Poilievre the strongest challenger Trudeau has faced

New spark* polling data shows more people think Poilievre understands their lives, and has a plan to help them, than think Justin Trudeau does.

Apr 11, 2023

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.


The Conservatives may not need great lyrics and tone, if the Liberals can’t come up with a fresh new album, at a time when many voters seem to want some new music.

But even putting it that way implies that Poilievre is a weak opponent. I believe his more recent messages are often resonant with a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as Conservatives – he’s spending less time simply rallying the F-Trudeau crowd and more time showing impatience with health system bottlenecks, and the sense that nothing seems to be working to reduce the cost of homes for people to rent or buy. If “powerful paycheques” sounds hokey to jaded political professionals, the problem might be the jadedness, not the phrase. Three out of four NDP voters find that an appealing theme.

Right now, 35% of NDP voters would prefer to see Pierre Poilievre as PM after the next election – a figure that none of his predecessors even came close to accomplishing. None of them even tried, which is really the thing worth noting here.

To beat him, Liberals will have to sound more like fresh politicians and less like comfortable administrators. All the programs launched, values championed, breakthroughs created are at risk of being unnoticed or ignored because there are so many messages, and the framing too often feels more like important people spending lots of your money, rather than people who deeply appreciate the opportunity to serve and whose tool kit seems more like drive and ideas that work, than money and high mindedness.

I’ll write another piece in a few days on the messages and theme testing we did in our latest Spark Insights research. Feel free to reach out with comments.

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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