Saturday, June 13, 2009

Friday-night Nanos: Harper the lightning rod

Just as I'm about to power-down the PC for the night and pour myself a Fresca, an e-mail pops into my inbox from everybody's favourite pollster, Nik Nanos, with some interesting thoughts on Stephen Harper:

The latest Nanos poll helps one understand the overall image of the Conservative government of Canada. By asking Canadians, unprompted, to articulate their views of strengths and weaknesses we can get to the nuance of what people associate with the government without introducing any content or information.

The research indicates that Canadians are more likely to associate weaknesses with the Conservative government as opposed to strengths (65% can articulate a weakness and 36% can articulate a strength). Of concern for the Tories is that one of every five Canadians believes the Conservatives have no strength whatsoever. Comparing that to the 3% who say the Tories have no weakness suggests that the anti-Harper sentiments are much firmer than the pro- Harper sentiments. Likewise, the weaknesses associated with the Conservatives at the time of the survey are linked to many of the former strengths - Stephen Harper himself, transparency in government and economic management.

Overall Prime Minister Stephen Harper is twice as likely to be identified as a weakness than as a strength which suggests that he is personally becoming a lightning rod for discontent with the government. This is not surprising since the Conservative political strategy has largely centered on Harper.

From a communications point of view there are really only two options - to try to change views related to the Prime Minister or to refocus on a Conservative team by regionalizing the face of the Conservative Party. Recasting views on the Prime Minister is possible but requires a longer term time horizon - one longer than the likely timing of the next election. Refocusing on a Conservative team is a more feasible short-term strategy.

The key take-away from the research is that there are a number of paths forward for the Conservatives. The Tories could recalibrate and refocus their image in order to overturn negative perceptions or alternatively to drive negative perceptions of the Liberals so that the Liberals are perceived as a worse comparative choice. The current round of attack ads suggest that the Conservative strategy at this time is to focus on the Liberals and not to expend effort to turn around negative perceptions of the government.

I seem to recall a time, not that long ago, when Harper sharply outpolled his partly in popularity numbers, when he was their greatest asset. Now, that situation seems to have shifted, with Harper now a lightning rod for negative feelings.

Interesting that the Conservatives do seem to have essentially given-up seriously trying to get people to like them, although I wouldn't rule-out the return of a sweater vest early in the next campaign. In the mean time, they've clearly chosen the go-neg route, which, besides any negative impact it has on our numbers, seems to be hurting theirs too.

Nanos advises emphasizes the Conservative team as a viable strategy, at least in the short-term, for countering these negative perceptions, and normally I'd be inclined to agree. I have to ask though, just who should they highlight? A side-effect of running a one-man show as Harper has is that no stars tend to emerge.

A few weeks ago you would have said Lisa Riatt, but I don't need to explain why that's a no-go. Perhaps once Jim Flaherty, but he's now the $50 billion man. Peter MacKay has one foot out the door. Jim Prentice, once a star performer, has underperformed in environment. Jason Kenney? That's challenging. John Baird? Anywhere but Toronto, maybe. Stockwell Day has been a solid performer, but last time he was centre-stage it was, well, entertaining to be sure. And who from Quebec is the star these days?

Anyway, here are the full numbers, as I don't see the poll online yet:

Polling between May 26 and June 1, 2009. (Random Telephone Survey of 1,001 Canadians, 18 years of age and older). A survey of 1,001 Canadians is accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20.

Conservative Government Strengths Question: Thinking of the Conservative government, what do you think its main strength is? [Open-ended]

Defined strength 36%
No strength 19%
Unsure of strength 45%

Conservative Government Weaknesses Question: Thinking of the Conservative government, what do you think its main weakness is? [Open-ended]

Defined weakness 65%
No weakness 3%
Unsure of weakness 33%

Net image impact: -29

The Net image impact score is calculated by subtracting defined weaknesses from defined strengths.

UPDATE: John Ivison has more on the poll.

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penlan said...

Jeff, You wrote:
"Interesting that Nanos notes the option the Conservatives have clearly chosen to take, driving negative perceptions of the Liberals, requires more time to work than the Conservatives likely have."

But when I read the letter it said:
"Recasting views on the Prime Minister is possible but requires a longer term time horizon - one longer than the likely timing of the next election."
It didn't say anything about them not having enough time to negatively portray the Libs or Igantieff. Or did I misread something?

Jeff said...

You're right, it was late and I got it mixed up. Thanks for the catch, I've made the change.