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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Michael Ignatieff faces daunting 'enthusiasm gap' Add to ...

Much is made of the Liberal Party's disadvantages when it comes to ground organization, and their chronically underperforming fundraising systems. But last week's Harris-Decima poll, conducted for The Canadian Press, revealed a potentially greater handicap for the Grits.

Just about two in three Canadians (64 per cent) believe the Liberals definitely or probably should change leaders. Naturally, that number includes a lot of people who weren't going to vote Liberal anyway, but the stunning finding under the surface of this poll is that fully 59 per cent of those who say they are inclined to vote Liberal think a new leader would be a good idea.

This represents a huge "enthusiasm gap" for the Liberal Party. Its the kind of factor that could depress their voter turnout, and turn marginal victories into marginal losses. To put these numbers in context, Stephen Harper is not one of the country's most loved political figures ever, but only 50 per cent think the Conservatives should replace him. And the vast majority of Conservative voters (74 per cent) are happy with him.

About one in three (36 per cent) Canadians think the NDP needs a new leader, and 37 per cent of Quebeckers would like the Bloc to switch out Gilles Duceppe. Both leaders enjoy the support of a solid majority of those who intend to vote for their parties. which is the norm.

That it's hard to become known and loved as an opposition leader is true, but it hardly explains just how poor these results for Mr. Ignatieff are. I'd offer a few thoughts as to what's going on here:

» I don't think these numbers indicate a visceral dislike of Michael Ignatieff, but something closer to disinterest. The reason that something as mild as disinterest can translate into a preference that Liberals change leaders has more than a bit to do with Mr. Harper: Many voters would like an appealing alternative to the Conservatives, and when they don't think Mr. Ignatieff meets that test, its easy for them to wish the Liberals would offer someone else.

» Conservative advertising harmed Mr. Ignatieff's image at the outset of his tenure as Liberal Leader, but I doubt that the arguments made in those ads (just visiting, cares only about himself) are the issues besetting him today. There simply isn't much evidence that this is what people are talking about when they are talking about Mr. Ignatieff. The bigger issue seems to be that people just aren't talking about him.

» "Round up the usual suspects" (meaning change staff) is the classic response to persistent bad numbers, but in this case, Mr. Ignatieff's office is a smart, well led, professional organization, one that helped him deliver a solid summer tour and pretty well scripted fall. His caucus is full of talented, hard-working people who are sharpening their skills and improving their effectiveness. The positions he and his party have taken on issues are mostly in line with the views of mainstream Canadians. If Mr. Ignatieff is looking for answers, looking in the mirror is where he will find them.

As his communications skills have improved, he's no longer turning many people off, but he's not turning many people on. Half of Canadian voters say they would consider voting Liberal in the next election, but only 30 per cent say they will today. What, if anything, can he do?

His biggest challenges, as I see them, lie in two areas. First, on a superficial level, he comes off as a patrician, a bit awkward, sometimes tense and somewhat humourless. I don't know the gentleman, he may or may not be any of those things, but voters gravitate to leaders who seem more folksy, relaxed, confident and upbeat. His summer tour revealed a more approachable and unscripted side of the man, but the fall has lost that thread, I think.

More fundamentally, he hasn't yet developed clusters of voters who see him as "their guy." I'm talking about groups of voters with common interests: aligned by income or region or gender based concerns, or who hold a particular place on the political spectrum, or who care deeply about a single issue, and who know they can trust him to champion their causes.

His policy positions are becoming varied and substantive, but their variety is both an advantage and a disadvantage. He has thus far chosen not to crusade for one or two big ideas or speak to a single organizing point of view about the future. Instead, he looks like a smart, rational, pragmatic man who cares a fair bit about dozens of different things. (This is perhaps not surprising given his past life.)

But in the end, for the voter who worries about taxes, or health, or retirement, or fiscal management, or jobs, or the environment, or trade, or foreign policy, or who lives in Atlantic Canada, or economically stressed Ontario, or the lower mainland of British Columbia, there is a sense that he is sufficiently smart but insufficiently passionate about what keeps you awake at night.

To be fair, creating this public sense of what makes you tick is often the work of years at the centre of public life, but politics is often unfair. If Michael Ignatieff can get more of this work done in the coming months, his chances of a win will not rest so heavily on hoping for disastrous errors by a more experienced opponent.

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