When Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, went to see the Governor General in the middle of the summer, many believed that this would be akin to a Seinfeld election – in other words, a campaign about nothing. Turns out Canadian voters did not get that message as the 43rd federal election campaign has the potential to radically change our House of Commons make-up.

With leaders hopping around the country, it appears that not only are people paying attention, but they have a significant desire for “something” to happen in this campaign. We have seen the once comfortable lead enjoyed by the Liberals seemingly reduced, and the once “unknown” leader of the Conservative party coming from nowhere with new ideas and an agenda that shows the party is ready to challenge the minority Liberal government.

Of course, the question to be asked is why has all this happened, and more importantly, is this shift real or a mid-summer’s dream for the Conservatives that could evaporate when the masses collectively wake up post Labour Day to engage?

At H+K Canada, we set out to explore what is happening with our leaders and the way voters see them by measuring their reputation through our proprietary Reputation+ framework and corresponding election survey.

Typically, this tool is deployed for our corporate, brand marketing and issues + crisis work for our clients. In this instance, we applied this tool to politics to see where the gaps and similarities are between a political party’s brand and the corresponding leader’s reputation on the same issues. The results gave us unique insight into why voters have responded the way they have so far, and for those in corporate Canada, illustrate why both your company’s brand (political party) and its executive leadership (political leaders) impact the outcome of your communications.

1. Purpose Matters

At H+K, we ground our work in the belief that your Performance (can you do what you say you will do?) plus your Purpose (why are you doing what you are doing?) leads directly to Preference (casting a vote, buying a product, making a choice).

As we see from our polling, on the key “Purpose” questions of Trust, Ethics, Values, and Governance, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party rank virtually the same. In other words, voters feel that the leader and the party are equally trustworthy and ethical, and have similar values. In this case, the party is largely a reflection of the leader and indicates a high degree of cohesion with Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberals’ offering. Voters already know what they need to know.

When we look at the same metrics for Conservative Party (CPC) leader Erin O’Toole, we see that as a leader, he trails the party in most rankings on Purpose questions. With his strong performance in this campaign, he has managed to make gains precisely because the affinity for the party, but now with the spotlight on the leader, the CPC are enjoying a bump due as there is an increase of cohesion of Mr. O’Toole from voters. Trudeau does not have the space for the same bump.

2. Will They Show Up?

In marketing, we spend a massive amount of time determining who has purchase intent for products. The same can be said in politics where strategists not only try to determine who will actually vote, but also if that vote matters where it is. Some ridings just have a history of not changing and thus central campaigns largely ignore them.

Determining who will vote is a little more difficult, but our polling does explore this issue, which is particularly important in a campaign that started in the dying days of our short Canadian summers. All three of the major national parties (Liberal, CPC, NDP) have a high ranking of 80% or higher of their supporters saying they will “definitely vote” which is not surprising given that we have just spent time asking them questions about politics through this survey data collection.

What is more telling is when we look at how malleable identified support is for the parties. A full 55% of CPC supporters say there is “no chance” that they will change their minds and vote for someone else. The same metric for identified Liberal support is only 36%. This is a 20% gap from the CPC, which is a big indicator of soft support for the governing Liberals and is likely partially responsible for the perceived shift in support we’ve seen in horse-racing polling data recently. The new Conservative leader has approached the campaign in an almost “Sunny Ways 2.0” and that approach has proven again that honey attracts more than vinegar.

…but there is danger for the Conservatives in this approach.

3. A Volatile Vote

When the electorate is seeking “something,” we typically see that vote intent is very volatile. When an election has no driving force or narrative, it can be easily derailed and become about something that no one envisioned.

When we completed our polling at the outset of the campaign (August 17 to 23), we saw that the economy was at the top of a series of issues, especially when combined with recovery, jobs, debt and deficit. We also saw that health care was near the top as it always is in campaigns, and especially so after a pandemic. So, leveraging the economy as a key message worked well for the CPC, while leveraging health care and health recovery as a key message worked well for the Liberals. However, over the Labour Day long weekend in Canada this campaign inexplicitly turned to…gun control. I suspect very few had that on their bingo card for this election.

Yet the Conservatives are now on their backfoot for the first time in this campaign and the polling juggernaut of Team O’Toole has stalled. It seems the Liberals have seen how malleable voter intent is. But the Conservatives cannot shake this attack of being pro-gun precisely because of reputation. There is a mental shortcut in the eyes of the electorate from the CPC reputation to vote intent in this election. Until the Conservatives address the Purpose in their policies on guns, they will continue to have difficulties changing the channel back to a place where their Purpose + Performance will better mesh for voter Preference.

There are lessons here for corporate leaders:

It is not enough to simply produce a great product (Performance) if consumers do not also believe in your reason for being in business (Purpose). It is only by paying attention to both that people will make that decision to align with you and express their support (Preference). H+K’s Reputation+ tool helps to uncover where those opportunities are for leaders, both corporate and political.