Ask Canadians what they think of when they hear the words Conservative Party and many say Stephen Harper. Ask the same question about New Democrats and you get a corresponding response, Jack Layton. But the bond between party and leader does not hold true for Michael Ignatieff, indicating Liberals still have work to do in repairing their brand.
The top-of-mind findings by Ottawa-based public opinion firm Abacus Data Inc. offer a glimpse at the challenges facing all parties with a possible election looming. The Liberals still have leadership issues and have been unable to recapture trust lost during the sponsorship scandal, the Conservatives are heavily associated with a leader who is far from universally popular and the NDP conjures images of socialists, unions and unrealistic policies.
Of the three, the survey suggests that the Liberals have the furthest to go.
"What it tells you is that the Conservative brand is linked to Stephen Harper and Jack Layton is the NDP brand. Whereas, with [Liberal Leader]Michael Ignatieff, it's not as strong," Abacus chief executive officer David Coletto said in a telephone interview Monday.
"What stands out is the fact that Canadians see the Liberal Party as lacking strong leadership."
Abacus, a new pollster affiliated with government-relations firm Summa Strategies Inc., which has a roster of prominent Liberals and Conservatives on staff, conducted the survey between Dec. 3 and Dec. 6 last year. The firm asked 1,361 adults randomly selected from an online panel of more than 100,000 Canadians for their first impressions of the three parties.
The words and phrases that came to mind were then entered into an online program to create word clouds in which the words that were mentioned more frequently appear larger than others.
The fact that the words "corruption" and "liars" are as heavily associated with the Liberals as Mr. Ignatieff's name means the party's problems predate him, Mr. Coletto said.
"But, for the party as a whole, I wouldn't have any grand illusions that they can somehow turn things around and win an election," he said. "Because, what it says is that, deep down, Canadians are not quite comfortable yet with giving the Liberal Party another chance."
Liberal MP Scott Brison disagrees with that analysis.
It's not surprising that Mr. Harper would spring to mind when Canadians are asked for their impressions of the Conservative Party because the Prime Minister operates a one-man show, Mr. Brison said.
Unlike Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton, Mr. Ignatieff has not had the advantage of running as a party leader during a general election campaign, Mr. Brison said. "It is national general election campaigns, more than any other single event, that help shape a leader's image."
Mr. Ignatieff will campaign well, debate well and impress Canadians in the next campaign, Mr. Brison said.
Nelson Wiseman, who teaches politics at the University of Toronto, dismisses the Abacus findings for another reason.
Word clouds can be useful when they are obtained from budget speeches or Speeches from the Throne because they tell you what terms the government wanted to implant in people's minds, said Dr. Wiseman.
But top-of-mind responses from ordinary Canadians do not work in the same way, he said. "Often the first thing that comes to mind is whatever is rolling around in the media that day."
What the word clouds say:
The good news for the Conservative Party is that many Canadians associate it with the economic recovery and low taxes, Mr. Coletto said. In fact, the Conservative Party was the only one of the three federal parties to bring a set of policies to mind, he said. The name of Stephen Harper was the first thing to spring from most people's lips when asked for their impression of the Conservatives. But Mr. Harper is both a positive and a negative to the party, Mr. Coletto said. "I think there are a lot of Canadians who may consider voting Conservative if Stephen Harper wasn't the leader."
"Canadians seem to still identify the Liberal Party by its past wrongs, perhaps as a result of a lack of direction, internal division and weaker leadership over the past few years," Mr. Coletto said. Although the word "leadership" was often mentioned in relation to the Liberals, it was usually paired with words such as "weak" or "disorganized" or "confused," he said. Basically, Mr. Coletto said, "Canadians see a leadership vacuum in the Liberal Party. They don't have much confidence in Ignatieff and I think that's what's showing up here." Liberal MP Scott Brison said Canadians will get to know his leader in the next election campaign.
New Democratic Party
When somebody says NDP, many Canadians think of Jack Layton. The party name also elicits positive responses such as the words "good" and "honest" and "people." That's no accident, said Brad Lavigne, the party's national director. "Without question, in the past seven years we have been branding the party as one that has good leadership under Jack Layton," Mr. Lavigne said. But the Abacus poll suggests there are still a number of Canadians who are more likely to think about the party's socialist roots than the leader's performance. And, said Mr. Coletto, even though Mr. Layton is well regarded, only one in five Canadians polled by his company in December said they would vote for the NDP.