Is it better to fight for the middle class, or their powerful paycheques?

In 2015, the Liberals gained good momentum by talking about “fighting for the middle class, and all those working to join it.” Our research suggests there’s remains plenty of appeal in that theme, on the surface of it, that seems good.

Apr 18, 2023

About 100,000 words of information come at us every day.  We remember about 80% of what we see, and 20% of what we read, because our brains are better at remembering the visual image. 

So, getting people to read and remember something is no simple feat. Choosing words and images carefully is often separates the winners from the also-rans in politics.  Political teams sweat the choice of phrases to encapsulate their pitch.

In 2015, the Liberals gained good momentum by talking about “fighting for the middle class, and all those working to join it.”  Our research suggests there’s remains plenty of appeal in that theme, with some 78% of Canadians saying appeals to them.  The Liberals often have been heard saying: We will always have your back This message has less appeal, at 70%. 

On the surface of it, that seems good. 

However, it’s got solid thematic competition in 2023.  When Poilievre promises toCap spending, cut waste and end inflationary taxes that appeals to 79%.  Promising to “Fight so you bring home powerful paycheques” appeals to 71%.  The battle cry of We want fewer gatekeepers and more freedom has less appeal, at 65%.

(To take into account the fact “great appeal” is more valuable than “quite a bit of appeal, we’ve created a simple appeal index by assigning double value to “great appeal” compared to “quite a bit”). 

The value of any theme lies less in the way it sounds to everybody, but how it comes across to voters you are most interested in trying to attract.  

Of these five themes, progressive leaning voters like “middle class” best, but conservative themes about spending, taxes and paycheques land quite well. 

Among conservative leaning voters, “cap spending, etc.” is by a good margin the most powerful theme followed by “middle class” and “paycheques”. 

With men under 45, often considered one of the most important subgroups the Conservatives and Liberals are battling over, the “Middle class” theme is strong, but only slightly stronger than “Powerful paycheques” and “Cap spending”. Among urban voters, a key battleground in every election now, “Cap spending” is the most resonant theme, followed by “Middle Class”, and “Powerful paycheques”.

The first thing that pops from all this data is that Conservatives have solid messages when they talk about capping spending, cutting waste, ending inflationary taxes and helping make more powerful paycheques. The gatekeepers theme is less productive, and probably comes off a bit too much of a culture war battle cry for the average voter who is not so dialled into politics.

The Liberals can take some comfort in the fact that their original hit “middle class” still has legs. But there are cautionary notes too. Some Conservative themes are highly competitive and could rally voters who are a little bit more inclined to want a change, including voters on the centre and left of the spectrum, urban voters and younger men. These are not polarizing messages - if anything, they have unifying potential.

Also, revealed in our release last week, just 37% believe Mr. Trudeau “has a plan for the future that will help them”, while 42% believe Mr. Poilievre does. After being in office for almost 8 years, if most people don’t believe the PM has a plan to fight for the middle class and those hoping to join it, the resonance of the theme may be more theoretical, than practical. In other words, people might like the idea, but wonder if Mr. Trudeau can (further) deliver on it.

The test for an opposition challenger sometimes isn’t so severe. People may believe it is possible to cap spending, cut waste and end inflationary taxes and think that an incumbent won’t do it, but a challenger might.

What’s the bottom line?

The Liberals have been less than successful to date in defining Pierre Poilievre on their preferred terms. Meanwhile the Conservative leader is mapping out some themes that are more rallying and less polarizing than some might have expected and compared to his rhetoric during his leadership run. The unknown is whether he will pitch increasingly broad themes, or switch back towards the base rallying messages more often than is productive.

For the Liberals, the challenge is not only to create a contrast by telling people why they should worry about Mr. Poilievre, but to deal with the fact that public is not very sure what the Liberals are focused on, despite having had years and all the tools that incumbency offers, to paint a clear picture of the future.

(Sample size 1200, Nationwide, April 7-9th 2023, online, field work by Abacus Data)

About spark*insights

spark*insights is lead by Bruce Anderson, one of Canada’s leading and most experienced public opinion researchers, along with Alex Kohut, former Senior Manager of Research & Advertising in the Office of the Prime Minister. From polling and research to analysis and guidance, we help organizations, uncover the factors driving or influencing public perception to gain valuable insights into the shape and movement of the landscape.

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