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Pollster Nik Nanos (Couvrette Photography)
Pollster Nik Nanos (Couvrette Photography)

Q&A

Gauging the Harper-Ignatieff horse race, two weeks in Add to ...

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper finished the second week of the federal election with a single-digit edge on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.

Nationally, Conservative support stood at 39.5 per cent as of Saturday, about 8 per cent above the Liberals' 31.6 per cent, according to a three-day tracking poll completed by Nanos research for CTV and The Globe and Mail. The New Democrats' slide appears to have come to an end, with support for the NDP at 14.7 per cent. The Bloc and the Greens polled 8.1-per-cent and 4.8-per-cent support, respectively.

The Liberals and the Conservatives, whose numbers have remained reasonably flat throughout the campaign so far, will be looking for a breakthrough this week as the leaders square off in the highly anticipated televised debates - which will feature brief mano-a-mano showdowns that have the potential to shift the tides of public opinion.

On Monday, pollster Nik Nanos joined The Globe to take reader questions on the progress of the federal election campaign.

[From Chris George] What do you believe is the primary reason for the lack of movement in the numbers for the Conservatives and Liberals? Is it that the majority of Canadians' views of the Parties have galvanized through the past 2-3 years of constant campaigning and political rhetoric in Ottawa? Or is it the thought that "the man on the street" is dis-engaged and the campaigning is not registering with the public?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] A number of things are at play. First, the hyper negativity on all sides has likely turned off voters. A bit of "a pox on all their houses". Also, our polling indicates that this is an unwelcome election which means that people will turn their minds to it when they have to. The leaders have generally been error free. For the numbers to move a mistake has to be closely associated with the leader. The debates will be a critical juncture. Overall, grumpiness, agitation and malaise.

[From Ken] Polling is a tool in used, it seems, increasingly in our politics. Presumably the tool is used to fill some need. What is the need and, from the point of view of a robust democracy, is polling the best tool for the job?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] I think polling plays an important grounding mechanism, especially now that we are in the world of Web 2.0 and 3.0 democracy where Canadians can share their views and ideas in the public. Polling helps contextualize the voices. Is it perfect - no - can good research add to a robust democracy - absolutely. Usually a no-polling environment is indicative of a weak democracy.

[From Tim] Do you think this new G8 business ("Tories Misled Parliament - Sheila Fraser) is going to move the numbers?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] I think it adds to a narrative that benefits the opposition parties. Although the government was defeated on contempt of parliament motion, Harper effectively changed the channel to coalition talk and then the parties rolled out their platforms - which moved attention further from ethics. I expect in the debate that ethics will be a key topic of interest for many and it will be interesting to see how Harper handles that.

[From Shane H.] Can one predict on past trends the fortunes of the smaller parties in the coming few weeks? Could there be a major shift from the Greens and NDP voters to strategically vote Liberal? Or the opposite, where these parties gain momentum, dividing the centre-left vote and giving Harper his majority?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] A tough but great question. I expect who wins and by how much will be determined by vote shifts in the last two weeks. The Conservatives need the opposition divided to yield more seats while the Liberals need to consolidate the anti-Harper universe (if there is such a thing) under the Liberal banner. Regions come into play. In my experience strategic voting occurs more in Ontario because the main parties are the Tories, Grits and NDP and there are different variations in other parts of the country.

[From Guest] Do you think that there's anything that Mr. Layton could do that would get his numbers back up?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] His Leadership Index scores are comparable to Ignatieff so he needs to continue to assert the strength of his leadership. Also, if the threat of a majority looms he could get squeezed in a polarization effect, if the Tory numbers dropped to the low 30s then I would expect NDP support to go up as people could vote as they chose - not concerned about a particular outcome they didn't like.

[From Alan Hall] A few of your polling figures - particularly the NDP numbers in Ontario and BC - vary considerably from the results released by other pollsters. What steps do you take to double-check your procedures when this occurs?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] Many times the polling is not comparable because we are doing a very structured approach in terms of equal weight to each day of the campaign, which is necessary for nightly rolling average polls but not necessary for traditional polls where you can have more responses on a particular night. I find that the nightly tracking self adjusts itself as one night which might be dramatic works it way through and is eventually dropped. Part of our double checking however relates to the testing to makes sure that the sample is representative.

[From Mark]/b>: Assuming no meltdown by Harper, what's the biggest jump in support that you expect Ignatieff could expect from a strong debate performance?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] Good point. Check out this link which shows the leadership index last time. After the English debate Dion registered a significant spike in the index score.

[From Darryl] If there is one policy that is being ignored by the three mainstream policies that could move the numbers, what is it?

[From Nik Nanos (The Pollster)] Our tracking shows that healthcare and jobs/the economy are the top unprompted issues of concern. My sense is that many of the parties are cautious about healthcare transformation because they associate dollar signs with it. However, healthcare touches the day to day lives of Canadians and can move the numbers as can economic issues because they effect the pocketbook of voters. Both of those issues can move the numbers - either doing a good job or doing a poor job.

Final words on the upcoming debate from Nik Nanos: I think it is going to be a political pressure cooker. For Harper he has to "get through it" without making a major mistake since it will be a pile on - he also needs a down pat answer on the ethics front. For Ignatieff he has to do better than Layton to help possibly move the Liberal numbers and Layton has to deal with both the other leaders. The other one to watch is Duceppe - his numbers are sliding and I expect him to be more feisty than usual. This is the first important juncture in the campaign in my opinion.

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