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Among Millennials, No Political Party Has a Commanding Lead

Why that’s good for Harper, and bad for progressives vying to defeat him.

By Geoff Dembicki 27 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

This article was paid for in part by Tyee readers, as part of our 2015 federal election drive. Support Tyee coverage, or learn more about our Tyee Builder program, here.

A federal election poll released in mid-April by Ekos Research Associates contained a striking finding. Among respondents between the ages of 18 and 34, the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives were in a dead heat. Each was drawing 26 per cent support from Millennials, with the Greens at 10 per cent. Many studies suggest young people are more likely to lean progressive than older Canadians. But the recent Ekos poll suggested no progressive party yet claims a commanding lead among Millennials.

These types of results tend to fluctuate wildly. At various points this year, weekly Ekos polling shows the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives have each enjoyed small leads among 18 to 34 year-old respondents. "Very little appears settled," the firm has concluded. One statistic, though, has remained remarkably consistent. Support for the Conservatives among people age 65 and older hasn't gone below 39 per cent for the last four months. The Tories "enjoy a huge lead with seniors," Ekos argued.

If these trends persist, they could have a big impact on the 2015 election. Seniors are the most reliable voters in Canada. About 75 per cent of them cast a ballot in the 2011 election. Millennials, of whom less than half voted that same year, are the least reliable. If no progressive party can capture the imagination -- and votes -- of young Canadians, and if the Conservatives hold onto their huge lead with seniors, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have a decent shot at winning re-election.

All the political parties need to attract young voters. But it appears that Canada's progressive parties need them most. Last year, the pollster Nik Nanos estimated that if 20 per cent more Millennials had voted in 2011, Harper likely wouldn't have won a majority. With so much at stake, the Liberals, NDP, Greens and Conservatives are each implementing a unique strategy to engage young voters. Yet none has been able to brand itself convincingly as the obvious choice for Millennials. How come?

Liberals lead on pot

Before he became leader of the Liberals, Justin Trudeau hazarded an explanation. "Young people don't want to hear about partisan attack politics," he said back in 2012. Millennials in his opinion were more aware of big overarching problems like climate change than any other generation. The best way for political leaders to engage them was to think big about society's future. "For too long politicians have been focused on band-aids," he said. "We have to start thinking more longer-term than that."

As Liberal leader, Trudeau has adopted a long-term position on marijuana. What started as a motion from the Liberal youth wing to legalize, regulate and tax the drug was later adopted by the full membership in 2012. Polls suggest a majority of Canadians support looser pot laws. But Millennials are the most likely demographic to smoke weed, and see legalization as a reason to vote Liberal. "It has helped us engage many young people," said Young Liberals national president Justin Kaiser.

Yet Trudeau's qualified support for Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation brought in by the Conservatives, risks turning many young people off. Forum polling suggests only 18 per cent of Millennials approve of the increased powers Bill C-51 would give to Canada's intelligence agencies, as opposed to 41 per cent of people above age 65. "Supporting the bill that you know is dangerous... is tantamount to putting our rights hostage," a young woman said to Trudeau when he spoke in Vancouver this March.

The Liberal leader is also sending mixed signals on climate change. Addressing the issue is a "hot topic" among Millennials, Kaiser explained. "We're going to push on ensuring that young Canadians are aware of our party's [support for] a carbon price," he said. At the same time, Trudeau has endorsed pipelines like Keystone XL. "You can't deal with climate change and build more tarsands pipelines," Cameron Fenton, a Canadian organizer with the youth-led climate group 350.org, has said.

NDP bets on generational debt

Millennials disaffected by Trudeau may embrace a more left-of-centre Tom Mulcair. The NDP has good reason to hope so. The party got more votes from 18 to 34 year-olds in the last federal election -- 37 per cent, according to estimates from the 2011 Canada Election Study -- than any other. The NDP also has the youngest caucus on Parliament Hill, with 21 MPs under the age of 40. "We don't just engage young people," said George Soule, its associate director of media, "we get them elected."

Yet a Pew Research Center study disputes the idea that young candidates engage young voters. What matters more is a party's ability to frame issues in ways relevant to Millennials. It's why the NDP has made generational debt the centrepiece of its youth engagement strategy. The Conservatives, the NDP argues, are off-loading ecological harm, online surveillance and rampant unemployment on young people's futures. "The biggest inequality in our country is between generations," Mulcair has said.

