If the mood is down, are incumbents bound to lose?

What’s the mood of the country? For a long time this question has been understood as a surrogate for “how do I feel about Canadian politicians in power”. How true that ever was is open to debate, but generally if people thought things were “on the wrong track” they were more open to challengers and more skeptical about incumbents. Something’s different today.

Jun 27, 2023

The number of people who think the country is on the right track is down, dramatically. It’s plunged a stunning 18 points in two years. (Courtesy Abacus Data) People are uneasy, unhappy, stressed, worried. My friend and podcast mate Chantal Hebert used the term “rattled” which struck me as apt, and perhaps a bit understated.

Normally, given these conditions, the opposition Conservative Party would be a focus of rising attention as a “government in waiting”. The speculation would be less about a Liberal shuffle, and more about a Conservative Cabinet. But that conversation seems slow to develop.

In part this is because the problems Canadians see domestically, they know are happening in the rest of the world too. And that in many cases, things appear worse in other places. Which raises doubts about whether choosing politician A over politician B really matters. While the right direction number dropped 18 points, approval of the federal government barely budged, dropping only 3 points.

For sure, the number of people who dislike, disagree with or are bored with Canada’s Prime Minister has been going up over time. But the pace of that deterioration is not particularly rapid (8 points over the two years, while Mr. Poilievre’s negatives rose 12 points in the last year). And there are plenty of Trudeau policies that people would not want abandoned.

The idea that Pierre Poilievre (or any politician for that matter) could slash inflation, or stop climate change, make China less threatening, America more stable, and Putin more peaceable, is something a true partisan might believe, but others would properly be skeptical of. Many people worry about growing polarization and rising division, but for them, politics might look more like the cause than the solution. Add to all of this, fears about the potential for AI to put today’s problems on steroids, and it’s no wonder there’s a grim populace.

Strengthening desire for a Conservative government would require building confidence that it would deliver sensible, practical approaches to ease some of what’s making people worried. Yes, the desire for change is up, but many people want less, not more, disruption. Sounding like you would flip the table over won’t win over the hesitant. Firing the Bank of Canada Governor is an example of a crisp sound bite that attracts attention but ages poorly and undermines confidence in Conservative policy solutions. Conservatives have railed about carbon pricing for years, without seeing their support rise, or opposition to that policy grow – not because people aren’t worried about the cost of living, but because they think this promise sounds more like climate denial than inflation fighting.

Feeling worried about the state of things doesn’t automatically translate into a clear demand for different political leadership. Many people live their lives in complete detachment from the political scene in Ottawa. Politics seems to them about manufactured tension and edge. With so much stress in their lives, do they really want more?

So if the mood of the country is touching a modern low, what’s really behind this? Two things, in my view.

Two years ago, interest rates were at .25%. Today’s interest rates are almost 20 times higher. That’s a lot more economic stress in the average Canadian household. Knowing that it’s bad the world over doesn’t help make ends meet, but it might make you skeptical of simple sounding promises to solve it, or arguments that it is caused by one man, and controllable within our borders.

Second, apart from the cost-of-living issue, people have continued to see tension rise around issues of a more global nature. Worries about climate change, and more wildfires. China as a menacing superpower. Russia’s invasion of and war with Ukraine. Endless mass shootings in the US. Trump’s disregard for the world order threatening to take centre stage again. A backlash against diversity and equal rights.

While Canadians have grown more worried about the direction of their own country, fears about the direction of the US and the rest of the world were growing at a similar rate.

Some will argue that the world has always been a tumultuous place, and that people never counted too much on politics to solve the big problems, but that might be brushing away some new realities too readily. Especially for younger generations, problems like climate change seem more existential, and economic obstacles seem more challenging and structural. Democracy’s “leader” will probably be an octogenarian for a good while. The biggest health care demand among young people is for mental health services.

Understanding what’s unique about this contemporary version of Canada’s bleak mood is not easy, and it doesn’t make for happy reading.

But it helps explain why many people aren’t sure whether Ottawa can do much to help, and whether they think any of the alternatives on offer would be better than the government they have today.

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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