An Interview with Earl Washburn, Senior Analyst at EKOS Research

Goldsmith: Can you explain the demographics and methodology of EKOS?

Washburn: Sure, so I guess what you’re talking about is how our political polling works. So us and Mainstreet are the main IVR pollsters out there right now, so an IVR is like a robo polling basically, we call across the country with a robot and we ask the voting intention and demographics as well as a number of other questions that my boss Frank Graves is interested in basically. That’s the methodology of how our polling works at the moment.

Goldsmith: Whats the polling telling you?

Washburn: So basically, what it’s showing us right now, is the Conservatives have the lead and that’s basically what all the polls are showing, right? With us and Mainstreet, the IVR pollsters, what’s really different is we are showing a different lead than the online pollsters, or the telephone pollsters are showing. So that’s something  that’s interesting in terms of the methodological differences between all of us. That might come down to who likes to respond to polls and what kind of, especially when it comes to online polling, what kind of people are members of those panels. So what it’s showing, the Conservatives have a good lead, five, seven, eight point-lead depending on the day, it’s up and down. That’s a lead over the Liberals of course. But the real race is in Ontario, which is a third of the population of Canada, and in Ontario, the Liberals and the Conservatives are neck and neck, sometimes the Liberals are head by a couple of points, and those are overall are where the seats are, a third of the seats, and those were are a lot of the swing ridings, the swing districts if you will, are so that’s really where the campaigns wanna focus on, and where the most volatility is, and because the Liberals are ahead, or a little bit, their vote is more efficient, and the Conservatives, a lot of their vote is concentrated in Western Canada where they’ll win seats with, you know, 70-80% of the vote so as we saw in the last election, the Conservatives won by one point I think in the popular vote, but did not win that many seats at all compared to the Liberals. So that voter efficiency still exists even with the Conservatives ahead by a few points, and because they are again leading in Ontario.

Goldsmith: What are the factors leading to these results?

Washburn: Well my main theory is the fact that the Liberals called the election in the middle of a pandemic. I guess they figured most of us are vaccinated at the moment, so it would be safe but where into the fourth wave so we are getting a huge spike in the number of COVID cases, so yeah. They called a snap election which didn’t need to happen really. The Liberals rely on the NDP a lot in terms of winning votes but I guess they figured the NDP was pushing them too far to the left and the Liberals are more of a centrist party and were uncomfortable with that so they wanted a majority so they could control the kind of things they wanted passed in the House of Commons. But voters are thinking there’s no need for this election, Parliament are working well as far as we can tell. It’s in the pandemic, and the whole reason why they called it was in fact in the lead by like 10 points, some polls were showing at the beginning of the campaign, so voters were thinking they were overconfident. But, sometimes with election when voters think that, they think that the party that called the snap election is getting kinda cocky, they will punish them, and we have seen that a couple of times in canadian history. We saw that in the 1990 provincial election in Ontario when the NDP came out of nowhere and won a majority government, and we saw that in 2015 in Alberta, again same scenario, well it was the Conservatives in Alberta called a snap election and voters punished them by voting in the NDP again, what a surprise. I don’t think necessarily the NDP is going to benefit this time because of that. We also saw it in Britain, not to the same degree but Theresa May, she called a snap election and voters almost punished her and voters almost punished her because of that. I think it’s kinda the same thing this time with voters.

Goldsmith: In recent days, we’ve seen the Liberals appearing to be clawing back some support, gaining, in some polls, 3% in 3 days (August 31st-September 2nd), what has been happening in the last few days to see them claw back some momentum?

Washburn: Yeah it’s hard to tell what exactly that is, it’s usually close to being within the margin of error. It could be a little bit of people on the left being scared of a Conservative government, and are coming back into the Liberal fold. It could just be people are paying more attention to the polls, people don’t pay attention to politics during the summer as much, and especially if there’s not an election going on, but now there’s an election, people are coming back to work, they are kind of becoming more interested in the election now it’s full steam, so that might have played a part as well. The Conservatives, I guess, there’s a few things with the Conservatives, making the news, that people are uncomfortable with as well, so that might be the reason the Liberals are clawing back. It remains to be seen if this is going to narrow or not,right now. 

