudeau’s trustworthiness and competence enjoyed a similar lift. Though he trailed Mr. Mulcair substantially on perceptions of competence and—to a lesser extent—trustworthiness at the beginning of September, the graph shows that he began to rally on both metrics mid-campaign in conjunction with Mr. Harper’s decline. In a campaign in which Mr. Trudeau’s experience was a major focal point, these trends indicate that the Liberal leader was able to successfully challenge this characterization among voters.

The outgoing Prime Minister’s ratings also mirror broader trends. On the one hand, the trustworthiness trend for Mr. Harper holds no particular surprises: incumbents tend to see an erosion of public trust over the course of their tenure as Prime Minister (though this is not universally the case). Mr. Harper’s competence ratings, on the other hand, are noteworthy in that incumbents typically get a boost in perceptions of competence given that they have governed. Reading the trend line in both cases, it seems that Mr. Harper starts the campaign off in a weak position, gains some momentum towards the end of the month and then again drops off as the campaign draws to close.

It is worth keeping in mind that the averaging effect benefits Mr. Mulcair, Mr. Trudeau, M. Duceppe, and Ms. May, as their supporters are more generous in their evaluations of one another than they are of Mr. Harper. Yet this generosity is itself noteworthy, evincing the kind of inter-party affinity that, given the right circumstances, allows for strategic voting.

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The first graph measures Canadians’ perceptions of each leaders’ trustworthiness on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 means not trustworthy at all and 10 means very trustworthy. The second uses the same scale to measure Canadians’ perceptions of each leaders’ competence. These data are weighted by geography, gender, age, educational attainment, language, occupation, religion, religiosity, and civic engagement to ensure the sample’s composition reflects that of the actual population of Canada according to census data and other population estimates.

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