ELECTION OVERVIEW: COVID protests now defining election issue 44

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The ‘protesters’ issue attracted over a million social media posts in just 24 hours

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For the remainder of Election 44, the National Post will share insights from Polly, an artificial intelligence engine developed at the University of Ottawa that was the only pollster to correctly predict the results of the 2019 election. In classic polls, Polly gauges public opinion through constant computer analysis of social media posts: If you’ve ever posted something political on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you’re probably part of the Polly. Today, a look at how protests against COVID-19 measures suddenly became the campaign’s most discussed issue.

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When Election 44 kicked off, Afghanistan was the most discussed issue among the thousands of Canadian social media users followed by Polly.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau called the federal election hours after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Thanks in part to the federal government’s distraction from the campaign, Canada’s efforts to evacuate its former Afghan allies were belated, mismanaged, and ultimately saw thousands of eligible asylum seekers abandoned to the Taliban.

It was the Afghanistan issue, more than any other, that deprived Trudeau of the expected majority and led to a surprise increase in Conservative support. According to Polly’s analysis, during the first two weeks of the 44 election, Afghanistan was the problem most likely to push voters towards conservatives.

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Today, less than a week before election day, the tables have turned. Afghanistan has all but disappeared from the headlines, and Canadian social media has instead focused on the nationwide wave of protests targeting COVID-19 restrictions.

On Monday – the day the Canadian Frontline Nurses group staged protests against COVID-19 outside hospitals in 10 provinces – the “protesters” issue drew more than a million social media posts in just 24 hours.

For context, although Election 44 was largely defined by the cost of living, the question of “the economy” has never been able to attract more than 350,000 jobs in a single day.

“People are furious. This (the protests) is the biggest problem with last week’s election, ”said Erin Kelly, CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc., the company that manages Polly.

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The sight of angry protesters protesting against COVID-19 measures initially benefited the Liberals. From the end of August, many Trudeau campaign events in Ontario began to be inundated with angry crowds who in one case caused an event to be canceled due to security concerns. Then, on September 7, Trudeau was hit by a handful of gravel during a campaign stop in London, Ont.

For a while, “protesters” were identified by Polly as one of the main issues pushing voters towards the Liberals. But that initial aura seems to have faded.

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While Canadians were angry at Monday’s hospital protests, it didn’t necessarily push them into the arms of one party or another. As Trudeau tried to capitalize on public anger by announcing new laws against protests that block access to hospitals, “protesters” are no longer even among the top five issues behind Liberal votes (“child care centers ‘And’ climate crisis’ clearly remain in the lead).

Likewise, Polly’s analysis shows that the protests are not hurting Conservatives like they once did. If a Canadian gives up his plan to vote for the Conservatives, he is almost 10 times more likely to do so because of an “abortion” than “protesters”.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has denounced protests outside hospitals and attacked some of the protests against Trudeau as acts of “political violence.” On the issue of vaccination warrants, the Conservatives have essentially the same policy as the Liberals: mandatory vaccines for government officials and travelers, with rapid tests for those who cannot show a vaccination card.

Yet, protest or not, something dramatic has happened in recent days to ward off Conservative votes.

In just 24 hours – Monday through Tuesday – Polly’s seat projection for the Tories has dropped by 15, once again putting the Liberals in contention for re-election.

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