Goldsmith: In terms of different pollsters, and you said, yourself and Mainstreet have got the Conservatives a lot higher, but generally speaking, everyone seems to be somewhat united on the rest of the parties with the Liberals around 30% or just below 30%, the NDP around 20%ish. Why is there such a stark difference with the Conservatives? Is it just something that they’re just difficult to poll?

Washburn: Well I do think the main difference is between online and telephone, and specifically online and IVR. So your online pollsters are showing the Conservatives a bit worse, and I think that has something to do with the kinds of people that join these kinds of panels. They’re more engaged politically, they’re engaged in public services I guess as they like to do surveys. And those are the types of people that tend to be more educated and like to vote for a left leaning party; the Liberals or the other parties left of the Liberals. People who are less likely to join panels are more likely to be Conservative people and there’s also a bit of an education gap. I can speak to this because we also have an online panel now, we don’t use it for our political polling as much, we normally use IVR. We tried to have, with our panel, its randomly recruited from the general public, we tried to recruit from out IVR to our online panels so, we tried to make it as representative of the public as a whole but what we do find is that, it’s still, if you look a random sample of it, it is more engaged then an IVR poll would show because its just IVR is calling everyone in the country, so your gonna get people who might not do surveys normally or might not have time to do the survey, so I think it’s more of the education gap with it all is probably what’s fuelling it in my opinion. 

Goldsmith: So coming into the election, Erin O’Toole appeared to be deeply unpopular with the public, and even today is polling negatively, however there does seem to be an increase in his personal image, maybe because his party platform, having, the first two photoes solely being him ,and putting his image above the party image, and almost crediting him with the new direction of the platform being a lot more left wing then anyone expected. So, how do you think Erin O’Toole has really crafted this campaign so far to put himself in this position?

Washburn: Well yeah, his campaign is a lot more moderate for sure then past Conservative campaigns have been. This has been a more traditional Progressive Conservative campaign that he’s running. It’s kind of interesting though, in the leadership of the Conservative party a couple of years ago. He ran as the “true blue” candidate meaning that he was trying to court the votes on more of the right-wing of the party. In fact he won because the more social conservative parts of the party went to him versus his rival because he was being perceived as being more on the right. So he’s a bit of a flip flopper in that sense, though I think his background is more on the Progressive Conservative side, his father was a Progressive Conservative member of mrovisional Parliament in Ontario. So it’s in his DNA to be more progressive. They are trying to target the more blue collar vote, you saw that with his campaign to make there be union representation on boards in companies that are regulated by the government. So he’s trying to target himself to that demographic. Perhaps trying to win stereotypically NDP supporters. It worked out for him, I think, which is part of the reason why he’s doing a lot better. Another reason I think is just, the Conservatives themselves have decided, they might not have been happy with his leadership so far but he’s the Conservative leader and so they are rallying behind their flag, and here’s a chance to beat the Liberals so they are saying yeah we are going to support him now, because he’s our leader. Also he’s still in the negatives, because 60% of the country are not Conservatives, we are not a Conservative country, we are a left-of-centre county, so of course the Conservative leader, even if he wins the election, he’s still going to be unpopular in the country because we are not a Conservative country. 

Goldsmith: So do you think, if this is successful, with the Conservatives winning a minority and go into government,  do you think this could change the direction of the party with it being a more progressive party?

Washburn: Well it depends on if he actually decides to implement more progressive policy, more progressive than your average Conservative, and that remains to be seen. I think there are elements in his party that aren’t going to be too happy with some of his platform, so what we see often in governments is that they don’t really implement what they promise in elections, so, if he does govern more in the centre, the public will support that and will increase their chances of getting elected, if he does do what he promises but I think that really remains to be seen.

Goldsmith: So in the hypothetical instance that the Liberals are able to cling onto a minority but lose, let’s say 10-20 ridings, how likely do you think they would end up in an NDP coalition?

