Will uncertain voters follow their heads or their hearts?

Will uncertain voters follow their heads or their hearts?

October 7, 2015 – Election polls ask voters lots of interesting questions that end up getting ignored as the electoral beast’s insatiable hunger for new “horserace” (party standings) numbers blinds it to more nuanced findings.

We at the Angus Reid Institute have tried to avoid this trap. Since the writ dropped, we’ve published a variety of issue-based studies (on the economy, the refugee crisis, health care, foreign policy, and the economy again) and tried to avoid publishing horserace numbers without critical analysis.

The last link in the preceding paragraph is to our most recent horserace poll. In that survey, we asked an interesting question that warranted a deeper dive.

The question was posed to undecided respondents and those who said they could still change their mind about who they would support in this election (approximately 52% of those expressing a party preference). They were asked to choose which of the three main leaders they find most appealing in each of the following circumstances:

If they were relying only on intellectual considerations and reasoning (i.e., their “head”):

Angus Reid Institute

If they were relying only on their “heart” or “gut”:

Angus Reid Institute

The results were striking – and more varied than we expected.

A few notes off the top:

  • Keep in mind that this question was only asked of undecided and uncommitted voters. The Conservative Party has by far the most committed base of any party, so the fact that Stephen Harper fares poorly in the charts above doesn’t actually reflect his standing with the electorate as a whole. (Harper still wins handily on the best PM question, which was asked of all respondents, as seen in the following graph):

Angus Reid Institute

  • The fact that Trudeau fares so poorly in the best PM question makes his rise to the top on the “heart” question that much more impressive. It indicates that – among less-than-certain voters, at least – there’s something about the Liberal leader that appeals. But to whom is he appealing?

There are two distinct groups within the sample: the true undecideds – those who express no preference for any party, even when prompted to say whether there’s a direction they’re leaning – and the “soft” voters – those who say they could change their minds before the end of the campaign.

Soft voters do indicate a vote intention, so we can look at their responses by party support. When we do this, we find soft Conservatives “locked-in” on the “head” question: 87% choose Harper, compared to 77 per cent of soft New Democrats who choose Mulcair and just over two-thirds (67%) of soft Liberals who choose Trudeau.

This is a pattern we see often in our results: Conservative supporters (even soft ones) are almost always more likely to choose Harper than supporters of other parties are to choose “their guy.”

But on the “heart” question, that doesn’t happen. Seven-in-ten soft Conservatives (71%) still choose Harper when thinking with their hearts, but that’s 16 points lower than the percentage who say they’d choose him when thinking with their heads.

Mulcair’s support erodes similarly from the head to heart question. He enjoys the support of 69 per cent of soft NDP voters when they’re asked to think with their hearts – an eight-point decrease from when they’re asked to think with their heads.

Trudeau, on the other hand, gains 12 points among soft Liberals on the heart question – pulling in support from 79 per cent of them. He’s the only leader who gains support among his partisans on the question of heart.

Angus Reid Institute

Trudeau’s appeal to voters’ hearts – if not their heads – extends across party lines as well. Looking at all “soft” voters, regardless of what party they support, we see 42 per cent choosing Trudeau when thinking with their hearts.

Conservative strategists might see Trudeau’s weak showing on the “head” question as further evidence that he’s – as their attack ads go – “Just not ready.” But voting – like all human activities – is not a purely rational exercise. If uncommitted voters follow their hearts on Oct. 19, Trudeau’s readiness, or lack thereof, may not matter.

Image Credit: Alex Guibord

October 7, 2015 – By Ian Holliday


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