If one thing seemed likely in the run-up to the election, it was that young voters were going to be a constituency key to keeping the Liberal party competitive. After all, in government, the party enacted a number of policies targeted at young people, including cheaper tuition for college students and prescription drug coverage for those under 25.
But if courting young voters is the plan, it doesn’t seem to be working for the Liberals: they’re well behind both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats in most polls. So what, exactly, is the younger set thinking with the election just two weeks from Thursday?
Pundits can basically choose their preferred narrative and find a poll to support it. An Ipsos Research survey conducted between May 11 and 14, for instance, showed the NDP handily winning voters 18 to 34 years old — ahead of the Tories by nine points and the Liberals by nearly 16. On the other hand, an EKOS Research survey taken from May 15 to 18 showed young voters going Tory — albeit not to the extent of other age groups.
“It’s not something that just appeared out of nowhere,” says Frank Graves, CEO of EKOS. “Younger voters have been consistently pro-Ford since the campaign began.”
In particular, Graves says young men are driving Tory support in their age group. “They’re not doing as well in the labour market as their fathers or grandfathers … They actually haven’t experienced progress. The whole middle-class dream — if you work hard, you’ll do better than your parents — that’s just not on anymore. And that’s one of the driving forces in the rise of this populism you see.”
David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, disagrees. His firm has found that young voters are overwhelmingly choosing the Liberals and New Democrats, leaving the Tories with just 22 per cent support.
As of Abacus’ last survey, however, young voters hadn’t firmly chosen between the Grits and the NDP. “They’re not picking the Tories, but they’re not helping propel either of the alternatives that far ahead either,” Coletto says.
The more interesting element of the campaign so far, Coletto adds, is that while housing is the number-one issue for young voters, “I don’t think any of the parties are putting a lot on that issue. Maybe because there’s nothing they can really do on it.”
The one exception to that — Doug Ford’s early suggestion that the province allow housing development in the Greenbelt — was quickly shut down. But Coletto says the idea had some surprising support among young voters.
“Across the board, every group across the province was opposed to development. But what was interesting is that younger Ontarians were more likely to favour it. Not a majority, not clear support, but there was an inherent emotional reaction, asking, ‘Is it going to make housing cheaper?’”
There’s plenty of reason not to read too much into opinion surveys: there are major discrepancies between the various polls — and even if there weren’t, the sample sizes of young voters are small enough to be viewed with skepticism.
“We also have to treat the millennial vote with care, in terms of whether or not it will turn out,” Graves says. “The vast majority don’t even bother voting.”
But even though we can’t know precisely what young voters are thinking, it’s noteworthy that the parties have put substantial effort into courting them at all. In most elections, young voters are an afterthought, since the prevailing wisdom has always been that they don’t vote in the same numbers as their parents and grandparents.
Two factors have challenged that notion: One is simply demographics — there are now more millennials out there than baby boomers. The other is the 2015 federal election, in which young voters are believed to have sealed the Liberal majority.
Young voters have delivered surprises elsewhere in recent years — both Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. had more electoral success than political analysts expected. But so far, Coletto says, there are no signs of a “youthquake” coming to Ontario. Still, he says the fact that pollsters are even looking at the youth vote is a sign of how much things have changed.
“Four years ago, nobody would have been talking about it, because there was simply the assumption they won’t vote. And there’s a good chance they still won’t,” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t think you can’t take it for granted anymore.”
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