OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may be renowned internationally for his youthful persona and social media savvy, but even before the embarrassment of his recent blackface makeup scandal there were concerns about the support he needs from younger voters to win re-election.
Young Canadians wanting change after nearly 10 years of Conservative government played a critical role in electing Trudeau and his center-left Liberals in 2015, when he promised to tackle climate change, legalize marijuana and reform the electoral system - issues that resonated with younger voters.
The trouble for the 47-year-old Trudeau, pollsters say, is that these same voters are now frustrated after a series of Liberal scandals as well as the government’s decision to buy an oil pipeline in an attempt to shore up Canada’s key fossil fuels industry. The party is in a statistical tie with the opposition Conservatives in polls ahead of the Oct. 21 vote.
Trudeau - who spent Friday marching alongside thousands of young Canadians at a climate strike in Montreal after meeting teenage activist Greta Thunberg - insisted on Monday that his party’s record of leadership and its plans on the environment and gun control will keep young voters in his corner.
“We are moving forward in the right way,” the prime minister told reporters in Toronto, saying he was “very excited” about how many young people were involved in the Liberal campaign.
But a Nanos poll on Tuesday, commissioned by CTV News and the Globe and Mail, found the proportion of 18-to-29-year-olds who plan on voting Liberal was 27%, down from 38% on Aug. 2. Their Conservative support was 23% compared with 19% in August.
“These were the people that Trudeau didn’t just need on side, but needed on side enough to go cast a ballot,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of polling firm Angus Reid, referring to concerns about low voter turnout.
In 2015, overall turnout for voters between 18-24 jumped from 39% in 2011 to 57%, while total voter turnout was 68.5%, the highest since 1993.
In this year’s election, 18-to-34-year-olds account for nearly a quarter of all Canadians eligible to cast ballots. Elections Canada, which oversees federal votes, has said it plans to nearly quadruple the number of temporary on-campus stations to 121 from 39 to encourage more youth to vote.
Meanwhile, several third-party groups who had registered in 2015 with the explicit aim of encouraging strategic voting to keep the Conservatives out of office are not officially participating this time around, according to a Reuters review of Elections Canada data.
In August, an official watchdog ruled Trudeau had improperly tried to ensure that construction company SNC-Lavalin avoided a corruption trial. The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrong doing and says he was simply trying to save jobs.
Last month, Trudeau was again on the defensive after images and a video emerged showing him wearing blackface makeup in the early 1990s and 2001. The story made international headlines, and polls showed younger voters initially recoiled away from Trudeau.
Denea Bascombe, a 26-year-old law student from Vancouver, enthusiastically voted Liberal in 2015, but the SNC-Lavalin affair, the blackface images and what she sees as tepid action on climate change have blemished her view of Trudeau.
“I flip flop multiple times every day,” she told Reuters. “I don’t even know how to make this decision this time around.”
If too many young voters opt for other left-leaning parties such as the New Democrats and the Greens, it could split the progressive vote and put the Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, in power.
“For a lot of people (Trudeau) has turned out to be more like a conventional-style politician,” said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, adding “he didn’t have any of that baggage last time.”
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Editing by David Ljunggren and Tom Brown