Washburn: If you actually mean coalition is the actual definition of the word coalition, that’s almost not going to happen, that’s a dirty word in Canadian politics. So back in, I think it was 2008, the Conservatives had a minority government but the Liberals and NDP and Bloc were talking about forming an actual coalition so that they could kick the Conservatives out, that kind of galvanized the public against them. There was kind of an idea that the party that wins the most seats should be the government. Now that was a while ago, and I think we have tested the idea of coalitions, if people support that or not, and there is some support from that, especially if that is against the Conservatives, if they don’t want a Conservative government. We’ve seen it of course in recent elections, BC I think we had, wasn’t a coalition but the Liberals, which is the centre-right party in BC, they won the most seats but the NDP and Green Party were able to form an agreement to make the NDP the government. So people would be okay with that but when it comes to an actual coalition, that might not be something that any party is comfortable in doing. There is an issue, again looking at the British, when the Conservative Party and Lib Dems had a coalition, that kind of destroyed the Liberal Democrats for a long time and I think that for a smaller party like the NPD, they see that as an example of a coalition in a Westminster style government, they’re not going to want to coalition because they’re afraid of the repercussions and again the Liberals may not want to get into a coalition as it might legitimize the NDP, if they have cabinet ministers, there will be members of the NDP who have governing experience and that might be something the NDP could promote in future elections and the Liberal party would not like that. 

Goldsmith: So would the likely outcome if the Liberals, in this hypothetical instance, do lose 10-20 ridings, that they almost govern in a similar way to how they’ve been forced to for the last 2 years where theyve been propped up by the NDP?

Washburn: If they have the most seats, if they have more seats than the Conservatives, then there will be a Liberal government, minority government for sure. They will rely on the NDP, they might have to use the Bloc to help them out, throw in some bones to Quebec, but they will remain in power. Now if the Conservatives win more seats, then there’s a big question mark. Some Canadians are going to expect that if the Conservatives win more seats, then they should be in power, but if Liberals + NDP form a majority then they might want to decide to hold on so that’s a big question mark and I can’t tell you what will happen because that is unprecedented in federal politics if that happens. I know when Harper won a bunch of minority governments, he was able to rely on the Bloc to form government on certain things. Also the Liberals were in shambles at the time, they abstained from a lot of votes, a lot of confidence votes, which allowed them to govern. So I don’t know if the Liberals will be willing to do that again or not. I guess they will be looking at us pollsters to look at what the public wants in terms of going forward.

Goldsmith: If Trudeau does not return a majority or if he loses seats, how long does he have, if the Liberals stay in government?

Washburn: Yeah there is some speculation that he might see the writing on the wall and decide to resign. I think that remains to be seen, I don’t know if he’ll want to do that. We are in a COVID pandemic at the moment, he might want to stay on to steer us through that but he might not be willing to remain as Prime Minister. I don’t know. One can only speculate.

Goldsmith: The New Democratic Party right now are jumping to 23% in some polls, they are generally seeing a rise of momentum, but it’s really equalling the popularity of Jagmeet Singh. From what I’ve seen the campaign is a very much Jagmeet focused campaign, and from all accounts of polling he’s a very popular figure. Obviously if you like a leader, you’re not going to vote for them, but what is the barrier they are finding with the NDP to vote for them? 

Washburn: Well yeah, the NDP have certainly hit a ceiling, we haven’t seen them grow much in the last few years, they hit the ceiling. For us we have them down at 18%, the IVR pollsters have them at 18-19%, online have them higher in the low 20’s. Jagmeet is a very popular leader of course, and a lot of Canadians like him, a lot of them are supporting Liberals at the moment, and that’s because they’re concerned about vote splitting. They are seeing a close race between the Liberals and Conservatives, they don’t want to vote NDP because in their riding, it means the Conservatives might come up in the middle. In order for the NDP to gain strength, the Liberals would have to be where they were a couple weeks ago, way ahead, so that people can decide its safe to vote NDP because there’s no worry of a Conservative government, or the Liberals have to come down close to the NDP is, and then people will think, there’s no point in support Liberals, they are down in a sinking ship, we’ll go to the NDP because they are going to be the main progressive party like we saw in 2011 with Jack Layton, and what we saw in the last provincial election in Ontario where the Liberals were sinking so progressive voters flead to the NDP. 

