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The Liberals and the centre
By moving to the left, do the Liberals risk losing more in the centre?
There’s a question that’s been circling ever since the Liberals and New Democrats signed an agreement that could keep the government in power until 2025.
Have the Liberals abandoned centrist voters — and will it cost them a key part of their electoral base?
The confidence and supply agreement (CASA) between the two parties is based on the Liberals moving forward on some shared policy goals with the New Democrats, things like dental care, pharmacare, reconciliation and action on climate change.
Nothing in that list goes against what was already Liberal policy, but by embracing some of the key planks that the party had in common with the NDP the party is prioritizing the parts of its platform that push it further to the left.
And, the argument goes, further away from the centre.
But where is the centre these days? That’s not so clear cut.
To get a better understanding of what and where the centre is and how each party’s current voter coalition straddles it, I asked David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, to provide a little more data from the poll he released late last month. That survey was in the field from March 22 to 25, 2022 and interviewed 1,500 Canadians online. All the data below comes from that survey.
The survey had voting intentions among decided voters of 33% for the Conservatives, 31% for the Liberals and 17% for the New Democrats. That’s all within two percentage points of the 2021 election result, so it seems like a good representative cross-section of the electorate.
We’ll start at the beginning, with the size of each of the voting blocs.
Those who self-identify as being in the centre make up the largest bloc by far, at 52%. It means just over half the electorate considers itself “centrist”. The next biggest group is on the left at 26%, with 22% of Canadians considering themselves to be on the right.
Being the largest chunk, it comes as no surprise that the centre is important for every party — including the New Democrats. The Liberals rely on the centre more than the other parties, but only by a small amount. Centrists make up 47% of their supporters, compared to 44% for the Conservatives and 43% for the NDP.
Interestingly, the voter profile of the Liberals and New Democrats is similar, with those on the left and those in the centre being nearly as important for each party. Only 11% of Liberal and NDP supporters consider themselves to be on the right.
For the Conservatives, the right is about as important to them as the centre. This demonstrates just how much the Liberals and NDP are on one side, while the Conservatives are on the other — the left is as important to the Conservatives as the right is to the NDP and Liberals.
These numbers show just how vital the centre is for the Liberals, but it does also show that they have much more to lose on the left than they do on the right. They need to keep those left-wingers on board.
The New Democrats also have an incentive to keep the centre happy, as they have a lot of supporters there. So the CASA makes sense for both the Liberals and the NDP.
These numbers also show that there is a clear case for the Conservatives to move more toward the centre rather than to focus entirely on the right, though it isn’t obvious that the party’s membership is persuaded by that case.
Adding to the competitiveness in the centre of Canadian politics, the Bloc Québécois relies more on the centre than any of the other parties (60%). But they are also incentivized to lean left, as they have three times as many supporters on that side of the spectrum as they do on the right.
Liberals fighting for left and centre
While the voter profile of the Liberals and New Democrats looks similar, the Liberals are doing better among both centrists and left-wingers.
Abacus found that the Liberals hold a wide lead over the NDP among those on the left, with 46% support to 28% for the NDP. In the centre, the Liberals have 31% support against 15% for the NDP. The Conservatives, at 30%, are effectively tied with the Liberals among centrists.
On the right, the Conservatives dominate with 63%, far more support on that side of the spectrum than the Liberals have on the other extreme.
Nevertheless, the centre is pretty left-wing. Regardless of what respondents think left and right means, more of those who self-identify as centrists are shunning those parties that are actually right-of-centre. Only 37% of centrists support the Conservatives and People’s Party, compared to the 51% that support the Liberals, NDP and Greens. If you add the 9% backing the Bloc to that pile, the left is out-polling the right among centrists by a margin of more than 3:2.
But the key point in this debate is not who is currently backing each party, but who could back each party going forward — and whether or not the Liberals are sacrificing their current centrist support as they lean to the left.
The thing is, more left-wing voters would consider voting for the Liberals than centrists. Abacus found that 69% of those self-describing as on the left were accessible to the Liberals, compared to 48% of centrists. Just 32% of those on the right would consider voting Liberal.
Again, the numbers were similar for the NDP: 63% of those on the left are accessible to the New Democrats but just 41% in the centre and 30% on the right.
