Not sure what to think about the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Don't worry, neither are 46 per cent of your fellow Canadians. That can't come as gobsmacking news, given that until Monday morning, there was scant detail to be had on the 12-country trade deal involving nations that line the Pacific Rim.
It's something the Liberals and NDP are brandishing as a weapon in these final days of a marathon election campaign, while the Conservatives bat away such criticism by pointing out trade deals are not supposed to be negotiated in public.
More on the political implications of the TPP later. First, it's valuable to look at how recent and past polling gives us insight into the mindsets of Canadians when it comes to trade in general -- and their priorities on the trade front.
Where are we today?
Stacked against other international priorities, such as focusing on military preparedness and presence, or taking the lead on humanitarian foreign aid contributions, polling data from the Angus Reid Institute shows it is trade that trumps:
Little wonder, perhaps. After all, trade is a huge part of this country's economy.
Where were we?
But it wasn't always so. In what feels a little like a coming-full-circle, the ultimate ballot question of the 1988 federal election was whether we should do a free trade deal with the US. The Liberals, under John Turner, staked their political success on turning the deal down. (Anyone remember this campaign spot?) The NDP also said "no". The Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney, campaigned for the deal and won. Still, the issue was divisive. The debate, fractious.
Five years later, with the battle scars over the FTA still relatively fresh, there was a Liberal government under Jean Chretien in power, and a new deal on the table. The North American Free Trade agreement. We asked Canadians about NAFTA back in 1993 (that deal was ratified too). Then, more than 20 years after that, we asked about the more recent Canada-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). The graph below shows how Canadians felt about those two trade pacts, then and now:
Granted, they were and remain different deals, with different clauses, arguably affecting different industries. But the trend is clear: over decades, we've seen how Canada has transformed from a country whose citizens were generally skeptical about trade deals some 20-plus years ago, to generally more supportive today.
With TPP, the "Don't Know" factor looms large:
Fast forward to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, cast as the biggest regional trade agreement history -- and public opinion is summed up as a general shrugging of shoulders, countered with a little bit of cycnism. More than anything, Canadians say they simply don't know enough about the deal to make a judgement about it:
Given that the TPP is now under the Election 2015 microscope, that lack of awareness and engagement is bound to change fast. And in some ways, it already has. At the Angus Reid Institute, we were keeping an eye on this issue even before it was sexy (okay, so it's never really been sexy. More like topical.)
Look at the graph from the same poll comparing support and opposition from April and late September. What's notable is that while almost the same number of people say "don't know" at the end of a six-month period -- support itself has gradually declined:
What's the political impact?
So, what does it all mean, especially in the context of this federal election campaign? The first thing to do is look at how support and opposition to TPP breaks down along lines of party support (you can find more data here):
So the trade pact is a winner among those backing Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. Little wonder there has been much stamping of feet and clapping of hands from the CPC campaign machine since news the deal was done first broke.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals face a trickier task. The leader has said he "strongly supports free trade," and is instead focusing his criticism on what he calls a lack of transparency in the negotiation process. Among Liberal supporters who know enough about the TPP to offer an opinion, they support it, narrowly. Will Trudeau's I-support-trade-but-Harper's-hiding-something message keep its base intact? We'll see.
Indeed, the guy waiting to steal support away from the Liberals is the NDP's Tom Muclair. After a failed campaign of running from the front, playing it safe and banking to the centre cost him support in droves, the New Democrats have to find a way to galvanize the left-of-centre base, and bring back soft supporters who've drifted to Trudeau-land in recent weeks. They think not being bound by the TPP is it.
The big questions: can the parties school enough voters on a dry but critical trade deal in time to sway them to their sides? And, in a campaign that's seen so many issues come and go -- will the TPP have the staying power to make a real impact on vote intention at the end of this long and winding campaign?
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