The New Democrats will begin their leadership convention on Friday with a remarkable wind filling their sails. For the first time in 25 years, the polling firm Environics has them in first place, tied with the Conservatives.
That wind isn't quite as brisk as it might seem: The NDP is not doing better in public opinion, the Conservatives are simply doing much worse. And the Bloc Québécois is surging in Quebec.
Still, first place is first place. The last time Environics had the New Democrats in first – in that instance, all on their own – was under Ed Broadbent during the free trade debate in 1987.
The survey by Environics Research Group provided to The Globe and Mail has the two parties at 30 per cent support among voters. That's about the same percentage of the popular vote that the NDP earned in the May 2 general election. For the Conservatives, it represents a drop of 10 points.
The Conservatives are clearly paying a price for the robo-calls affair, plans to increase the qualifying age for Old Age Security, legislation that would give the government information on individual Internet accounts, and increased uncertainty over the costs of new fighter jets.
These issues "haven't been managed particularly well," said Darren Karasiuk, vice-president of corporate and public affairs at Environics.
"And they haven't been managed well in spite of the lack of solid and stable leadership from the NDP or Liberals.
"So there's a disappointment among Canadians – particularly soft Tories – that the promised benefits of a majority haven't materialized."
The Liberals are in third place with 20-per-cent support, up one point from election day. The Bloc has the support of 30 per cent of voters in Quebec, only four percentage points behind the NDP, which swept the province last May.
But if the Bloc is threatening to challenge the NDP's newfound popularity in Quebec, the social democrats can take comfort in knowing they lead in British Columbia and Atlantic Canada, and are a close third in a three-way race for support in Ontario.
They are also the first choice of female voters. And while the Tories continue to lead among voters over 60, who are more likely to cast a ballot than younger people, that lead over the NDP is only seven percentage points, suggesting the idea of raising the retirement age for OAS is not going down well among retirees.
The fact that the NDP has been without a permanent leader may be a bit of a blessing, Mr. Karasiuk believes.
"Some people, without a leader in place, will project a perfect leader in their minds," he said.
The months ahead are bound to bring changes, as the NDP's new leader takes the national stage, the Conservatives finally present a budget that reduces the deficit at the expense of government programs, and the Liberals move toward choosing a permanent leader of their own.
But Interim Leader Nycole Turmel can take satisfaction in knowing that, however uncertain her performance might have been at times, she will be handing her successor a party as popular today as when it leapt to official opposition status in last May's election.
The survey was in the field from March 6 to 18, sampling 2,000 respondents by phone, with a margin of error of 2.4 per cent.
Environics is not the only pollster ever to have the NDP in first place since the fight over free trade. Last August, shortly after leader Jack Layton died, a Decima poll also had the NDP and Conservatives tied.