OTTAWA — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau no longer looks invincible.
After showing a steady lead in public opinion surveys for more than two years after his surprise October 2015 election victory, Trudeau appears to be politically vulnerable. And that’s despite a buoyant economy, what’s seen as a steady hand in NAFTA trade talks with President Trump, and a weak political opposition.
“All of a sudden, we saw this drop,” said David Coletto, chief executive of Abacus Data, an Ottawa polling firm, referring to his company’s latest poll, completed in early March. “It’s the first time since Trudeau became prime minister that we have results showing the Conservatives slightly ahead.”
CBC’s Poll Tracker, which aggregates and weights the results of a dozen opinion surveys, reported in late March that the opposition Conservative Party is now in the lead, at 37.7 percent of voting intentions, compared with Trudeau’s Liberals, at 33.7 percent. The left-of-center New Democratic Party was third at 18.5 percent.
Some observers say it’s just a question of midterm blues, with a Canadian election not scheduled until the fall of 2019. But the real culprit seems to have been Trudeau’s visit to India in February. During the week-long trip, Trudeau was widely mocked for wearing traditional Indian garb as he crossed India with his wife and three children.
For voters who had welcomed Trudeau’s global status as a progressive political leader and proud international standard-bearer for Canada, the images of Trudeau in brash Bollywood outfits at well-known sightseeing spots were a serious comedown.
“When you have foreign media like CNN and BBC making fun of our prime minister, that was jarring for some people and made people question whether he was the best person for the job,” Coletto said.
For critics such as columnist Andrew Coyne of the National Post who see Trudeau as charming but an intellectual lightweight, the India trip simply proved their outlook. “The little things that seemed so charming at first, all those dashing gestures and glam photo ops might well come to seem, at first frivolous, then irritating — an impression of unseriousness compounded by a series of bungled foreign-policy excursions of which the India trip was only the last,” Coyne wrote.
Making things worse, Trudeau was harshly criticized for the dinner invitation made to Jaspal Atwal, a convicted Sikh Canadian terrorist from British Columbia, for an official Canadian dinner during the visit. The invitation was withdrawn after it was made public but not before inflicting significant political damage on Trudeau and his entourage.
Pollster Nik Nanos says what’s striking about Trudeau’s dip in popularity is that it’s completely “self-inflicted.” Both the Conservative and New Democratic parties have new, inexperienced leaders who are making no significant impression on Canadians. In fact, Trudeau still leads by a healthy margin as the preferred choice for prime minister.
Besides the disastrous India trip, Nanos said that something else is going on. There’s a major gender divide when it comes to Trudeau’s support, and it’s only getting more pronounced.
Women have always been partial to Trudeau, not just for his movie-star looks but also his progressive social policies and his self-description as a feminist. Nanos said this divide grew more sharply as he continued to push a pro-feminist agenda, with Trudeau having lost about one-third of his male support since 2015.
“He’s been very gender-focused,” Nanos said. “When you focus so much on gender, it means that other voters, i.e. men, aren’t as important.”
Nanos believes there’s still plenty of time for Trudeau and the Liberals to turn things around. “They have to return to a progressive agenda and focus on the middle class. That appeals to both men and women.”
Stephen Azzi, associate professor of political management at Carleton University in Ottawa, said he wouldn’t put too much stock in polls 18 months ahead of an election. “Governments tend to lag in Year 2 or 3 of their mandate,” he said. “I think they should be worried, but I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom.”