By Richard Forbes.
When debate this February surrounded the Liberals’ decision to walk back on its electoral reform promise, Abacus Data’s David Coletto responded to Robyn Urback in an op-ed to argue that the data was clear: millennials were standing firm with the party they helped to elect them, despite breaking their electoral reform pledge. Coletto had some strong words for the CBC columnist, writing “I still feel it’s reasonable to expect some evidence to back up an inaccurate observation that is presented as a fact,” implying that evidence of a disenchantment with the Liberals could not be chartered through data and that the argument itself was more ‘sophistry’ than substantive. My sense at the time was this was unfair for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because Abacus Data’s own polling results differed substantially from other pollsters. Abacus Data found no real change in the mindset of millennials at the time – a rosy honeymoon – but Nanos, for example, had the Tories in a deadheat with the Liberals among 18-29 year olds (and in a deadheat with the NDP, the year previous, just to confuse matters.)
For their part, Abacus Data have noted that for many millennials, 2015 was the first time that they had voted “Liberal” in a federal election. Layton and Harper both had been more competitive among millennials than Ignatieff and Dion. Certainly then, the potential is present for young voters to turn to parties they’ve voted for in the past if they’re frustrated with an incumbent they gave a chance to. Characterizing millennials as the most reliable of Liberal voters is simply a gross mischaracterization – that’s not the story that the data has been telling us before or after the federal election. What we do know, however, is greatly complicated by the diverging results found by pollsters…
Over the course of this past fall season, for instance, we’ve seen at least a fourteen point spread between pollsters regarding the size of the Liberal millennial vote. Nanos polls have the Liberals in third place among the youth vote with Jagmeet Singh in the lead, Forum polls have the Tories in the lead, Ipso has the parties in a dramatic three-way deadheat vying for the millennial vote, Abacus Data and Insight West have the Liberals winning a landslide among young voters. The divergences are severe: each poll could serve as the basis for a new, colourful and intriguing op-ed projecting a millennial love-in or millennial fallout with the governing Liberals, but together, the polls as an average, suggests more simply a competitive race among millennial voters with the Liberals in front, but not by much (4+), and potentially losing ground.
The diverging data also should warn readers of the impact of methodological differences and the way in which outreach to younger, more “mobile” respondents can be filtered differently through various methodological lens.
Polls conducted through telephone, for instance, showed a 40% more competitive race (measured as standard deviation) than polls this season that were conducted online. And the polls’ margins of error bore a moderate negative correlation (-0.6) with the competitiveness of the polls (again measured as standard deviation) – that is to say, polls with smaller sample sizes recorded the races as closer than those with larger sample sizes. It’s only through merging polls that we hedge the methodological strengths and weaknesses of pollsters to find a substantive and compelling story through all the mire and “noise” that competing and seemingly incompatible polls can present.
What should concern the governing party, though, is that it appears millennials aren’t “dyed in the wool” liberals as some have assumed. Rather, the Liberals are heading into the next federal election with the largest generational segment of the Canadian electorate potentially divided among the Singh, Trudeau and Scheer camps almost equally. This softening of the “Red Wave” as it were seems entirely predictable in hindsight: millennials were not, by and large, loyal Liberal voters prior to 2015, the assumption they would continue to be after the last federal election was foolhardy.
One interpretation of millennial voting trends over the past few elections is that millennials do not share a ‘brand attachment’ to the Liberals as older generations have in the past; on policy, millennials are either to the left or to the right of the Liberals, it’s on values, rather – openness, multiculturalism, conservation, compassion, egalitarianism – that they sympathize with the Liberal party. Following this interpretation, it’s easy to see how younger voters – on the left and right – might get frustrated with the party on its policy directions; over the past couple of years, the governing Liberals have divorced themselves of critical promises that were popular on campuses (e.g., electoral reform, waivering youth EI premiums, ending blood-bank restrictions) and expanded spending in its fiscal plan.
Regardless of the reason, however, it appears in the next federal election, a young and large crop of voters will be up for grabs. Ultimately, the Liberals will have an opportunity to remind them why they gave them a chance in the first place, while the NDP and the Conservatives wait in the wings, ready to convince Canada’s millennials that they, not the Liberals, will best represent them in Ottawa. No single segment of the population could change the fate of the next election so decisively. Next election, the kingmaker, like two of our major party leaders, will be under forty and their vote is far from cast.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.