The NDP leader believes he could help address that inequality by raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Recent polling in British Columbia suggests a large majority of Millennials -- as well as older Canadians -- support such a policy. Mulcair may also attract young voters in his opposition to Bill C-51. While Trudeau attempts to simultaneously support and critique the law, "we in the NDP are going to fight it," Mulcair argued. "The truth is we cannot protect our freedoms by sacrificing them."

But the NDP leader sounds a lot less definitive on marijuana. Unlike Trudeau, he argues that "there is still a fair amount of hard work to be done to be able to get to [legalization]." And on climate change the NDP faces a similar perception problem as the Liberals. Though Mulcair advocates for a national system of cap and trade, he's also given his qualified support to the Energy East oilsands pipeline. "That doesn't do it for me," young climate activist Julie Van de Valk told The Tyee last month.

Greens reach for 'anti-voters'

Van de Valk at least plans to vote in 2015. If past elections are any indication, a majority of her peers will refrain. Green Party leader Elizabeth May has researched these non-voters. Some are rightly described as apathetic, she said. But many young Canadians are better understood as "anti-voters" -- that is, people who abstain from voting in order to punish a political system they see as compromised. "The anti-voter to me is the goldmine of smart people who have misdirected their anger," May explained.

The Young Greens website seems positioned to engage anti-voters. Its promise of "responsible, logical and action-oriented" solutions has a post-partisan feel. May's pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies speaks to anti-corporate anger. The Greens have a populist plan to tax carbon and return the revenue to families. May is also the only leader to explicitly promote Canada's cleantech industry -- which has yet to assume a political identity. "Figuring how to engage the anti-voter is very critical," she said.

As the first Green MP elected to Parliament, May has sought to expand her influence beyond only the environment. She's been a passionate critic of Bill C-51, arguing the law has little to do with fighting terrorism. "It's about creating a secret police," she wrote in The Tyee. "It's the death of freedom." Like Trudeau, May is also calling for marijuana legalization. All this may explain why with only two MPs, support for the Greens among Ekos' Millennial respondents went as high as 14 per cent in March.

Still, that support had shrunk to 10 per cent by mid-April. And the Greens continue to face big challenges in engaging Millennials. If someone becomes an anti-voter because they feel their vote has no influence, then why support a leader with little chance of becoming prime minister? The same goes for progressive Millennials worried about another four years of Conservative rule. "A Green MP will co-operate across party lines to make sure Harper doesn't form a minority," May explained.

Tories bank on fiscal management

That may be a tough sell, considering some pollsters are already predicting a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives. It may seem that Millennials have little incentive to help Harper win. The Conservatives, after all, are skeptical of climate action, opposed to marijuana legalization and fully supportive of Bill C-51 -- they wrote the legislation. Yet Ekos polling suggests Tory support among young people is comparable to the Liberals and NDP. In mid-March, it was the highest of any party.

To Millennials like Jordan Schroeder, those figures aren't surprising. He helped found a Campus Conservatives chapter at Trinity Western University. In a time when youth unemployment is over double the Canadian average, "young people have to be concerned about job creation," he said. In his opinion, Harper is the best leader to achieve it. Other young people seem to agree. An Abacus poll from January suggested 44 per cent of 18 to 29 year-olds trust Harper to give career advice.

Progressives argue that by failing to take strong action on issues like climate change, the Conservatives are creating societal debt that young people will someday have to pay off. But the concept of debt is different to someone like Schroeder. To him, it refers mostly to the federal government's fiscal obligations. "We can't spend more than we take in," he said. "That debt has to be paid down by future generations." Framed that way, reducing the deficit becomes an issue of generational equity.

The appeal of Conservatives to young people shouldn't be overstated -- Millennials still favour progressive parties by a large majority. But Harper's popularity among this cohort is strong enough that the NDP, Liberals and Greens should be concerned. It suggests none of them have truly captured the imagination of young people. If this trend persists, and if Harper holds onto his huge lead among seniors, it may result in a serious demographic handicap for the progressive parties vying to defeat him.  [Tyee]

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