The legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige famously said something more or less like this: “don’t look backwards, someone might be gaining on you.” Politics loves adages and variously embraces simple concepts that sound like reliable truisms, until they are proven wrong.
In politics, anyway, and no disrespect intended to Paige, winning depends on a constant state of alertness. To changes in the mood of voters, to your competitors and what they are trying to do to beat you, to how your own messages are coming across.
For Justin Trudeau, Pierre Poilievre is a different kind of challenge than any that he’s faced before.
In some ways, it might feel easier for Liberal partisans to believe Poilievre will be easier to beat than Harper, Scheer and O’Toole were. That he will never gain traction, that regular voters will find his style grating and his ideas simplistic.
Our Spark Insights research suggests that would be a bad take. We looked at a few different ways to measure the basic level of appeal of Trudeau and Poilievre. The results are sobering for Liberals. (Sample size 1200, Nationwide, April 7-9th 2023, online, field work by Abacus Data)
- While 58% think Trudeau is “basically a good person”, 60% think Poilievre is.
- Only 25% believe Trudeau really “understands their lives”, but 35% think Poilievre gets them.
- 37% believe Mr. Trudeau has “a plan for the future that will help them”. Poilievre has persuaded 42% that he has such a plan.
The point here is not that Trudeau is deeply unpopular.
It’s that it would be a mistake to imagine that Poilievre is - or will be - unpopular.
A simplistic message, even if untethered to reality, and not backed up with substance, is hardly new in politics, and it produces “surprise” wins so often, it shouldn’t be surprising anymore when it does.
And when it comes to a grating style, the challenge the Liberals face is…compared to what?
Brian Mulroney famously quipped that he didn’t have to be perfect he only had to be better than his short list of very human competitors. After 8 years, the Liberals messages can sound dated and fuzzy. While trying to talk more about the economy, they often can drift back to messages about social justice and a tone that implies they live a charmed and better life than the people who voted for them.