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13 September 2021

Canadian federal election 2021: Justin Trudeau’s rival closes in

A surge in support for opposition leader Erin O’Toole is placing Trudeau’s premiership in doubt.

By Ben Walker

On Sunday 15 August, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau called a snap election. Having limped on as a minority government for just under two years, the Liberal Party leader was hoping to capitalise on his advantage in the polls and secure a majority win. But now, with polling day on 20 September, such hopes are in jeopardy.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Who’s winning?

At the last election in 2019, Trudeau’s Liberals won less votes than their rivals, the Conservatives. But thanks to an effective distribution of the Liberal vote in the right constituencies (or “ridings”), the popular vote disadvantage was nullified by coming out on top in terms of total seats.

Most world leaders saw their personal and party ratings bounce in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic as publics rallied around their national institutions. And Trudeau was no exception. At the start of August his party was sitting comfortably ahead of the Conservatives in the polls with a lead of about six or seven points, prompting his decision to request an early dissolution of parliament.

But the state of play has changed.

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The Liberal advantage was reduced to two points by August’s end, and subsequently sunk beneath the Conservative Party at the beginning of September. Last week, polls put the Conservatives ahead by three points. This week, things have rebounded slightly to give the Liberals the edge.

It’s neck and neck
CBC poll tracker

But the sudden variation suggests a tumultuous race with public opinion in flux, and it’s worth giving a health warning about Canadian polling too: it has form for under-projecting both the Conservative and Liberal parties by a few points. Even more so for the Tories.

2. How tight is the race really?

Canada has its fair share of poll aggregators, and all paint the same picture: the Liberals have the edge in terms of who will come out on top in seats won – but only the edge. Not only has Trudeau squandered his sizeable poll lead, but his chances of securing the popular vote are practically a coin toss.

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The latest from Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)’s own poll tracker puts the probability of the Liberal Party retaining its status as largest party at a touch over 70 per cent. The chances of the Conservatives scraping through to largest party status, meanwhile, is just 26 per cent – a probability not too dissimilar to that of Donald Trump when he won the US presidency in 2016.

Liberals have a 73% chance of being the largest party
CBC poll tracker

The forecast for securing a majority of seats (170) is much more important than the status of largest party, however. CBC on Monday showed the Liberals on course to win 154 seats, down three on 2019.

Canada’s third biggest force, meanwhile, is the New Democratic Party (NDP) under Jagmeet Singh. It is projected to win enough seats (35) to hold the balance of power and make a “progressive majority” with Trudeau’s Liberals possible. In complete composition, the latest projections find a parliament that wouldn’t get in the way of the Liberal Party’s policymaking. 

But it’s nip and tuck. Last week, the Liberals plus NDP were projected to come away with 177 seats, just seven above the 171 needed. Today they’re sitting a little more comfortable, but not solidly so.

The Liberals are on course to lose seats, falling short of a majority
CBC poll tracker estimates, shaded by range of likelihood

The way Canada elects its parliament – via first-past-the-post constituencies – is also currently a net benefit to the Liberals. (This is similar to how, until 2015, the boundaries in use in the UK were of disproportionate benefit to Labour.) But with shifts among certain voter groups, such advantage may not exist in perpetuity.

3. Ageing low-income voters are losing Liberal loyalty

In the US in 2016, it was a rallying of non-college educated whites that arguably secured the win for Donald Trump. In Germany in 2017, disenchanted voters in the former eastern states, once loyal to the country’s left-wing Die Linke party, gave the Bundestag its first elected far-right delegation since the 1930s. And in Canada today, certain working class electors may also help define a changing electoral current.

First spotted by Éric Grenier of The Writ, polls since August appear to suggest the country’s ageing and working class base are shifting to the right. Once loyal to Trudeau’s Liberals, a significant portion of those with an intention to vote now say they will vote Conservative.

Liberals are losing the support of older working class voters
Changes in party support between two EKOS surveys, Aug 20 and Aug 28

Whether this is a reflection of short-term concern over the Afghanistan withdrawal – an issue that vexed Canadians in the first few weeks of the campaign – or something more long-lasting is yet to be determined. A spate of bad headlines for Trudeau and his party has no doubt dampened the enthusiasm of his supporters, yet this observed swing may lessen as election day pulls closer. 

5.  Once an unknown quantity, the Tories’ Erin O’Toole is surging

Like Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the UK, public opinion towards the Conservative Party’s leader Erin O’Toole isn’t amazing. But, also like Starmer, the share of the voters with an opinion one way or the other is pretty low.

When Trudeau called the snap poll, the Liberal leader held a lead of around 12 to 13 points in the public’s preference for prime minister. Now, that advantage has fallen to near three points, with O’Toole surging from a 14 per cent public preference in the middle of August to 26 per cent today.

Erin O’Toole closes the gap with Justin Trudeau on who Canadians want as prime minister
New Statesman analysis of the latest polls asking Canadians who would they like as next Prime Minister

Trudeau called this election when the numbers looked positive for him, but those numbers were in part good because he’d been the country’s premier during the pandemic – a period in which politicians, generally, weren’t playing politics. Calling a snap election has apparently torn the electorate out of that daze, and reminded them that Trudeau is, first and foremost, a politician seeking political gain.

Nonetheless, the probability of Trudeau remaining the country’s prime minister is high, whether he gets a majority or not; the Liberals should have an easier time cobbling together a majority for their policymaking agenda than other parties. Even if the Liberals come second, help from the NDP and Quebec nationalists Bloc Québécois should keep them in government. But amid a surge in support for the new kid on the block, O’Toole, Trudeau’s premiership is no longer as guaranteed as it once was.

[See also: Why Justin Trudeau’s snap election is backfiring]