The polls have been gushing bad news for the Liberals in recent weeks. While Michael Ignatieff is quoted as saying "my popularity goes down, my popularity goes up," the evidence tells us he's only half right. The number of people with a good feeling about him is dwindling; those with a negative view becoming more numerous.
According to the Harris Decima trends, about half of the people who liked Mr. Ignatieff last year at this time no longer feel that way. His negatives have climbed 22 points. His personal popularity is lower than that of Stephane Dion at the end of the last election campaign. This despite the optimism when he was chosen, and fully 70% of Canadians said he would be an improvement on his predecessor.
Mr. Ignatieff says the problem is that his opponents have done a number on him. While there's some truth to that, as a full explanation for the dismal state of Liberal fortunes, it ignores some other realities.
First, he's not doing much of a "number" on his opponent. It's hard to remember an instance when Mr. Ignatieff went hard into the corner with Mr. Harper, let alone one where he came out with the upper hand. There was a time when the only reliable fun of being an opposition leader was the opportunity to seize the crisis/accident of the day, and use it to whale on the government in Question Period and news interviews.
Second, Mr. Ignatieff remains largely, perhaps by design, a blank page. Those reading this piece might know he's for local food and rural broadband, and a more modest pace in reducing corporate taxes. But chances are most Canadians do not. And while these policies are usefully granular, absent a striking overall narrative, they can leave the impression of a leader with fairly modest aspirations. Once announced, these ideas seldom seem to reappear, much less form part of a compelling story of the future of Canada. He is a low-definition figure in a high-defintion era.
Mr. Ignatieff is obviously articulate, but expectations for his performance as a communicator were relatively high, and the results must be discouraging to Liberals. Many might have thought he would be a clearer, sharper, more effective advocate of his point of view that Stephen Harper. Today, it almost looks as though the high point of the PM's day is when he gets to scrap with the opposition leader.
The Liberal Party remains a brand with some important equity; and most voters want a vigorous competition and a couple of very good choices. Normally, as many as 60% are open to the idea of voting Liberal. Less than half that number say they will.
The consequences of not somehow reversing these trends could be heart-stopping for Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals. The latest Harris Decima Canadian Press numbers put them well behind on a national basis, but the more grave news is that they have fallen 10 points behind in the 905 belt around Toronto. They are also trailing in Atlantic Canada and are a poor third in BC. This summer, the Liberal leader very much has his work cut out for him.