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Harper’s poll numbers have never been this low before a Throne Speech

Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at a press conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, on Oct. 8, 2013.

SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Support for Stephen Harper's Conservatives has never been as low on the day of a Throne Speech as it is today. The path the speech lays out for the government's next two years in power marks the beginning of the party's drive to regain the support of Canadians.

The Conservatives have averaged just 30.4 per cent support in polls conducted over the last 60 days, a low point for the party's tenure in office since 2006. Their numbers have hardly budged from a range of between 29 and 31 per cent since Justin Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party earlier this year. Even the polls that have shown a closer race in recent weeks are more the result of softening Liberal support than any sort of rebound or momentum on the part of the Conservatives.

In fact, the latest numbers from Nanos Research, released Wednesday, show that 33 per cent of Canadians consider Mr. Trudeau as the best person to be Prime Minister, compared to just 30 per cent for Mr. Harper. These numbers have been holding steady since at least the mid-point of the summer.

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More support in the past

This level of support compares quite poorly to where the Conservatives stood in the polls the previous six times the Prime Minister has headed to the Senate to hear the reading of a Throne Speech. The Conservatives averaged 37.3 per cent in polls taken 60 days before his first Throne Speech in April 2006, 34.3 per cent for 2007's speech, 41.1 per cent in 2009, and 32.7 per cent in 2010. In 2008 and 2011, the Speeches from the Throne followed closely after the election. The party took 37.6 and 39.6 per cent of the vote in those elections, respectively.

But not only is the proportion of Canadians saying they would vote Conservative at an all-time low, never before has a Throne Speech been read at a time when this government was not leading in the polls. The Liberals have averaged 34 per cent support in polls conducted over the last 60 days, giving them a 3.6-point lead over the Tories.

By contrast, in 2006 the leaderless Liberals were averaging 27.6 per cent support in polls, putting them 9.7 points behind the Conservatives. In 2007, the Conservative lead was 5.3 points over Stéphane Dion's Liberals. In 2009, the gap was 14.1 points as the governing party's support soared during the coalition affair. The margin was its smallest in 2010, when 2.3 points separated Michael Ignatieff's Liberals from the Conservatives in polls taken 60 days before that year's Throne Speech. In 2008 and 2011, the Conservatives had just come off a win by 11.4 points over Mr. Dion and nine points over Jack Layton's New Democrats, respectively.

Throne Speech bump?

The Throne Speech itself is unlikely to give the Conservatives the swing needed to overcome the Liberal lead. In the past, support for the government has hardly moved following a Throne Speech. In 2006 and 2007, Conservative support increased by just 1.7 and 1.5 points, respectively, in polls conducted over the 60 days following the speech (the margin over the Liberals increased by just 1.3 and 1.7 points). In 2010, Conservative support increased by only 0.6 points but a Liberal slip widened the margin by 2.7 points. Following the 2011 Throne Speech, the polls hardly moved at all.

The only swings large enough to change the game for the Conservatives now were those that occurred following the 2008 and 2009 Throne Speeches. But those were delivered in the tense atmosphere of the coalition. In polls following the throne speech, when the opposition parties moved to topple the government, support for the Conservatives increased by 3.5 points. But after prorogation and the replacement of Mr. Dion by Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberals rebounded and the Conservatives decreased significantly. Tory support fell by 6.7 points in polls conducted in early 2009, while the margin between the Conservatives and the Liberals shrank to two points from 14.1.

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Waning interest

It is unlikely that today's Throne Speech will have that dramatic of an effect. Earlier speeches, when Mr. Harper headed a minority government, garnered more attention in part due to the possibility of the government being defeated in the subsequent confidence vote. According to Google Trends, there were about half as many searches for "Throne Speech" in Canada around 2011 than there was in 2010, and about two-thirds as many searches in 2011 than for the Conservatives' first three speeches from 2006 to 2008. It suggests that, with fewer people paying attention to the Speech from the Throne today, the resulting movement in the polls should be accordingly modest.

But it will not be the Throne Speech itself that will turn things around for the Prime Minister. Instead, it is the plan the government sets out for the next two years that could put them in a better position to be re-elected in 2015. Nevertheless, for the first time since he took office Mr. Harper needs the Throne Speech to help him come from behind.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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