On a day when the New Democrats are riding high in national public-opinion polls, a new survey suggests that NDP Leader Jack Layton is entrenching himself as a viable leader in the minds of Canadians.
The survey of 400 Canadians conducted Sunday by Nanos Research as part of a daily rolling poll suggests voters' appreciation for Mr. Layton's leadership skills rose slightly from the day before to 58.1 on the polling company's index.
At the same time, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's numbers took a dive from 51.9 to 40.5.
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper remained significantly ahead of all of the other leaders, at 95.9. But incumbent prime ministers have an advantage in this type of poll because Canadians have had the opportunity to observe them in office and can envision them as a leader.
"Basically, since April 10, Jack Layton has been in second place every single day" on the index that measures Canadians' perceptions of the leaders' trustworthiness, competence and their vision for Canada, Mr. Nanos said. "Yesterday, he had an 18-point advantage over Michael Ignatieff. It's hard to make up."
In order for Mr. Ignatieff to make gains at this point of the campaign, Mr. Harper or Mr. Layton, or both of them, would have to make a major error by saying something that turns Canadians off, Mr. Nanos said. If that happens, "he has a shot at picking up those loose voters."
When the leadership survey is compared with the election horserace, it is clear that Mr. Layton is ahead of his party in terms of strength and Mr. Ignatieff is trailing the Liberals, Mr. Nanos said. Meanwhile, "Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are at about the same level in terms of their political oomph."
Mr. Layton scores high in the trust category, something he has earned by being the only federalist leader who leads a party that has not dealt with any kind of trust issues, the pollster said.
The new survey also suggests that health care continues to outpace jobs and the economy as the most important national issue of concern to voters.
If the economic issues increase in importance in the last week of the campaign, that will work well for Mr. Harper, Mr. Nanos said. But, if health care remains on top, he said, it will work to the advantage of the Liberals and the NDP - and the race could narrow.
A survey of this size is expected to reflect the broad opinion of Canadian voters within 5 percentage points, 19 times in 20.
A Nanos poll released earlier Monday suggests the NDP has the support of 17.4 per cent of decided voters. They have been hovering between 17 per cent and 19 per cent for several days - within that poll's margin of error, 3.1 percentage points.
The Nanos poll still had the NDP trailing the Liberals, but the New Democrats have increased their support from a week ago when they were down near 13 per cent. Other polls have them tied with Mr. Ignatieff's party.
Because of the potential for vote splitting, a jump in NDP support could actually increase the possibility of a Conservative majority.But it depends on the province," Mr. Nanos said.
"Ontario is the one province that the vote-splitting effect is the most dramatic because there are three options. In many cases, it's a two-and-a-half way race," he said. "So when the NDP go up in Ontario, that's actually really good news for the Conservatives, because it splits the vote in a lot of key ridings."
But, if the NDP go up in British Columbia, that's bad for the Conservatives because it means there is likely to be a tight race in the interior of British Columbia between the Tories and the NDP, he said.
And in Quebec, vote splitting between the New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois could benefit the other two parties depending on the riding that they're in, Mr. Nanos said. "It's not the national number; it's where that NDP support is going up that's the critical one to watch."