Harper's in deep

Poll numbers indicate that more Canadians trust Ignatieff's judgment than the PM's

A poll we commissioned for Barack Obama’s visit this week contained a curiosity for domestic political watchers. When we asked which federal leader—Michael Ignatieff or Stephen Harper—would maintain a good relationship with the new U.S. President, Ignatieff came out on top. No surprise there: the Liberal leader made a name for himself as a foreign-policy intellectual and his values square nicely with those of Obama, a Democrat. But when we tried the obverse question—which leader would stand up to Obama when Canada’s interests are threatened—Ignatieff still came out on top. Fully 36 per cent of those surveyed by Angus Reid Strategies figured the Grit boss was up to the task, compared to 28 per cent who had faith in the prime minister (14 per cent said neither; 22 per cent weren’t sure).

The finding invites a number of interpretations. Maybe Canadians admire Ignatieff’s credentials as a foreign-policy thinker. Perhaps Harper is unable to shake the Conservatives’ longstanding rep as the aye-aye Uncle Sam party. Or maybe it is a measure of the deep hole Harper has dug for himself.

The PM has faced a lot of this sort of news since Ignatieff—once dismissed as a haughty intellectual—adroitly snared the Liberal leadership in December. In a recent Harris-Decima poll, Ignatieff was the only federal party leader to receive a net positive rating (43 per cent favourable versus 32 per cent unfavourable; Harper’s numbers were 43 and 49, respectively). Respondents to the Maclean’s poll, meanwhile, gave Ignatieff a 42 per cent overall approval rating, compared to 38 per cent for Harper.

For Tories trying to gauge the full impact of the pre-Christmas parliamentary crisis, this is stomach-churning news. A couple of months ago, Canadians’ distaste for another election clearly outweighed their disgust with the Tories for triggering the showdown. But Harper is now in a head-to-head contest with the Ignatieff-led Liberals, rather than with a hypothetical coalition of Dion-led Grits and NDPers. The best he can hope for now is that the approval numbers are misleading. Could respondents be voicing general crankiness, rather than genuine political preference? Are they upset about some specific Conservative policy?

That’s where detailed questions about specific policy areas come in. Our query on relations with Obama, after all, was in essence a question on leadership. That Harper scored badly on both sides of it speaks to serious issues of trust. It’s not just that people think Harper will offend Obama, or that he will cave to the U.S. leader. It’s that they’ve lost confidence in his basic judgment. Or, more accurately, more of them trust Ignatieff’s judgment than trust his. For the Liberals, the danger lies in over-estimating the depth and meaning of that distrust. Does it relate specifically to U.S. relations, or to issues across the board? Is it regionally concentrated, or does it apply equally across the country? Will it hold if the Grits trigger an election?

We have only hints with which to answer these questions, but some are pretty compelling. Ignatieff’s decision to support the Conservative budget two weeks ago, for instance, actually burnished him in the eyes of voters, suggesting broad-based receptiveness to his chosen compromise (a Canadian Press-Harris-Decima survey suggested 72 per cent support for his idea of quarterly “updates” on the stimulus package in exchange for supporting the budget). And while Harper’s approval rating has held in Alberta at 59 per cent, the Maclean’s poll suggests it has plunged in other parts of the country. In the former Reform-Alliance-Conservative stronghold of B.C., for example, it has sagged to 45 per cent while nearly one out of two people surveyed in B.C. disapprove of the PM’s performance. In Quebec, his approval rating has plummeted to 22 per cent.

None of this is to say the Tories can’t come back—at least they have some sense of how far they’ve fallen. But they better start climbing soon, because the hole can get deeper still. And the way things are going, the idea of Ignatieff stumbling into it with them seems like a lot to hope for.

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