It will be a crowded stage at this week’s debates, with five party leaders seeking to stand out and frame a narrative for an election that doesn’t yet have a ballot question. The NDP is targeting a large accessible voter pool, with 49% of voters saying they’re open to voting for Singh’s party. According to Abacus Data, the NDP has done the best at growing its support from the 2019 election. Half of current NDP support is new, with the bulk (24%) coming from voters who say they didn’t vote in 2019. However, Abacus’ research shows the NDP also has among the softest group of supporters with less than half of NDP (47%) supporters saying they are locked into their choice.
Singh performed well in the 2019 debates. To succeed this week, he’ll need to exploit the growing voter skepticism of Justin Trudeau and his promises, while projecting himself to progressives as a credible and trustworthy option.
While each leader has specific goals going into the debates, Jagmeet Singh must contrast his personal brand with that of Trudeau, with whom he shares many of the same accessible voters. This has always been a tricky task for the NDP: criticizing a leader whom many of your own supporters have affinity to or have previously supported.
The latest Abacus Data poll shows that the Liberals continue to have a sizeable lead over the NDP and there seems to be little change among the coveted Liberal-NDP switchers. There has, however, been a noticeable shift among Liberal-Conservative switchers in favour of the Conservatives. While Singh may have the highest personal approval rating among young Canadians, he has yet to convince other key demographics that he and his party are worthy of government. Young Canadians were the key demographic that helped Trudeau secure his majority back in 2015. Singh is having some success using social media platforms to get millennials and Gen Z fired up enough to head to the polls in support of his NDP. He now needs to use the debates to appeal to Canadians over 45, Liberal-NDP switchers in Toronto, and Quebecers.
Singh has repeatedly pushed the narrative throughout the campaign that the NDP will deliver the progressive policies that Trudeau has failed to follow through on – such as pharmacare, dental care, a wealth tax, and affordable housing. These debates are Singh’s best opportunity to highlight how it was the NDP that pushed the Liberals to bring forward more robust support programs for those who needed it the most during the pandemic.
Watch for Singh to repeat examples beyond the pandemic too – Trudeau’s insufficient record on climate change, his refusal to tax the rich, his reluctance on paid sick leave, and foot-dragging on universal drug coverage, to name a few. If Singh and Trudeau end up battling it out on the debate stage for who will make life more affordable for Canadians, Singh needs to convince Canadians that while life keeps getting more expensive, Trudeau’s talk is cheap. Singh may well need a poignant moment akin to Jack Layton’s famous zinger versus Michael Ignatieff in 2011. Layton noted that most Canadians don’t get a promotion when they don’t show up for work (a knock against Ignatieff’s poor attendance record in the House of Commons). If Singh can square off against Trudeau on affordability or the questionable pandemic election, he may be able to swing votes away from the Liberals. If not, the Orange Wave revival that many New Democrats were hoping for in this election is unlikely to come to fruition. Singh’s personal popularity and brand is soaring just as Trudeaus’ is waning, but the NDP still finds itself boxed in by the Liberal strategic voting narrative. If Singh is going to break through, the debates may be his final platform to do so in this election.