As for the Conservatives, 71% on the right would consider voting for them, compared to 43% in the centre and just 21% on the left.
But while the Liberals have lots of room for growth on the left and the Conservatives have lots of support on the right, these electorates remain smaller than the one in the centre. Getting 40% to 50% of the vote in the centre is still worth more to these parties than getting 60% to 70% on the left or right.
Below, I’ve cut up the share of accessible voters for each party by left, centre and right. This gives an idea of the relative sizes of the accessible pool by placement on the political spectrum. (I did these estimates myself using Abacus’s numbers.)
Looking at it this way, the Liberals still have the most to gain in the centre — as do the New Democrats and Conservatives.
According to Abacus, 51% of the electorate is accessible to the Liberals. But 25% of the total electorate are centrists accessible to the Liberals, compared to 18% on the left and just 7% on the right. The Liberals still have the most to gain by filling up on that centrist vote, though the left remains a key area of their support as well that can’t be ignored.
For the New Democrats, 45% of the electorate is accessible to them. Again, the biggest chunk is in the centre at 21%, followed by the left at 16%. This means the NDP needs more than just the left — even if they converted every left-wing vote that was accessible to them, they’d still only get 16% of the overall vote.
It’s the same thing for the Conservatives, just a mirror image. If every accessible right-winger voted Conservative, the party would capture just 16% of the vote.
The Conservatives have a lot less wiggle room than the Liberals, as only 43% of the electorate is accessible to them. They need to convert nearly every accessible voter to get to majority territory, and even if they got the support of every right-wing voter that would consider voting for the party they’d still need to convert 90% of the centrist chunk of the vote accessible to them to even get into the mid-30s in national support.
So, will the Deal help or hurt?
The upshot of all this is that while the centre remains the backbone of every party, the Liberals are far more similar to the NDP in their reliance on the left than they are a distinctly centrist party. The Liberals’ support base and room for growth is quite clearly on the centre-left.
So does that means the deal the Liberals struck with the NDP will work for them?
The left clearly likes the deal, with 66% thinking it will be good for Canada against only 11% who said it will be bad (and 13% who said it would make no difference). Both the Liberals and the NDP can keep their support on the left with this deal and potentially convert more of their accessible voters. The complicating factor, of course, is that they can’t both do that at the same time.
The centre likes it, too, though not to the same extent: 39% say it will be good against 22% who say it will be bad (and 19% who say it makes no difference). While there is the risk of the Liberals losing some ground in the centre, much of that discontent is among those already supporting the Conservatives, Bloc or PPC and are otherwise inaccessible to the Liberals (and New Democrats). Overall, there’s still more upside than downside for Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh.
The right thinks it will be bad, but the Liberals don’t need to worry about their right flank very much as it isn’t a key part of their coalition nor an important area of growth. And there was still 25% support for the deal on the right, so those self-identified right-wingers who back the Liberals and NDP are likely staying put.
Slicing the onion into more little pieces, Coletto found that 79% of Liberal voters identifying as being on the left thought the deal was good, only slightly higher than the 72% of centrist Liberals who said the same thing. So, at the moment, the risk to the party’s centrist base seems minimal.
Overall, only 6% of Liberal voters thought the deal was bad for Canada. Compare that to the New Democrats: 15% of their supporters thought it was bad and only a slim majority (55%) thought it was good. This suggests that the NDP might be at more risk of losing ground than the Liberals.
In the end, it seems that there is less risk for the Liberals in trying to grow at the expense of the NDP among both left and centrist voters than there is in trying to grow in the centre at the expense of the Conservatives, since that could alienate the Liberals’ important left-wing support base. If the Liberals can pull it off, any centrists they lose to the Conservatives might be more than made up for with new support from the centre (and the left) from the NDP.
There is the risk, though, that a move further to the left will make the Liberals less competitive in the highly-competitive centre — particularly if the Conservative leadership race ends with the party shifting in that direction.
But the question is if a Liberal Party that is further to the left will still be closer to the centre than whatever the next iteration of the Conservative Party is likely to be. The answer is very probably yes.
For the time being, this move by the Liberals seems to reflect where the party and its coalition of voters currently are. We’ll see if things stay that way.
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