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Will spring election serve as 'public-opinion reset button'?

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable.

The Globe and Mail

Michael Ignatieff's Liberals lag behind Stephen Harper's Conservatives in every single public opinion released in the last few weeks - as much as 11 per cent in the latest Nanos Research survey conducted for The Globe and CTV.

So, why is the Liberal Leader so eager to take down the government this week? Why does he want an election so badly? And why would Jack Layton - whose New Democrats also have a steep hill to climb - want to go to the polls, too?

We asked our pollster panel to weigh in.

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FRANK GRAVES sees method to the opposition's madness.

The NDP are not far off their position from the 2008 campaign, are polling best on "second choice" and have the most-liked leader. "So, they have plausible aspirations for matching if not eclipsing their last performance," the EKOS Research president argues.

Mr. Graves also believes that with the Conservatives poised to lose seats, the NDP could "have the balance of power to topple the government."

For the Liberals, Mr. Graves sees far more upside than downside thanks to the faltering Conservatives. They could gain enough seats to govern as a coalition since does not see the Tories forming a majority government.

He also believes - according to his own polling - that the race is now tightening. "With the momentum shifting away from the government's perhaps-too-early peak of eight weeks ago … the possibility that the opposition can stitch together a plausible narrative of arrogance and deception, buttressed with a number of recent ethical pratfalls, I think there is a clear rationale for the opposition to go."

DARRELL BRICKER disagrees. "The Liberals' strong desire for an election defies logic," the Ipsos Reid chief executive says. "They don't own an issue, their leader trails both the Prime Minister and Jack Layton on all meaningful attributes by wide margins.

Liberals seem to believe Mr. Ignatieff, who has been so battered by Tory attack ads, will surprise Canadians with his "sincerity, intelligence and passion" during an election campaign. But Mr. Bricker argues that "Canadian voters have yet to meet that version of their leader."

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The big challenge is to drive up Mr. Harper's negative numbers while driving up Mr. Ignatieff's positives. To do that, he says, requires a flawless campaign from the Liberal Leader and "complete incompetence" from Mr. Harper and Mr. Layton.

The NDP's motivation is easier to understand. Mr. Bricker notes the New Democrats are performing well against the Liberals. "This time the NDP's advantage on both leadership and the issues (they lead the Grits on integrity) presents the possibility that they could hold the progressive vote, even if it looks like the Tories might threaten to win a majority."

DIMITRI PANTAZOPOULOS is equally puzzled by the opposition's desire to go into an election.

"I have always maintained that the election would not happen this spring," the Praxicus Public Strategies pollster says. "The main reason I held that view is that I believe that politics is a rational business comprised of self-interested decision-making. I still wonder what the rational behavior could be."

He has a couple of theories, the most intriguing of which is what he calls the "forced choice." Consumer behavior shows that a buyer will only make a decision when forced to choose. An election does just that.

"The Liberals may believe that when voter are confronted with an actual voting choice they will select the Liberal Party," he says - though he sees no evidence to support that view.

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NIK NANOS marvels at how people can look at the same polling numbers and come away with different conclusions. "Their interpretation of the research is more a result of what they want to see as opposed to what is actually happening," says the Nanos Research president, who is polling for The Globe and Mail and CTV.

There's a lot of wishful thinking in the current environment.

The Liberals, he argues, believe the 11-point advantage the Tories have now will dissipate once the election is called. "Their bet is that Michael Ignatieff will do well, that their platform will resonate with Canadians and that they will be able to narrow the gap and challenge Stephen Harper."

The NDP sees something else in the numbers - "a window of opportunity they want o try to take advantage of." Mr. Nanos believes New Democrats are gambling on Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff stumbling, something they think they can take advantage of given Mr. Layton is starting this election with a solid base.

"In my experience an election is a bit of a 'public-opinion reset button'," the pollster says. "Canadians become more engaged in election periods and the numbers not just can, but will, move based on the campaign journey."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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