Goldsmith: The Bloc Quebecois has been fluctuating across the board in various different pollsters, especially with Mainstreet and their election barometer, whats really been the reason why they’ve been so up and down from different pollsters and different days? 

Washburn: Quebec is volatile in terms of politics, I mean going back to 2011, we saw that huge swing to the NDP, and then in 2015, we saw the Liberals break through into Quebec. It was kinda a model picture because the support for the NDP was still there but the support for the BLoc came back as well, and then in 2019, the Liberals came back up. So Quebec is a volatile region, people aren’t sure who if they want to vote for the separatist party, do they want to vote for the Federalist party, do they really like the Liberals. They are kinda trying to park their votes so I guess it depends where you’re getting your sample, where you’re getting your numbers from in Quebec in terms of how well the Bloc’s doing.

Goldsmith: In 2019, the Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet, said that he wasn’t going to prop up any government. After the surge in Quebec, do you think that again, no matter if it’s Liberal or Conservative considering last time they propped up a government, they were decimated?

Washburn: Were they decimated because of that or was it because the NDP became a really popular party at that time in Quebec? That might have been it too. If they are willing to get bones at thrown at them, by whatever party gets the most seats, they might not officially prop them up in any type of agreement but you know, when it comes to confidence votes, they might work out an agreement with whichever party is in power, to keep that government going, if they feel they need to do so. If they feel they might be able to get more seats in an election though, they might decide to take away that confidence in whatever government that is.

Goldsmith: Coming to the Greens now, the Greens have been struggling since the leadership election. Lets remove this current campaign for a second, we’ll come back to that, how do you rebuild after whats been a dismal year? 

Washburn: Well it’ll help if they get some members elected. It’s looking like Elizabeth May will win her seat, but that might be the only riding that they win, and she’s not even the leader anymore. I suspect that if Annamie Paul loses her seat, she will not continue as leader, she will probably resign, and that will mean a leadership election and that will mean a new leader and then hopefully for them, that leader will have the confidence of the party and they can rebuild from there. But yeah they have to go and bear this election right now, and hope that they can save face. 

Goldsmith: What type of figure, for the new leader, to unite the party because I doubt they’d go back to May who has been that security figure for so many years, and then when she leaves there’s chaos, so what type of figure, if there’s any people you know individually, who could potentially unite the party?

Washburn: There’s a big problem, there is a bit of a split between the moderate wing who ordinarily would be a Liberal I guess, if they weren’t for the Green Party, and more of an eco-socialist wing. We saw that in the final ballot between Annamie Paul and Dimitri Lascaris who is the more of the eco-socialist candidate. It will be hard to bridge that gap, they need someone like Elizabeth May who has that gravitas and can unite the party. I don’t know, I’m not familiar with all the names in the Green Party, but it will be difficult for them. Maybe if Paul Manly is re-elected, maybe he can do it. He comes from more of the left, his dad was actually an NDP member of Parliament, the NDP didn’t like his anti-Israel ideas and didn’t allow him to run for them so he decided to join the NDP. So he comes from more of the left wing of the Green Party but because he is an elected Member of Parliament, he might be able to bridge that gap. They have strong candidates in provincial parliament. The leader of the Prince Edward Island Greens and New Brunswick Greens are quite popular in those provinces. They would be great names for them if they were to run. They need a big name, like that, to kind of become leader and unite the party, and right now, I’m not sure if they can get there without the provincial leaders joining the federal scene. 

Goldsmith: So obviously, Elizabeth May currently, under your calculations and correct me if i’m wrong, is the one Green MP who would remain elected, what needs to happen, or what data wise do you need to see, to be more confident in suggesting there could be a second Green MP?

