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Pollster Nik Nanos.

The Globe and Mail

Nik Nanos is The Globe and Mail's pollster and chairman of Nanos Research.

Politics is littered with "what ifs." What if Stephen Harper had stepped down prior to the last election and the Tories fought under a different leader? What if the election was shorter and Justin Trudeau didn't have as much campaign runway to debunk the Conservative "he's not ready" attack ads?

Probably the biggest what if is likely what would have happened if Canadians turned to the progressive New Democrats instead of the progressive Liberals. Probably the most unclear path forward for any of the federal parties is for the New Democrats.

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The party was recognized as a very effective Opposition in the House of Commons to the Conservatives, with a leader whose numbers showed significant potential. Now, a look at the numbers suggests the NDP have a difficult path forward to recapture progressive voters and Canada's urban centers which they once counted as their core base of support.

The Nanos Party Power Index captures the brand strength of the parties by rolling up ballot preferences and impressions of the leaders. With a score of 45 out of a possible 100 points, the NDP have recently hit a new low since Nanos launched the Index in 2013.

In the period leading up to the election, the NDP scored higher than either the Liberals or the Conservatives. But in recent weeks the NDP have been on a downward trajectory. Currently, the Liberals stand at 65 points out of 100 and the Conservatives at 46 points. Last week was the first time in a year that the NDP did not score numerically higher than the Conservatives.

The trend on Tom Mulcair numbers is also downwards, where Nanos has now registered his lowest score on the preferred prime minister measure where he was the preferred choice of eight per cent of Canadians. This is noticeably lower than his 12-month high at the beginning of the 2015 campaign, where he was preferred by 30 per cent of Canadians. Even factoring his interim status, the trajectory for Mulcair in 2016 has not been positive.

The one positive piece of news for the New Democrats is that a significant number of Canadians (41 per cent) would still consider voting for the NDP – a proportion equivalent to the Conservatives (41 per cent) at this time.

Although the Conservative numbers are also currently flat, the reality is that they retain their base and have a clearly ideological space to occupy – to the right of the Liberals and the New Democrats.

The Liberals, however, have eaten the political lunch of the New Democrats, not only having captured the anti-Harper universe but also the progressive ideological space. Realistically, it is not enough for the NDP to renew their leader and their platform. They need the Liberals to make mistakes to recapture the progressive voters that have now swung to the Trudeau Liberals. The next election remains a long-distant event but the NDP situation makes it more difficult to recapture the hearts and minds of Canadians.

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In that respect, the NDP "what ifs" will haunt the process of renewal of Canada's once and former Loyal Opposition – the New Democrats.

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