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Liberal push to make election a referendum on pandemic only partly successful

The typical voter malaise that accompanies any early election call has not evaporated in this campaign

The federal election campaign entered its final hours on Sunday with party leaders making last-minute appeals in whirlwind tours of swing ridings, all while still trying to convince voters to buy into their version of what this vote is all about.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who is hopping around seven ridings in the metro Vancouver region, and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who is spending his final campaign day in the Greater Toronto Area, both want this vote to be a referendum on the leadership of their chief rival, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau, following a punishing cross-country Sunday schedule with in-person and virtual events in every province but Saskatchewan, wants it to be about who Canadians trust the most to lead them out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jack Jedwab, president of the Association of Canadian Studies, said the election has not been as much about the pandemic response as Trudeau likely had hoped.

“Ideally for the Liberal standpoint, what should have been the key determining issue in the election is ‘are you satisfied with their handling of COVID,” Jedwab said in an interview. “The objective would have been to try to align the satisfaction rates with voter choices, but that isn’t what happened.”

Instead, he said, the pandemic became just one of five or six issues voters are considering when deciding how to cast their ballots, including child care, the environment, Afghanistan and guns.

A new poll for Jedwab’s organization, conducted by Leger, found while 60 per cent of respondents are satisfied with how the federal government handled the pandemic, just 40 per cent are letting that opinion influence their vote. Jedwab said that’s down from 48 per cent who said at the end of August that the pandemic response was affecting their choice.

The most recent poll was conducted for the association between Sept. 10 and 12, but can’t be assigned a margin of error because online polls aren’t considered random samples.

The typical voter malaise that accompanies any early election call has not evaporated in this campaign, a fact O’Toole references multiple times in every speech, when he talks about an “unnecessary $600 million election in the middle of a pandemic.”

COVID-19 has come back to the fore in the campaign’s final days, particularly as the fourth wave in Alberta forced that province to resurrect health measures like public masking and introduce a vaccine passport system that Premier Jason Kenney had promised would never come to be.

The Leger poll suggests people in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and British Columbia are overwhelmingly happy with how their provinces managed the pandemic. But in Ontario and the prairies, where all governments are conservative, enthusiasm for the provincial response is barely tepid.

In Alberta, for instance, only 28 per cent said they were satisfied with the province’s handling of the pandemic compared with 48 per cent who said they were content with the federal response. Trudeau has worked hard to tie O’Toole to the conservative premiers in those provinces.

Jedwab said the Kenney factor could swing some seats in Calgary and Edmonton towards the Liberals, but will likely hurt the Conservatives most in Ontario and British Columbia.

Vaccine passports, a subject Trudeau has pushed hard throughout the campaign, became a rock-and-hard place issue for O’Toole, said Jedwab. He noted that while a large majority of Canadians like the idea of them, a sizable chunk of O”Toole’s base does not.

Trying to lure in soft Liberal voters from the left, without losing the anti-vaccine-passport, anti-mask cohort to the People’s Party of Canada on the right, has made O’Toole’s path to power much more challenging.

The PPC and leader Maxime Bernier secured less than two per cent support during the 2019 federal election, but most national polls currently have them in the range of five to eight per cent. It’s not enough to win a lot of seats — though Bernier has a fighting chance to win his riding near Quebec City — but it’s possibly enough to spoil Conservative chances in close ridings in southern Ontario in particular.

Polls open at 9:30 a.m. Monday, and in normal times the results would be all but guaranteed before the clock strikes midnight, But these are not normal times. Elections Canada warned Sunday there are nearly a million special ballots to be tallied and it might be four days before they’re all counted.

Elections Canada spokeswoman Natasha Gauthier said in an email Sunday that officials will start counting special ballots on Tuesday morning. They need a two-step verification process to ensure people haven’t also voted in person, and Gauthier said in most cases the counting will be done Wednesday, but it’s possible it could take up to four days “due to high volumes or logistical challenges.”

READ MORE: Leaders make get-out-the-vote plea for Monday as campaign hits final days

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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