Washburn: Well what I look at is more regional members, so I’d be looking at specifically the numbers on Vancouver Island, which is where their only support really is these days. I’d be looking specifically at Paul Manly’s riding as well to see if he’s got the support behind him, if I’d be willing to say I’m confident to say that he’d get elected. That’s the only place. I don’t think the Greens are obviously going to win other seats. The leader is another possible riding that they could win in Toronto Centre. It’s a safe Liberal seat though. She did well in the by-election last year but that was before the whole leadership thing happened. Because of that, I don’t think she has that kind of support. She’s concentrating her entire campaign in her riding, so she might try to do well, but I dont think demographically it’s a good fit for the Green party so it’s going to be a steep uphill climb for her. 

Goldsmith: Moving onto the People’s Party, now the People’s Party unfortunately for them are not able to participate in the leadership debates, but subsequently, since then, we’ve seen a drastic rise in polls with pretty much every pollster at least putting them above 4%, and being up to 7%. What’s been the factor for this seismic rise for them?

Washburn: I guess my theory that it has to be to do with, the vaccine passport issue. That’s the only reason i can think because we are now in the stage where provinces are now adopting vaccine passports and they are really the party of the anti-vaxxers because there is a small segment of the population who are again getting vaccines and this this is a whole infringement upon their liberties so because of that, a lot of people on the far right are looking at them as the party that will be again vaccine passports or regulations. Right now the Liberals have promised all public servants will have to be vaccinated, any travel on trains or planes which are publicly regulated, anyone who takes those modes of transportation will have to be vaccinated. So these issues on the far right, or the anti-vaxxers are concerned about, so they are finding a home in the people’s party. 

Goldsmith: So obviously in the last election, they were generally polling around 4%, and seismically lost most of their support. Is that something we can come to expect in this election, because as we know, the right generally don’t like to split votes, especially in a country that’s more left leaning?

Washburn: Exactly, there is that issue. Conservatives in Canada will unite behind the flag to support that party in order to stop the Liberals. That might happen, it’s hard to predict these things. Does that anger exist out there to the extent that amount that people will vote for a party that will not get elected when they could easily stop Trudeau to stop the Conservatives. It remains to be seen. I think, from what Frank has told me, the number of people supporting the People’s Party, they are the least likely to have actual voters who will say they are planning on voting. So I doubt the People’s Party will end up with 6% or 7% or whatever they are at right now, they’ll probably be much lower, maybe around 3% or 4%. It’s hard to tell what they’ll do. 

Goldsmith: What kind of percent of the vote nationally, do you think the People’s Party will need to get a seat like Beauce back, because obviously thats where the leader stands?

Washburn: Well I mean they can get 10% of the vote and not win any seats, their vote is very spread out across the country. You’d expect there to be concentrations in places like Alberta or Saskatchewan where there’s a lot more Conservative voters, and there probably will be more there but there’s no concentrations enough for them to win in any particular riding except for Beauce which is Bernier’s riding. If they are going to win a seat, we will have to look specifically at his riding to see what his numbers are there. 

Goldsmith: So in 2019, the main province that the Conservatives that the Conservatives failed to make ground in was Ontario, and as you said at the beginning of this interview, it’s such an important province, with a third of the riding. What we are seeing this time is that it’s a lot closer. Why is it so much closer, what’s really broken through this time that didn’t happen in 2019?

Washburn: Right well, I think it’s just people being upset over going to the polls over a pandemic. That’s being magnified in Ontario. Ontario has the suburban region around Toronto, the 905 it’s called because it’s the area code, those seats are the ones that flip back and forth depending on who is the governing party, and that’s the region of the party that’s the most important for elections. Because of that region being the most volatile, having the most swing ridings. The Conservatives go up a bit in Ontario, or go up to tie with the Liberals, it’s going to win them a lot more seats just because of how close it is in that region. 

Goldsmith: British Columbia is an area which is fascinating because it’s got so many different parties that has support in so many different regions, and so what we’ve seen to a degree is an increased swing to the Conservatives. How much of that is a result of simply split voting happening between the Liberals, NDP and Greens and how much of that is genuinely because of a movement towards the Conservatives?

