‘Elitist,’ ‘relatable’ and ‘who?’ Swing riding voters have their say on 3 Manitoba political leaders

A group of voters from Winnipeg swing ridings didn’t mince words when describing the leaders of three parties vying for their approval in a provincial election campaign that officially starts Tuesday.

They called them “elitist,” “out-of-touch” and “inexperienced” — but also “relatable,” “intelligent,” and, in one case, “who?”

It’s people like those voters, living in a dozen or so swing ridings, who will likely decide the outcome of an Oct. 3 election that increasingly looks like a toss-up between the governing Progressive Conservatives and the Opposition NDP, who would have to claim most of those swing seats in order to form government.

The PCs ended the last legislature session with 35 of the 57 seats in the Manitoba Legislature. The NDP had 18 representatives and the Liberals had three. One seat was vacant.

To get a sense of voters’ opinions this time around, Probe Research, in collaboration with CBC Manitoba, put together a focus group with likely voters from Winnipeg’s swing ridings. The polling company identified potential participants from its panel and then randomly selected eight people to ensure a mix of people reasonably representative of Manitoba’s demographics.

The 90-minute discussion, which took place Aug. 29 at The Forks in Winnipeg, was designed to help understand which issues matter most to voters and how the campaign is shaping up. It was moderated by Mary Agnes Welch from Probe Research, and filmed by CBC staff.

By and large, the focus group participants panned Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson and complimented NDP Leader Wab Kinew, though some expressed hesitations.

Participants commended Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont — if they knew who he is at all.

WATCH | Focus group participants have their say on party leaders:

Voters from Winnipeg swing ridings have their say on Manitoba’s political party leaders

4 hours ago

Duration 7:27

Focus group participants, who live in swing ridings in Winnipeg, offer their perspectives on Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson, NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, at a discussion moderated and organized by Probe Research, in collaboration with CBC Manitoba.

While many focus group participants leaned toward the NDP, which tracks comparably to recent polling numbers in Winnipeg, every one of them had negative perceptions of Heather Stefanson, the Tory leader who has been premier since 2021.

When asked to write down three words to describe Stefanson, none offered a positive attribute, even when pressed by the moderator. 

“I wrote ‘entitled, elitist and distrustful,'” said Patrick Armstrong, 50.

“I feel like she doesn’t represent me and my family, and part of that is intertwined with the party she’s involved with,” Armstrong said. “She just doesn’t come across as being in touch with my concerns and issues.”

Armstrong is from Fort Richmond, a riding the Tories have held since 2016. It’s one of the south Winnipeg seats the NDP is targeting.

The PCs are in for a tough fight after MLA Sarah Guillemard announced she is stepping away from politics, while the NDP made a play for voters with the election promise they would make reopen the emergency room at the riding’s Victoria General Hospital.

A woman in a blue blazer speaks with two men
Progressive Conservative leader Heather Stefanson, left, has yet to endear herself to the eight swing riding voters gathered as part of a focus group. (Ian Froese/CBC )

The focus group participants also considered Stefanson to be out-of-touch and out of her depth. There was strong recollection of her boasting about her son’s hockey championship when asked in question period in May 2022 about the death of a COVID-19 patient after a failed airlift. She later apologized, saying her remark was “misplaced.” 

“That to me is a complete disconnect, not only in terms of your role and your issues of the moment, but in terms of what’s really important,” said Jeff Harty, a 59-year-old voter from Kirkfield Park, a usual Tory stronghold where the PCs barely eked out a victory in a late 2022 byelection.

But “I have to be fair, that was a moment, and I’m pretty sure she’s learned from that,” he said.

Valentina Timofeieve, a 37-year-old voter in Rossmere, said she’s found Stefanson “bland and mediocre.”

“I just found that she didn’t have charisma.” 

Rossmere is one of the north Winnipeg ridings the PCs won in the 2019 election by under 1,000 votes. Tight races are expected again in 2023.

A man in a green polo shirt.
Remi Dupont, 37, said he finds NDP leader Wab Kinew to be a politician who speaks for all people, rather than being self-serving. (CBC)

When asked to describe Kinew, focus group participants had more favourable impressions.

Remi Dupon, 37, a Southdale voter, wrote down “charisma, passionate and for the people” to describe Kinew.

His riding is represented by a prominent Tory cabinet minister, Health Minister Audrey Gordon. It’s one of the south Winnipeg seats critical to an NDP path to victory.

