For Trudeau, a Struggle to Attract Young Voters


Dan Bilefsky and Ian Austen

c.2019 The New York Times Company


MONTREAL — Four years ago Emmanuel Amoussa, a chemistry student, voted for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, drawn by what he saw as a young progressive leader whose policies on climate change and immigration resonated with him and other members of his generation.

“In the last election Justin Trudeau seemed like a real change, but he has let me down,” Amoussa said this week during a lunch break from classes.

Trudeau swept to power in 2015, in part thanks to enthusiastic support from young people. But analysts said he could lose the election this time around if disenchanted young voters like Amoussa stay at home on Election Day, or split the vote by turning to another left-leaning party like the Greens or the New Democratic Party.

As the Oct. 21 election approaches, significant numbers of those voters appear to have already abandoned him. Polling data from this week shows that about 28% of voters  under 35 years of age support Trudeau’s Liberals, according to Léger, a leading polling company in Montreal, compared with 37% on the eve of the 2015 election.

The drop in youth support is particularly important because the Liberals and the Conservative Party are running neck-and-neck. Even a small shift could decide the election, said Jean-Marc Léger, chief executive of Léger.

“Losing the youth vote is a serious threat against Mr. Trudeau,” Léger said.

Anna Gainey, the former president of the Liberal Party and a major architect of Trudeau’s political rise, said attracting young voters was inevitably harder now because Trudeau, a fresh face in 2015, was an incumbent.

“If they don’t show up things can change very quickly,” she said, noting that voters under 35 had surpassed baby boomers to constitute the largest bloc of voters.

In 2015, Trudeau presented himself as someone who wouldn’t do politics as usual. He attracted millennials by, among other things, promising to legalize recreational marijuana, which he did.

A prime minister ideally suited to Instagram, where he has more than 3 million followers, Trudeau’s penchant for wearing funky socks, doing gravity-defying yoga poses and taking selfies also endeared him to many younger voters.

But at 47, he is no longer the youngest contender. Both his rivals — the Conservative Party leader, Andrew Scheer, and the leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh — are 40.

And a string of controversies this year has taken a toll.

Earlier in the year, Trudeau’s former justice minister and attorney general, who is an indigenous woman, accused him and his mostly male aides of bullying her on how to handle a criminal case against a major Canadian corporation.

The months of saturation news coverage left many voters feeling that he and his aides had ganged up on her. Women, in particular, said they were disappointed with him.

He also alienated some young voters with his decision to use 4.5 billion Canadian dollars in government money, or $3.4 billion, to buy a pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific.

In a reflection of how important environmental issues are to young Canadians, hundreds of thousands of people — many of them under 35 — took to the streets across the country Friday to show their support for the fight against global warming. In Montreal, Trudeau said that if the Liberals were reelected, his government would plant 2 billion trees to fight climate change.

But as he marched with the crowd, a group of nearby young protesters chanted: “What about the pipeline? What about the pipeline?”

Earlier last week, Trudeau’s campaign was upended by revelations that he had dressed in blackface and brownface on several occasions in his past.

Amoussa, the chemistry student, said the pipeline purchase had already altered his perception of Trudeau. He had emigrated to Montreal from the Ivory Coast when he was 9, and said he respected Trudeau’s open approach to immigration. But his concerns about climate change had pushed him to abandon the Liberals.

Seeing the photographs of Trudeau wearing brownface makeup and a turban at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party had also had an impact.

“We all do stupid things when we are young, and people can do racist things without being a racist,” Amoussa added. “But it did influence me a little.”

Trudeau is an energetic campaigner and appears to be trying to appeal to young voters with proposals to make it easier to buy a house and to cut cellphone bills by 25%. His campaign is also promoting his plan for a national carbon tax and his commitment to ambitious international targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately, the election results will hinge on voters in Quebec and Ontario, Canada’s most populous provinces, where many young people and immigrants have long gravitated toward the Liberals. Matthew Bator, 18, an aviation technology student at Seneca College in Toronto, is one of the young voters the liberals need to woo.

But turned off by what he sees as the Conservatives’ lack of support for student aid and repelled by the blackface episode, he said he wouldn’t be casting a ballot. “None of the candidates are really viable,” he said while rushing to an 8 a.m. math class.

Audrey Yen-Suin, 23, a political science student at the University of Toronto, voted for the Liberals in the last election, primarily because of her support for cannabis legalization. Now, she said, she was drawn to the New Democratic Party.

Trudeau is “too much of a politician who doesn’t really have a heart behind what he’s saying,” she said.

But in Montreal, Loraina Martel, a paramedic, 21 said she would be voting for Trudeau because of his commitment to gender equality, including a Cabinet that was nearly 50% women.

“Justin Trudeau is the least worst option,” she said.