With a cabinet shuffle at hand, what challenges do Stephen Harper’s Conservatives face?
The most important is not that the party has slipped perceptibly in voting intentions, for these can recover in due course. It’s that the number of people who would consider voting Conservative has fallen swiftly and dramatically.
Nanos, the polling firm, asks people whether they would consider voting for parties. Last November, it found that only a minority of Canadians in every region would not consider voting Conservative. That didn’t mean the remainder intended to actually vote Conservative, just that they could imagine themselves voting for the party.
This kind of result – a big gap between actual voting intentions and the possibility of people voting for a party – gives a party hope that with the right approach, it can widen its base of supporters.
From June 16 to June 19, however, Nanos asked the same question of 1,000 people and received different results. In June, majorities everywhere except the Prairies and British Columbia said they would not consider voting Conservative. (And in B.C., it was a very large minority.) Nationally, the share of people who said they would not consider voting Conservative rose from 28.5 to 51.5 per cent.
Individual provincial breakdowns have large margins of error, given their small sample sizes. So province-by-province specific numbers don’t mean all that much. But longer-term trends do.
So consider these. Over the seven months from last November to this June, the share of Atlantic Canadians who said they would not consider voting Conservative jumped from 38 to 59 per cent. In Quebec, the move was from 48 to 67 per cent; in Ontario, from 38 to to 51 per cent; and in B.C., from 30 to 48 per cent.
Only on the Prairies, including the Conservative heartland of Alberta, those who replied they would not consider voting Conservative remained at about 30 per cent of respondents. Whatever was hurting the Conservatives everywhere else hadn’t permeated Prairie voters.
To repeat: Individual numbers within provinces don’t count as much as the trend lines. And beyond heartland territory, these lines are trending extremely dangerous for the Conservatives, seven years after their arrival in office.
If they have captured a national mood, a whole lot of Canadians have grown much more skeptical, even hostile, toward the Harper Conservatives in the past seven months. It will take much more than a cabinet shuffle to get people back into a mood where they might consider voting Conservative again.
Nanos doesn’t report why people answer how they do. You have to guess what lies behind the raw numbers, and guessing isn’t very interesting if the numbers don’t move much. But if public opinion moves dramatically, as seems to have happened, the question is why.
Of course, the Senate shenanigans of Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Nigel Wright damaged the Conservative brand. But these events occurred rather late in the seven-month period of decline, so something else must have been at work.
Economic growth was slower than predicted in the fall of 2012. Trade deals, much spoken of by the Harper Conservatives, have stalled. So, too, has the much-ballyhooed Keystone XL pipeline to the United States.
Perhaps the postbudget litany of stories about cutbacks in certain government programs dented the government. But these were offset, at least from a public-relations perspective, by the torrent of taxpayer-supported television advertisements touting the Conservatives’ Economic Action Plan.
Maybe time has done its work of leaving nicks and scars on the governing party. Maybe Mr. Harper’s Teutonic style and the humourless partisanship of so much of what the Conservatives do, and how they do it, has slowly gotten under the skin of voters.
The Conservatives still have 42 per cent of voters who would consider voting for them. They would need to capture almost all of these to win a majority – a highly unlikely result.