05/09/2013 09:09 EDT | Updated 07/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Nanos Number: The political impact of the census numbers

Nik Nanos digs beneath the numbers with CBC Power & Politics host Evan Solomon to get to the political, economic and social forces that shape our lives.

This week: The political implications of Statistics Canada's National Household Survey.

The National Household Survey was released Wednesday and Nik Nanos is pointing to the increasing number of foreign-born residents as one of the survey's most interesting findings.

The survey revealed that Canada is now home to 6.8 million foreign-born residents or 20.6 per cent of the population. That's up more than one percentage point from 2006 and is among the highest rates in wealthier nations.

Australia's population of foreign-born residents is higher at 26.8 per cent. Canada comes in second at 20.6 per cent. Thirteen per cent of the German population is foreign born and 12.9 per cent of the U.S. is foreign born.

While Americans have held high-profile debates over immigration and the fight for the growing Hispanic vote, Nanos notes these numbers reveal "foreign-born individuals are actually more of a political force in Canada than they are in the United States."

The general rule, Nanos said, is that governments that do a good job of welcoming new Canadians into the country generally are politically rewarded. So this group will be targeted during the next election campaign and could have a significant impact on the results.

"For the Conservatives, they've been focusing on new Canadians. [Immigration Minister] Jason Kenney has been very active in doing outreach to new Canadians. They are actually critical for the Tories," Nanos said.

The Liberals used to have greater support within this growing population of new and foreign-born residents, and "they will want to rewind to the good old days, when new Canadians embraced the Liberal brand," Nanos said.

But the wildcard is the New Democrats. "Hypothetically they should be in line with new Canadians. But look at what they need to keep. Their ridings are not ridings that have a lot of new Canadians and foreign-born Canadians. For [the NDP], their path is to try and reach out to this group too."

The population of foreign-born Canadians is growing in key battleground ridings in Canada's urban centres.

The Conservative breakthrough was in the area around Toronto and Nanos said the Liberals have to regain support in Canada's cities if they want to regain seats.

"What we have is a growing population group and also a growing population group in the right area: the areas that are growing and probably going to see more seats," Nanos said.

Survey reliability

This is the first voluntary survey since the government scrapped the mandatory long-form census. The response rate was 68 per cent.

Nanos said while the response rate was relatively good, it doesn't compare to the 94 per cent response rate the previous mandatory census received. That means "we can't have the same level of confidence in the numbers as we did in the past, because what Statistics Canada has to do is tweak the numbers in order to approximate where they think things are," he said.

Some factors that could affect the results could be hidden.

When you consider the new numbers on foreign-born Canadians, Nanos suggests the percentage is likely two or three points higher than 21 per cent, "because those types of populations are less likely to fill out the voluntary form," he said.

Recognized as one of Canada's top research experts, Nik Nanos provides numbers-driven counsel to senior executives and major organizations. He leads the analyst team at Nanos, is a fellow of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a research associate professor with SUNY (Buffalo) and a 2013 public policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.