Many focus group participants were aware of Kinew’s troubled past, which includes convictions for impaired driving and assaulting a cab driver — offences for which he’s received pardons — as well as a domestic violence allegation he’s denied, but they didn’t consider it a deal breaker.

“From what I can see, he has done the work to move past those issues in the past,” said Robyn Turner, 31, a Fort Richmond resident.

A man pours paint from a bottle onto a table. Some kids and a woman are working on arts and crafts around the table
Wab Kinew, centre, garnered favourable impressions from most of the focus group participants, but some people raised concerns about his readiness for office. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Another voter, Alyssa Campbell, considers Kinew gracious and, as premier, believes he could possess a unique perspective because of his past missteps.

“Hopefully that means that he will deal with issues in a new way that maybe will have a better impact on our community,” said the 26-year-old from Southdale.

Doubts over Kinew’s experience

Some in the focus group questioned whether Kinew is up for the job of premier, though.

“I’ll be frank, I mean Wab Kinew is an untested, untried neophyte in terms of a politician,” Harty said. “Great broadcaster, excellent author, but doesn’t have the pedigree in terms of political background.”

The focus group participants were largely familiar with the two leaders and the parties they represent. The other MLAs, even if they could name them, didn’t factor into their voting intentions in a major way.

This doesn’t surprise Christopher Adams, an adjunct professor in political studies at the University of Manitoba.

“There’s a tendency in elections that people focus on the leader,” he said. It’s “on the tails of the leader those seats move.”

A man holding papers with another man gripping his arm and shoulder while smiling.
Focus group members generally spoke highly of Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, centre, if they even knew who he is. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Half of the people in the focus group had no knowledge of Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.

Those who were aware of Lamont applauded his grasp of the issues.

“Dougald Lamont is someone who is very articulate … and very practical in his policies,” said Aidan Prenovault, 26, from Lagimodiere — a south Winnipeg riding the PCs won handily in 2019, but which could be closer if suburban voters decide to back the NDP en masse.

“But the NDP have eaten the Liberals’ lunch for decades in terms of policy and the Liberals have just become so indistinguishable in Manitoba politics, which is unfortunate,” said Prenovault.

Entering the election campaign, Adams said the Tories and NDP can each count on sure-bet seats. For the Tories, it’s the more affluent areas of Winnipeg and large swaths of rural southern Manitoba, while the New Democrats traditionally have the backing of Winnipeg’s core and North End, as well as northern Manitoba.

The Liberals have pockets of support they’ve traditionally retained — the Winnipeg seats of River Heights and Tyndall Park.

WATCH | Swing riding voters on the issues that matter most to them:

Health-care, cost of living, crime top issues for swing riding focus group

4 hours ago

Duration 3:09

Focus group participants, who live in swing ridings in Winnipeg, explain the top issue deciding their vote in the upcoming Manitoba election. The discussion was moderated and organized by Probe Research, in collaboration with CBC Manitoba.

While other surprises are possible, this leaves some 12-15 seats up for grabs, some more vulnerable to a steal than others. 

A number of them are Tory-held and in south Winnipeg, specifically Riel — represented by Families Minister Rochelle Squires — along with Southdale, Fort Richmond and Seine River.

The NDP are targeting the north Winnipeg ridings of McPhillips, Radisson and Rossmere for flips.

Byelections in the last year proved the Tories are susceptible in some traditionally safe seats, including Kirkfield Park and Fort Whyte. In those contests, a star PC candidate (former Winnipeg city councillor Kevin Klein and former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Obby Khan, respectively) narrowly beat their challengers. This election will feature rematches.

The NDP has put the resources into stealing St. Boniface, which Lamont has represented since a 2018 byelection. Before then, it was the longtime seat of the NDP’s Greg Selinger, who served as premier from 2009 to 2016.

Outside the city, the Tories picked up Selkirk, Dauphin and Brandon East when it was ushered into power in 2016. The NDP considers those seats ripe for the taking.

It’s these swing ridings where the old adage that every vote matters rings true — an experience Robyn Turner, 31, who moved to Fort Richmond two years ago, is getting used to.

“Before that, I had always been voting in Steinbach, where my vote meant absolutely nothing,” referring to the landslide Tory victories commonplace in that seat.

“It’s nice to know that my vote will be more than a protest vote this time.”

For full election coverage, visit CBC’s 2023 Manitoba election page.