Washburn: Historically the Conservatives have done well in BC because of that vote split. Their support has gone down a lot in the last few elections. Part of that is because a lot more centre-right or moderate voters have gone to the Liberal Party, so the Liberals have been able to win more seats in BC.  BC hasn’t really been a strong historically for the Liberals but Justin Trudeau has been quite popular there. Recent polls have shown the Conservatives winning back that Liberal support, and it’s maybe moving towards a traditional NDP-Conservative race but because the Liberals still have a little bit of vote splitting it could cause the Conservatives to do quite well in BC.

Goldsmith: So with the Atlantic region, the Atlantic region has been shifting back and forth between the Conservatives gaining and the Liberals holding ground. Now this is the first region that’s going to come in during the election, what kind of seats are elected for the Conservatives where we can suggest if it will be a Conservative victory or a Liberal victory?

Washburn: Atlantic Canada is a different kettle of fish compared to the rest of the country. It’ll be difficult to know for sure if we are headed for a Conservative government just based on Atlantic Canada. Certainly if the Conservatives are only at four or five seats in Atlantic Canada, chances of winning the election are probably pretty low. The first place you’ll see if the Conservatives are doing well, you’ll know, is Nova Scotia  and New Brunswick. Those are more of the swing ridings in that region. Newfoundland is more of a Liberal safe region, right now, PEI as well, those are provinces that the Liberals do quite well. Last few elections, the Liberals have done quite well in Nova Scotia, the Conservatives only won one seat. They just had a provincial election in Nova Scotia where the Conservatives had a surprise victory so if they are able to piggyback of off the provincial election there, and pick up seats in Nova Scotia, you’ll know, this might be a bad night for the Liberals. 

Goldsmith: The Prairies and Alberta, now obviously the last election saw an overwhelming support for the Conservatives but there’s been talk that especially in Alberta, that more of the urban areas like Edmonton is becoming more of a battleground, whether its between the Liberals or NDP or both. How likely do you think it is that there is enough ground that the Liberals and NDP can really come back after what was a very difficult 2019?

Washburn: The Conservatives are polling a little bit worse in Alberta then they have been so it’s possible the Liberals or the NDP might win a couple more seats there but Alberta has been a dead zone for the Liberals for almost every election. 2015 was a big surprise that they were able to win two or three seats I think in Calgary and one or two in Edmonton. That’s historically a huge victory for them, and that’s not going to happen again, so I doubt they are going to win any seats in Calgary. They might win Edmonton centre in Edmonton, and for the NDP I don’t see them winning another seat. They are a little bit competitive in Edmonton Centre and Edmonton Griesbach but just because the Conservatives are so popular there, it’s going to be hard for them to win any more seats.

Goldsmith: Final question, what do you think each party, or how many you want to go through, needs to do to go forward, make a good impression in the debates and carry momentum?

Washburn: What do they need to do? 

Goldsmith: I mean, what needs to be their campaign focus, what needs to be the message they need to bring out more?

Washburn: Well I think for the Liberals, they need to show the Canadian public that the Conservatives are not to be trusted. They can look at Erin O’Toole’s campaign for leadership of the Conservatives and show that he’s a bit of a flip flopper, he ran as the true blue tory, he’s not someone who’s actually moderate like he’s trying to pretend to be. They need to kind of show that, and move away from why we are holding an election during the middle of a pandemic. Whereas the Conservatives need to keep telling Canadians, why are we voting in this pandemic, and keep that kind of moderate, middle-of-the-road campaign. They need to try to silence the far right of the party as much as possible because that’s the kind of thing Canadians are scared of, they don’t want that kind of thing in their government so they kind of have to make sure that the far right in their party are silenced. Kind of take a page out of Steven Harper’s book. He was able to silence his caucus as much as possible and he was able to do quite well as a result of that. And the NDP, they gotta kind of, harp on again about why are we voting in a pandemic message but also talk about how they helped Canadians during the pandemic, how they forced the Liberals to increase benefits for Canadians who were not employed during the pandemic. Things like that. Those are the messages I’d give to the 3 main parties. 

Aaron is an objective journalist who does analysis on the current climate of politics and political party successes and looks back at recent political history to see where we are headed for. You can find him on Twitter @aaron_gsmith.

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