Robert Libman: How leaders are perceived bodes ill for Quebec Liberals, PQ

When voters were asked which of the five leaders they would like to have a coffee or beer with, Anglade and St-Pierre Plamondon finished dead last.

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In the upcoming provincial election campaign, both the Quebec Liberals and the Parti Québécois, the two parties that dominated and polarized provincial politics for 50 years, will battle for political relevance. The election of the Avenir Québec Coalition in 2018 ended a political era. After October, it is very possible that the Liberals and the PQ will be relegated to a third, fourth or fifth party in the National Assembly, or even worse.

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Liberal leader Dominique Anglade is highly qualified but has struggled to connect with voters on both sides of the language divide. Since he became leader, the party has veered left into crowded political territory instead of reasserting the Liberals as a centrist party: federalist, with strong economic credentials. PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon would be a boon to either party, but many traditional PQ voters now seem more comfortable with the CAQ’s brand of nationalism.

Campaigns are an opportunity to showcase party leaders. Can these two, in their first election campaigns as leaders, capture the imagination of the electorate and turn things around?

According to a Léger poll of voter intentions released this week, the CAQ is still in the mid-40 percent range, with the Liberals, Québec Solidaire and the Quebec Conservative Party in the teens and the PQ in the 10th. percent. The Quebec Canadian Party and the Montreal Bloc have gained momentum with candidate announcements this week, but neither was included in the poll. Had they been, Liberal support would almost certainly have been even less.

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While the overall results resemble those of other recent polls, this survey also investigated how Quebeckers perceive the leaders of the five major parties, and it is those results that are particularly revealing. Lee Atwater, Republican strategist for Ronald Reagan, coined the phrase: “In politics, perception is reality.” The part of the poll that deals with voters’ perceptions of the leaders should temper any optimism that the Liberals or PQ can bounce back during the campaign. When voters were asked to choose which leader they would like to have a coffee or beer with, Anglade and St-Pierre Plamondon finished last, with just six and four percent, respectively. A similar level of indifference was revealed when voters were asked which public rallies they might attend, with whom they would want to discuss social or political issues, and who they would want as a member of their family. When candidates were ranked on a list of personal qualities like ambition, determination, friendliness and even a sense of humor, Anglade and St-Pierre Plamondon also fared relatively poorly. In all categories, Premier François Legault leads, with QS Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois a solid second. With the opposition so fractured and many vote-splitting scenarios, the poll suggests Nadeau-Dubois is more likely to be leader of the official opposition after October 3.

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As superficial as some survey questions may seem, the perception data offers genuine insight into the overall ranking and prospects for any change. While each voter may prioritize a different consideration, how they perceive each leader is a key factor for many. This information may prompt liberal and PQ strategists to hire image consultants to try to change the behavior of their leaders during the campaign. Unfortunately, however, when leaders turn into pretzels to be someone they’re not, it quickly gets noticed and commented on in the media, making things more awkward. Once the perception begins to solidify, it is too late to change it.

Quebec elections are notorious for upsets, but for the Liberals and PQ, public indifference to their current leaders is a problem that makes it extremely difficult to change momentum.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as leader of the Equality Party and MNA, What metermayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a conservative candidate in the 2015 federal elections. twitter.com/robertlibman

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