Awaiting the Stephen Harper comeback

He’s not going to quit. Paul Wells has the reasons why.

Adrian Wyld/CP

Colleague Taylor-Vaisey notes this morning that highly equivocal columns abound lately, in which the stars of the Bytown commentariat say Stephen Harper should maybe kind-of sort-of quit so we can… I’m not sure… make fun of somebody else, I guess.

Noticing the rather tentative nature of these predictions (“less and less far-fetched” — Hébert; Conservatives “might also need fresh leadership” — (Tim) Harper; “Might maybe might maybe might” — Den Tandt (I quote from memory)), Nick asks me to make sense of it all.

Happy to help, Nick. Three things. First, you can add Lawrence Martin and Paikins père and fils to the should-he-stay-or-should-he-go crowd. Steve Paikin wrote his blog item positing a summer Harper resignation way back in early March, and they all laughed. Well, as a wise man named Ira Gershwin once said, they all laughed at Rockefeller Centre, now they’re fighting to get in. Still, now that we’re up to six (more or less mealy-mouthed) predictions of a Harper departure, we are not far from triggering Wells’s Second Rule, which holds that if everyone in Ottawa knows something, it isn’t true.

Second, what ever happened to bold predictions? If you think the PM’s going to quit, don’t be shy, guys.

Third, he’s not going to quit. There are still reasons to expect a Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper to win the next election, and at any rate, reasons to suspect his resignation this summer is highly unlikely. Let’s look at a few:

1. Conservative doldrums and Liberal sugar highs usually don’t last. An Ipsos poll a couple of weeks ago put the Conservatives at 30%, compared to the Trudeau Liberals at 36%, with the NDP at 27%. That’s a 6-point Liberal advantage, and Ipsos says it’s growing. This should be preoccupying the Conservatives, and I’m pretty sure it is. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Éric Grenier’s blog includes a compilation of 35 years of Environics federal horse-race polls, and it suggests that Liberals often do well when Canadians aren’t voting, and conservative parties often dip between votes.

Jean Chrétien spent most of his years as Liberal leader at roughly 50% in the polls. He’d dip nicely just in time for each election. Even in his first campaign leading to his biggest majority, in 1993, he ended up substantially lower than he’d been polling. The worst polling months of John Turner’s career were the month of the 1984 election and the month of the 1988 election. As long as nobody was voting, Turner was fine. Martin, Dion and Ignatieff each gave the Liberals a 10-point boost in the first months after becoming leader. Each brought the party to a lower election result than the last. The Reform/Canadian Alliance/Conservative picture is the reverse: Election days in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 all represent local spikes in voter support for those parties.

2. Running a campaign is hard. There’s nothing like being a national leader in a general election campaign. It’s a huge enterprise, you’ve got hundreds of candidates saying the craziest things, you have a busload of surly reporters on your ass and for a break, you get to engage the other leaders on national TV in 90-minute French and English slanging matches. Leaders tend to get better at it as they go along, which is why it took Harper two tries to defeat Paul Martin. At the next election, if he stays, he’ll be the only national leader (besides Elizabeth May) who’ll have done any of this before. It’s a huge advantage.

3. Replacing a leader blows an incumbent party’s advantage. My limited reading suggests Australian political commentary is much more familiar with the notion of “incumbency” than is Canadian punditry. It’s a simple notion: voters tend to focus on leaders, and a voter who’s supported a leader once will likely do so again. Most people who voted Conservative in 2011 were doing so for the third or fourth election in a row. Maybe you don’t like Stephen Harper, but they do. It would take a lot to shake that confidence. But if he’s no longer the leader, they are free to consider their options. That’s what Liberal voters did after Pierre Trudeau stopped leading the party, and then again when Jean Chrétien did. It’s what Progressive Conservatives did after Mulroney retired. Incumbency, and its lack, helps explain why the NDP’s worst result came in 1993, after it won its best result to date in 1988: Because Ed Broadbent stepped down as leader, and loyal NDP voters started to consider other options.

For these reasons and others, I suspect we’ll have Stephen Harper around for a while yet. Whatever trouble the Conservative Party is in, it will be in worse trouble if he quits. And to a greater extent than most leaders, Harper’s pride is bound up with the long-term success of his party: if he left the leadership and the Conservatives were routed, he would take this, not as proof of his irreplaceable greatness, but as evidence that he’d failed to construct a durable conservative political movement. So I won’t be writing my Farewell-Harper(?) column anytime soon.

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