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Duffy Trial, Economy Key Issues, But Will They Shift Election?

Will voters feel the need to "punish"?

Every election has a few key issues influencing the outcome.

In recent years, we've had the sponsorship scandal that contributed greatly to the Liberals' loss of power in 2006 and the economic crisis of 2008. This year, however, it seems no party has a clear advantage on any specific issue, and that might explain why we currently have a three-way race.

Let's take a look at two central issues.

The trial of Mike Duffy

The Duffy trial has been featured heavily during the early part of this campaign with, for instance, the much-discussed testimony of Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper's former chief of staff. Of course, after months of media coverage about the Senate scandal, one may wonder if people are still paying attention.

According to Abacus, 25 per cent say they are following developments closely. On the other hand, 32 per cent are not paying attention at all. Among the quarter of voters closely following this story, the greatest proportion favour the Liberals (35 per cent), with the NDP next (29 per cent) and then the Conservatives (27 per cent).

The almost even split is somewhat surprising.

Only 30 per cent say it could make a difference to their vote, although 85 percent of them say they are less likely to vote Conservative.

We have to wonder though how many were going to vote Tory in the first place. There are also 15 percent who declare themselves more likely to vote Conservative.

Many Conservative voters in particular appear not to blame Harper or think he was involved. It might, however, deter other voters (such as swing ones) from voting Tory.

Ekos shows relatively the same situation, with only 21 per cent following closely, a number only slightly on the rise recently but actually below the number of people not paying attention at all.

The economy

If the Senate scandal doesn't seem enough to shift this election, then maybe the economy will. According to Ekos, this is by far the No. 1 issue for the voters, with 44 per cent considering it the main issue, well ahead of social issues (25 per cent) and ethics and accountability (14 per cent). Angus Reid has the same findings, with 42 per cent of voters listing the economy as the top issue.

Of course, an issue will affect voting intentions only if one party is seen as the best to tackle it. And as far as the economy is concerned, it seems no party has a clear edge. Ekos has it that 28 per cent of voters think the Liberals are the best to manage the economy, exactly the same number as for the Conservatives. The NDP trails slightly at 24 per cent.

Angus Reid, on the other hand, asked which party leader was the best on specific issues. For the economy, 29 per cent see Harper as the best, followed by Thomas Mulcair at 25 per cent and Justin Trudeau at 17.

Clearly, either the wording or phrasing of the question matters or the two polling firms simply didn't get the same results for the Liberals. Innovative Research also finds about 30 per cent who think the Conservatives would be best to handle the economy, with the Liberals and NDP tied for second at 23 per cent.

So, no clear winner, although Harper comes first in every poll asking the question. For the NDP, the problem is that there are fewer voters who think they are the best to manage the economy than there are people willing to vote for them. That means other considerations are driving these voters, but it also suggests that if the economy were to become the decisive issue, Mulcair would not get to win the election.

At the same time, when Ekos phrases the issue question differently, the findings are that the main issue is restoring middle class progress. And on this topic, the NDP is seen as the best party for 28 per cent of the voters, just behind the Liberals at 29 but ahead of the Conservatives at 23. Innovative reaches similar conclusions when asking who is best positioned to protect the middle class. It thus seems that the political parties need to phrase the issue specifically.

Generally speaking, if the economy is your main issue as a voter, you tend to want to play it safe and re-elect the incumbent — except of course when you believe the incumbent has done a bad job. For Harper, the fact that Canada has recently been officially declared to be in recession is obviously not good news.

At the same time, let's not forget that he won a majority in 2011 despite having been in power during the worst recession in modern times (the financial crisis of 2008) and was seen, by far, as the most competent to manage the economy.

Will voters feel need to 'punish' Tories?

The historical literature on the economic vote often shows that voters punish a party only if they feel that it, as the government, was responsible. On top of that, many voters will look mainly at their personal situation, not the economy as a whole.

Finally, punishment is one solution, but many voters might want to look ahead and judge the parties on their current plans. In that regard, it does seem Harper has a small edge. For instance, Innovative finds that 29 per cent consider Conservatives as the best party in case of a recession (the poll was done before the official announcement of a recession by Statistics Canada), compared with 25 per cent for either the Liberals or the NDP.

Additionally, we need to realize that the current support for the Tories is incredibly strong and unlikely to go away. Indeed, Harper and his party are at about 30 per cent among all voters. Just as there are about 30 per cent who see him as the best for the economy. Just as a little bit more than 30 per cent think the country is going in the right direction or that Harper is doing a good job.

These are all the same people. They are the core Conservative voters, the ones who won't change their mind because of Duffy (mostly because they believe Harper did nothing wrong) or the news of a recession. If those issues did have an impact, it has already been accounted for.

When pollsters ask about the certainty of the vote, the Tories also are the party with the most voters declaring themselves completely decided. What this means is that, unless there is a big event, these voters will vote Conservative. In an election where the electorate, and in particular the opposition, is so divided, having these core voters could be of great help.

At the end, Canadians appear much divided on which party is best to handle any specific issue, including the main one of managing the economy. It's therefore not surprising that the voting intentions are also so divided. Outside of the economy and possibly the Duffy trial/Senate scandal, other issues seem too small to affect significantly this campaign.

It follows that this election will be decided by the performance of the leaders (during the debates, for instance) and the effectiveness of their messages.

Bryan Breguet has a B.Sc in economics of politics and a M.Sc in economics from the University of Montreal. He founded in 2010 where he provides electoral analysis and projections. He has collaborated with the National Post, Journal de Montreal and l’Actualité.

He will provide analysis and updates for The Huffington Post Canada throughout the federal election campaign. For riding by riding projections, visit his interactive simulator.

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