The Road to 2015: Rebuilding the Conservative Majority Coalition

The federal Conservative Party has faced an unquestionably difficult spring.  Multiple ethics and spending controversies, a mini backbench revolt, slow economic growth, and the emergence of a dynamic and youthful Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader has the Tories now in second place in vote intention.  Abacus Data’s most recent ballot measure has the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP statistically tied with the Liberal Party at 29%, the Conservatives at 27%, and the NDP at 26%.  This is the first time in our tracking (since November 2011) that the Conservatives are not in first place.

Today’s Cabinet shuffle is one attempt by the Harper Government to hit the reset button and present Canadians with the leadership team that will lead the Tories into the 2015 federal election.

In this paper, my objectives are to assess how Canadians judge the performance of the federal government overall and in certain key policy areas and to look at the segments within the electorate that the Tories need to bring together to replicate its successful coalition that allowed it to win a majority in 2011.

These insights are valuable as you consider how to present your priorities and agenda to a re-worked Harper Government as it sets its sights on re-election in 2015. 

The Big Picture

Overall, the job approval of the Harper government is down six points since March to 31%.  This is the lowest approval score since Abacus Data started tracking the government’s approval rating in November 2011.  On specific policy areas, Canadians by and large do not distinguish between policy files except for accountability where only 20% of respondents either strongly or somewhat approved of the Harper government’s handling of the issue.

Harper Government Approval

Overall, just less than one third of Canadians (31%) said they either strongly or somewhat approved of the job that the federal government was doing.  Fifty percent of Canadians surveyed in June either strongly or somewhat disapproved of the federal government’s performance while 20% said they neither approved nor disapproved.

Among those who voted for the Conservative Party in the last federal election, May 2011 – a slight majority (54%) said that they somewhat or strongly approved of the federal government’s job performance while 19% disapproved.  Another 27% who voted Conservative in the last election neither approved nor disapproved.

With almost half of previous Conservative voters saying they either disapprove of the government’s performance or are neutral towards its performance is troublesome for the federal government and indicative of a need to revamp its agenda as it heads towards the 2015 election.

Q: Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the job the federal government led by Stephen Harper is doing?
(Source: Abacus Data, June 2013, n=999)

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But which policy areas is the government strongest and weakest and what does that mean for the coming Cabinet shuffle?

Among all respondents, the Conservative government is perceived to be doing better (or lower disapproval ratings) in its handling of international trade (35% approve vs. 28% disapprove) and crime reduction (33% approve vs. 32% disapprove).  Over a third of respondents said they neither approve nor disapprove of the government’s performance in these areas.

Respondents are more divided in the government’s handling of keeping taxes low (31% approve vs. 41% disapprove), economic management (32% approve vs. 40% disapprove), and job creation (33% approve vs. 39% disapprove).

The Harper government is weakest on health care and accountability in government.  While 32% approve of the government’s performance on the health care file, 45% disapprove.  Worse, only 20% of Canadians approve of its handling of accountability in government while 58% disapprove.

It is also clear that very few Canadians who disapprove of the government in general give it credit for progress in any specific policy areas.  There is a strong relationship between disapproving with the overall performance of the government and evaluations of its performance on specific policy areas.

Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the job the federal government is doing in the following areas?
(Source: Abacus Data, June 2013, n=999)

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2011 Conservative Voters – Approval of Government Performance

When we compare the approval among all eligible voters to that of those who voted for Conservative Party in 2011 there are some differences in the overall approval of the government.

Those who voted for the Conservative Party in 2011 are much more likely to approve of the job the government is doing on all issues. However, with about 40% of past Conservative Party supporters not approving of the government’s performance in specific policy areas, it is clear why support for the federal Conservative Party is down significantly in the past few months.

Q: Overall, do you approve or disapprove of the job the federal government led by Stephen Harper is doing?
(Source: Abacus Data, June 2013, n=999)

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Among Conservative voters in 2011, a majority approve of the Harper government’s performance in international trade, crime reduction, health care, economic management, and job creation.  However, less than a majority approve of its performance in keeping federal taxes low and on government accountability.

Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the job the federal government is doing in the following areas?
(Source: Abacus Data, June 2013, n=999)

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Incumbent governments need to retain its past supporters by delivering what it promised at the time these voters supported them.  With shaky economic news, higher than average unemployment, and significant ethical lapses, the government’s reputation among its supporters is tenuous at best.

A shuffling of the federal Cabinet provides the government an opportunity to reset and present a new team of ministers to tackle some of the issues facing the country.  But a new team won’t be enough.  The Harper government needs to find a way to rekindle its relationship with its supporters and give them a reason to vote for them again in 2015.

