Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research.
The distance of two sword lengths, which is supposed to separate the government from the opposition, was no impediment to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossing the floor to "engage" the opposition directly the other day.
Although this is surely fodder for the opposition parties, the polling suggests that it usually takes more than one incident to shake the trend line. The incident, however, brings into focus an examination of what type of strength the Liberals truly have.
In politics, you can count on a number of things. First, that winners think that they are brilliant and second that they believe their victory is a warm embrace of all campaign promises. Most of the time, both of these assertions are unfounded. Elections are more likely about defeated politicians being rejected and the promises of the winners merely passing the "smell test" of general acceptability.
This is where the polling on the current federal political environment can create a false sense of strength for the ruling Liberals. Are the Liberals more popular than the Conservatives, New Democrats, Greens or Bloc Québécois today? For sure. Are they a political bulldozer with the massive advantage? Not necessarily. For this reason, the Liberals should be cautious and remain grounded in the reality of the situation as opposed to just the numbers.
First, asked whom Canadians would prefer as Prime Minister in the Nanos weekly tracking, Trudeau has enjoyed at least a 30-point advantage at any given time in the first six months of the mandate. Although the opposition front benches in the House of Commons are full, in the minds of Canadians they are not.
Both major federal parties, the Conservatives and the New Democrats, are led by interim leaders. Just being the interim leader of a party is probably enough for some Canadians to press the political mute button. Why invest in getting to know an interim leader when they will be replaced by their party with another? In that respect, although it is clear that Prime Minister Trudeau is popular, the true magnitude of that popularity is likely exaggerated by the fact that there is no clear counterpoint to him.
Second, research for The Globe and Mail and CTV News by Nanos suggested that the election was about change, with about two of three Canadians going out on election day looking for a change from the Harper government. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of those change voters were swingers between the Liberals and New Democrats.
This suggests that the strength of support for Prime Minister Trudeau was a combination of his consistent and error-free performance during the campaign. Over time, his campaign became the one political option that could be the instrument of political change. In effect, Justin Trudeau's positive sunny ways made him the federal political leader most unlike Stephen Harper. The "I'm not Harper" strategy can only be used once. That political hand has been played (quite well by the Liberals) but that is not a path to re-election in 2019.
Third, on a range of issues, whether it be the Syrian refugee crisis or infrastructure deficits, the research suggests that Canadians approve of the direction of the Trudeau Liberal government and are comfortable with them delivering on these promises.
Whether the deficit is too high or Syrian refugees were brought into Canada too slowly is more in the purview of the inside politics of the Capital than of the day-to-day politics of Canadians. They still tend to focus on issues closer to their daily lives such as, "Do I have a job?" or "Can my mother get her hip replaced?" The trick is not to confuse the new direction Canadians want in their government with a dogmatic implementation of the Liberal platform as policy gospel.
On those fronts, the polling on the political mood suggests that Canadians are satisfied with their Prime Minister, the change in government, the change in tone and direction. However, the magnitude of the current Liberal advantage is likely overstated and will continue to be overstated until the opposition parties have an interesting and compelling alternative to the Liberals or until the Liberals make unforced political errors.
One could argue that the incident in the House was an unforced error. The quick apology is a good first response if the Liberals want to ensure that they themselves do not sow the seeds for a less sunny trend line.