Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are slipping back into minority territory as the New Democrats tumble in Quebec on news that Jack Layton has sidelined himself as he battles cancer, according to a new national opinion poll.
The Liberals, meanwhile, are moving up dramatically and are now statistically tied with the NDP for national support, the Globe/CTV/Nanos poll shows.
“The honeymoon is over,” says pollster Nik Nanos, referring to the Conservatives. “They are back to the old normal, which is the Conservatives ahead but not in majority territory.”
Released Sunday, the poll has the Conservatives with 36. 2 per cent support nationally compared to the NDP and Liberals with 26.8 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.
In June, however, the scenario was much different with the Tories at 41.8 per cent and still benefiting from the afterglow of the May 2nd election that saw them win their first majority government.
Mr. Nanos says this recent drop is likely a result of the Tories talking about prisons and scrapping the long-gun registry rather than the economy. Canadians, he says, tune out when the Conservatives are not on about the economy.
The international debt crisis, however, could provide the Tories with an opportunity to drive-up their numbers.
“This particular issue is going to be critical in terms of moving those numbers into majority territory,” he says, suggesting that the messaging be “tight” from the Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
Mr. Layton and the NDP were also on a high in June after gaining official opposition status on the strength of their win in Quebec where they claimed 59 of the 75 seats.
Although they were at 28 per cent nationally, they were riding high in Quebec with 40 per cent support compared to 34.2 per cent last month. The Tories are at 24.2 per cent in Quebec, virtually unchanged from their 24.3 per cent score in June. The Liberals have increased from 19.1 per cent to 22.2 per cent. The margin of error is 6.2 percentage points.
Mr. Nanos believes the new Quebec numbers are directly related to Mr. Layton and the uncertainty over his health situation.
The NDP leader had been battling prostate cancer but announced last month he was suffering from another cancer, which he has not disclosed. It has forced him to step aside temporarily.
Nycole Turmel, a rookie Quebec NDP MP, is serving as interim leader and found herself in the middle of a controversy after The Globe revealed she was a card-carrying member of the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
Mr. Nanos says Mr. Layton’s decision to step aside has put a “temporary chill on those very buoyant New Democrat numbers in Quebec.”
His view is reinforced by the poll’s leadership numbers, which show Mr. Layton is four times more trusted in Quebec than Mr. Harper - 58.7 per cent compared to 14.5 per cent.
On the Nanos Leadership Index Score, which measures a leader’s trust, competence and vision for Canada, Mr. Harper scored 88.5 compared to 86.9 for Mr. Layton.
In June, however, Mr. Layton’s score was 104.5 compared to 81.9 for Mr. Harper.
Mr. Nanos cautions that anything that puts the so-called “Jack Layton phenomenon” in Quebec at risk should be worrisome for the New Democrats.
As for the Liberals, their fortunes seem to be soaring - perhaps for the wrong reasons.
In June, the Liberals were at 22.3 per cent support nationally but have seen their support increase in every region of the country over the past month.
Their most dramatic increases have been in Atlantic Canada, where they have gone from 26.6 per cent to 33.8 per cent and in British Columbia where their fortunes have increased from 18. 3 per cent in June to 25.4 per cent in July.
Mr. Nanos attributes this to a couple of factors - unsure voters are parking in the Liberal camp with the “uncertainty of Jack Layton” and the Liberals are without a permanent leader.
Toronto Centre MP Bob Rae is serving as interim leader until the spring of 2013.
The pollster notes Liberal numbers always improve when they don’t have a permanent leader. For example, their numbers increased when Paul Martin announced his departure and again when Stephane Dion resigned.
This, says Mr. Nanos, is a result of Canadians not having a person to focus their likes or dislikes on.
The poll of 1,203 Canadians, conducted between July 25 and August 2, is accurate to within 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.