Harper in ‘Sweet Spot’ Ahead of Election, Poll Shows

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Conservatives trailed in public-opinion polls for almost two years, is back in the political driver’s seat.

A slow decline in support for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, coupled with rising support for the New Democratic Party, suggest the sort of vote splitting to Harper’s left that opens the door for a fourth straight election victory in October, according to pollster Nik Nanos.

Harper, an incumbent who is perceived as a strong economic steward, may also be benefiting from global uncertainty -- including an oil price shock that has jolted Canada’s economy -- that makes voters reluctant to seek change, a situation Nanos calls a “sweet spot” for the Prime Minister.

“It would be fair to say Stephen Harper has an advantage going into the next election,” Nanos, president of Ottawa-based Nanos Research Group, said in a May 15 interview. “The numbers to watch are the New Democrat numbers because they affect vote splits and they also split the non-Harper universe.”

In Nanos’s most recent polling, the Conservatives have the support of 32.9 percent of voters, versus 31.3 percent for the Liberals and 25.2 percent for the New Democrats. Since the start of September, the New Democrats -- led by Thomas Mulcair -- have climbed from as low as 19.1 percent, while the Liberals are down from as high as 43 percent.

Close Races

Under Canada’s so-called first-past-the-post system, members of Parliament are elected with simple pluralities of the vote. In many ridings with close three-way races, that’s meant the Liberals and the NDP need to consolidate the support of left-leaning voters in order to beat the Conservatives.

“If the NDP numbers are anywhere between 24 percent and 29 percent, we could potentially see another Conservative majority government just based on the vote splits and distribution of support,” Nanos said.

Mulcair’s New Democrats, Canada’s official opposition party with the second largest number of seats in the House of Commons, have received a lift in recent weeks from a historic NDP victory in the May 5 Alberta provincial election, in which the long-governing Progressive Conservatives were ousted. It was the labor-friendly party’s first win in the province.

Trudeau, meanwhile, has seen his popularity wane after leading until this year in just about every poll since becoming Liberal leader in April 2013.

NDP Rise

Speaking Thursday at the Bloomberg Economic Summit in Toronto, Nanos said Albertan voters passing over the Liberals for the more left-leaning NDP may be telling.

“The fact that Alberta, the province perceived to be the most right-wing Conservative province in the country has skipped over the Liberals and voted for the New Democrats is something that catches peoples’ attention,” Nanos said.

The caveat is that if the NDP get too high in the polls, the Conservatives may begin to suffer losses, particularly in places like British Columbia where the two are the main competitors in many ridings.

“If the NDP go a little too high, that upsets the Conservative apple cart,” he said. However, the win for the New Democrats in Alberta was more about a populist reaction than a leftward shift among voters, Nanos said.

Four Straight

At stake for Harper, 56, is the chance to become one of the country’s five longest serving prime ministers. Another win would also mark the first time in more than a century that a party leader has won four straight elections.

Lower oil prices and global economic trouble spots such as Europe that are worrying Canadians may also be helping Harper’s election prospects. The Bloomberg Nanos Expectations Index -- a confidence gauge based on survey responses about the outlook for real estate and the national economy -- has averaged a score of about 50 this year, down from 57 last year.

Still, while concerned, most Canadians aren’t feeling worse off financially. The Bloomberg Nanos Pocketbook Index -- based on responses about personal finances and job security -- is averaging above 2014 levels as Canadians benefit from low interest rates and cheaper energy prices.

“Low interest rates and more reasonable gas prices have actually made Canadians feel good in terms of their finances but they are still pessimistic about the future strength of the Canadian economy, which is basically a sweet spot for the incumbent,” Nanos said.