Duffy trial testimony ensures Senate scandal won’t fade into campaign background

Duffy trial testimony ensures Senate scandal won’t fade into campaign background

August 21, 2015 – When the Mike Duffy trial breaks on Aug. 28, will the Senate affair fade into the background as media coverage moves on to other things? Or will it have a longer-lasting impact, perhaps even scuttling the Tory campaign before Labour Day? Our new poll – conducted Wednesday and released Thursday night – suggests that this latter scenario may be a real possibility, especially if Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party fail to recapture the waffling “soft” supporters, only a third of whom actually believe the prime minister’s version of events.

The central characters in this late-summer reality television show have turned out to be not Duffy himself, but the prime minister and his associates. And our study reveals a surprising level of interest among Canadians in the issue, which was expected to be as boring as the Senate itself.

I think this issue will continue to cast a shadow on the campaign for many weeks to come. Once the votes are counted, it may even be seen as the major turning point in this very long campaign. Unlike many issues, Canadians are engaged with and alive to the Senate scandal – many claim to be following it and discussing it with friends and family.

This level of interest is driven by a combination of conflicting testimony during the Duffy trial about who said what to whom, and public fascination with a PMO that has operated behind a veil of secrecy during the Harper administration.

Harper had a high disapproval rating heading into the election. Thus, it comes as no surprise that a majority of Canadians don’t believe the PM’s version of events and feel there is a deeper scandal at play. But among the Conservative party’s already diminished base (most polls put it at roughly 30 per cent – down from the near 40 per cent of votes the party received in the 2011 election), a significant number of putative supporters either don’t believe Harper or aren’t sure.

I’m not referring to the super-hardcore Harper supporters (about 20 per cent of voters) who had their minds made up before the campaign began. Rather I’m referring to the strategically critical 10 per cent of voters who are CPC leaners but say they might change their mind over the course of the campaign. This segment – and the soft voters leaning toward other parties – is what this campaign is all about. And it is here that the damage of the past week is most evident: only a third of soft Conservative voters believe the PM’s version of events. The rest either don’t believe or are unsure.

This gaping hole on the flanks of the Harper base almost guarantees that this issue won’t go away. Count on a ramped up Tory campaign to distract from these issues and a merciless campaign by their opponents to leverage doubts among soft Tories into defection or inaction on Oct. 19.

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