The Conservative government has found success in the past when it  delivered for its supporters. Masters of “transactional” politics, the early years of the Harper Government were about delivering for its core target markets: GST cuts, childcare benefit, tough crime and justice measures, tax credits for transit and sports, and investments in infrastructure.

But since winning a majority in 2011, it has delivered very little to most of its supporters.

While scrapping the long-gun registry and ending the Wheat Board’s monopoly on selling Western Canadian grain delivered to its mainly rural and small-c conservative base (its core supporters), middle class, suburban voters has been largely ignored since 2011.  Transactional politics requires constant attention and delivery to your consumer (voters).

These voters, middle aged and women, living in the suburban regions around Vancouver and Toronto, should be the focus for the government as its outlines its agenda for the next two years.  Without their support, the Conservative majority will disappear in 2015.

But if you’re the federal Conservative Party, how might you divide the electorate and build an agenda to retain and mobilize your base while bringing home those voters who may have voted Conservative in 2011 but are now either undecided or thinking of voting for an alternative?

In the next section we segment the political market from the Conservative Party’s perspective.  The Cabinet shuffle and its coming agenda will likely try to appeal to these groups.

Understanding and demonstrating how your agenda aligns with these groups should be a critical part of your GR strategy going forward.

Federal Conservative Voter Segment Profiles

A Note on Methodology

Using data collected from our national surveys from March to June, 2013, we segmented the Canadian population into five groups based on the previous voting behaviour and current federal vote intentions.  The analysis is based on interviews with 7,124 Canadians conducted online with representative panels.  The data set was weighted by age, gender, education, region, and month due to differences in sample size across the four surveys.  The data is not meant to represent current public opinion but to illustrate the relationship between variables.  The large data also allows us to drill down and better understand smaller, but important segments of the electorate not possible in a survey of 1,000 respondents.

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Road to 2015: Simple Mathematics

The way back for the federal Conservatives to get into majority government territory (around 40%) is a matter of simple mathematics.  Let’s remove the 11% of our sample who are “Disengaged”.

If the Conservative Party is successful at rebuilding their coalition and mobilizing them to vote, it can get close again to the magic 40% number:

Loyalists (24%) + Newcomers (4%) + Punctures (4%) + Switchers (5%) = 37%

The Conservative base of support is about 24% of the electorate.  They can likely count on these generally older, more male, suburban and rural voters.  They are enthusiastic about the government and almost all of them approve of the job the government is doing and most think the country is generally headed in the right direction.

Add the Newcomers (4%), new voters who are younger and more likely to be new Canadians, support the Conservative agenda and most approve of the government’s agenda.  These two groups are the easiest conversions for the Tories and gets them to 28% – about where they currently are polling in most public polls released recently.

Getting to 37% by adding the Punctures and Switchers is a bit more difficult.

Punctures (4%) haven’t completely abandoned the Tories for another party but are disappointed in the Harper Government’s policies.  They are more likely to be either pre-retiree or retired women, living in suburban communities.  They voted Conservative in the past but the Conservatives need to deliver something to them and demonstrate why Conservative policies are in their self-interest and the interests of their families.

Finally, Switchers (5%) are quite disappointed in the Harper Government.  Forty-five percent (45%) think the country is heading in the wrong direction and only 34% approve of the government’s job performance.  As this group is primarily middle-aged men living in urban and suburban communities, pocketbook issues, leadership, and competence are appeal themes to this group.

A majority of Switchers (58%) say they would vote Liberal if an election was held at the time of the survey with another 29% voting NDP and 11% voting Green.  These voters are pro-business but feel let down by Tory ethics issues and the underperformance of the economy.  Questioning Justin Trudeau’s experience and competence to be Prime Minister may loosen these voters but the Conservative Party needs to offer them something to come back into the Conservative tent.

How does your agenda align with these voters?

Government relations and advocacy is increasingly about mobilizing supporters and demonstrating to government stakeholders that your issues and “asks” align with the concerns and priorities of key voter groups.

“All Canadians” are not important in the new world of political marketing where relationship management, transactional politics, and delivery trump what used to be considered “good public policy”.

For many government stakeholders, both at the federal and provincial levels, good public policy is policy that meets the needs of target voter segments.

Data, whether in the form of membership attitudes and priorities or public opinion research, is the new currency in Ottawa.  Because of Access to Information requests or requirements of public disclosure of all Government of Canada public opinion research, government is doing less strategic public opinion research.  Along with informing your own strategy, you can provide valuable, independent data to government.  Strategically designed and segmented analysis demonstrates you understand their political priorities.

Next time you are thinking about how to convince government to support your agenda, ask yourself, what do the “punctures” think of our policy recommendations or how will “switchers” react to a proposal policy change?  Answering these questions will focus your GR strategy and provide you insights to share with government stakeholders as they all focus on the road to the 2015 General Election.

David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248



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