The global COVID-19 pandemic presents a fundamental challenge to governments around the world. The crisis has led to unprecedented levels of government intervention and dramatic changes to social and economic life. Work is stopped. Borders are closed. Governments have both encouraged and mandated people to stay in their homes, putting in place various quarantine orders. Governments of all political stripes are passing a variety of economic support packages, from paying companies to keep employees on their payrolls in Canada, to broadly distributed relief cheques in the United States. The amount and scope of government activity has not been experienced for generations. How is this government engagement affecting the political views of citizens?

In Canada, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government are in the spotlight. They are governing with only a minority of seats in Parliament after losing their commanding majority in the October 2019 federal election. The party actually lost the popular vote to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives. Less than six months later, Trudeau is facing an unprecedented crisis, and one that will define his government.

The Consortium on Electoral Democracy (known as C-Dem) has been tracking Canadians’ attitudes toward government and politics since May 2019, providing a unique opportunity to gain insight into how the current health crisis is shaping (and reshaping) Canadians’ attitudes toward Trudeau and the federal government. In the most recent survey, fielded from March 24 to March 31, we asked Canadians how satisfied they were with the federal and provincial governments, both overall and in their specific responses to COVID-19.

As with other polls, our data suggest that Canadians, in general, are positive about how the federal government has been acting, with about two-thirds either somewhat satisfied or very satisfied with its response to the pandemic. A higher proportion — almost 80 percent — are satisfied with their provincial government’s actions. Across regions, provincial satisfaction is consistently higher, though this gap reaches statistical significance only in Quebec, where respondents are among the most satisfied with their provincial leadership and the least with the federal response.

The level of support for a minority federal government after an election where the governing party lost the popular vote suggests that Canadians are, to a certain extent, rallying in the face of crisis. This certainly seems to be the case when we consider the longer-term trends in attitudes toward Trudeau’s government.

Unlike most public opinion surveys, we have been asking the same respondents about their political attitudes since before the 2019 election. In summer 2019, general satisfaction with the federal government under Trudeau hovered around 35 percent, and these same respondents reported similar levels right before the federal election; yet satisfaction increased to 52 percent in late March (see figure 1).

This level is not as high as satisfaction with how the federal government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, but nonetheless it’s a large jump. Similarly, general confidence in government has also increased. Over the past year, its level has been largely static, but recently it has gone up by about 10 points.

Partisanship and ideology serve as immensely powerful cues for citizens in a democracy, colouring how they view policies and the political actors involved in developing them. This is particularly true during politics as usual, when average citizens may be only minimally following the sport of politics. In times of crisis, when there is a real risk to their livelihoods and health, citizens should be paying more attention, and they may be more prone to evaluate issues on their merits.

Dividing the survey panel by 2019 vote choice, we can see how partisans of different stripes are evaluating the government in light of the crisis. There are clear partisan differences in satisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic. Conservative supporters are less supportive of Trudeau’s handling of the crisis: 53 percent are satisfied, compared with 81 percent of Liberal voters. Those who supported the NDP in 2019 are also largely satisfied (71 percent). While these gaps in support are nontrivial, it is important to note that a majority of Conservative supporters provided positive evaluations.

In contrast, before the 2019 federal election, Conservative voters had very little positive to say about the Liberal government, while among Liberal voters, satisfaction was extremely high (figure 2). Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, general satisfaction has increased among voters of all parties. (Note that there are too few Bloc voters in our sample to provide estimates.) Among Conservative and NDP voters, satisfaction has at least doubled. While the satisfaction expressed by those voters still remains far lower than among Liberals, the Trudeau government is indeed gaining a bump, particularly among supporters of other parties.

Trudeau himself has also seen a net improvement in popular perceptions of his leadership. Over our multiple surveys we asked respondents to name leaders they felt were “trustworthy,” who “really care(s) about people like me” and “provide strong leadership.”

Figure 3 shows evaluations for Trudeau among our panelists. While Trudeau’s leadership ratings have been trending upward over time, they have seen a sharper increase during the pandemic. Canadians are also much more likely now to say both that Trudeau is trustworthy and that he cares about them. Across traits that are clearly central to how we evaluate our political leaders, Trudeau has seen his image improve, and these improvements are noted by supporters of all parties. While Conservatives are much less likely than Liberals to rate Trudeau well on any of these dimensions, voters of all stripes are more likely to see him positively now.

What do these survey results mean for the future of Trudeau’s minority government? It remains to be seen if this bump in positive evaluations of the government can be maintained in the face of the inevitable increase in deaths from COVID-19 in the coming weeks. What is perhaps more clear is that the main political actors — from provincial premiers to leaders of the opposition parties — are unlikely to take part indefinitely in the now largely unified messaging coming from government. When parties and leaders begin to question the government’s handling of specific aspects of the crisis, as they inevitably will do, we are likely to see some of the gains disappear, especially among Canadians who did not vote for the Liberals.

Allison Harell, Laura Stephenson, Daniel Rubenson and Peter Loewen contributed to the writing of this article using the Integrated Democracy Checkup — 2019 Canadian Election Study Dataset. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. The four-wave panel data were collected in summer 2019 (May-August), before the October 21 federal election (October 4-20), after the election (November 4-18) and again from March 24 to 31, 2020. Data were collected from online panels, with quotas for key demographics, with demographic weights applied to the final sample to ensure estimates are representative of the population on key demographics.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on April 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

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Allison Harell
Allison Harell is a professor of political science and holds the UQAM Research Chair in the Political Psychology of Social Solidarity. She also co-directs the Consortium on Electoral Democracy.

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