Why Erin O'Toole's best PM numbers are a problem

Nanos Research puts O'Toole in third as Canadians' preferred prime minister

When a political party’s polling numbers are bad, I can seem like a bit of a pessimist about that party’s prospects, kicking a party and its leader when they are already down. Maybe I should go easy on them.

But them’s the breaks. Things are not going well for the Conservatives at the moment — and it would do them no favours to pretend their polling numbers aren’t as problematic as they are.

Take, for example, the latest numbers from Nanos Research.

Every week, Nanos releases the results of its latest four-week rolling poll. Most of the data is paywalled, but the results on who Canadians prefer for prime minister are freely available.

On Tuesday, in its poll ending on July 9, O’Toole rated just 14.3% on the best PM question. That put him in third, behind Justin Trudeau’s 37.4% and Jagmeet Singh’s 17.6%. That’s not good — it’s actually the lowest any Conservative leader has been since interim leader Rona Ambrose in 2016 at the height of Trudeau’s post-election honeymoon.

It’s a number that can’t be dismissed. But that’s not to say it can’t change.

One of the best things about Nanos’s four-week rolling poll is that it has been consistently in the field since 2014. That means we already have two election cycles’ worth of data. So, let’s compare how the numbers look today to how they looked for past leaders ahead of the 2015 and 2019 elections.

In the chart below, I’ve highlighted where each leader stood in Nanos’s first post-election poll (which took into account roughly the last four weeks of the campaign). I’ve also looked at where each leader stood 11 weeks earlier.

Why 11 weeks? Because 11 weeks from now, we’ll be at the end of September — the current best guess at when the 2021 election will be.

Here’s the good news for O’Toole: it is possible for things to change dramatically over the next 11 weeks. In 2015, Trudeau went from 21% to 39%, a gain of 18 percentage points. In 2019, Singh went from 7% to 20%, a gain of 13 points.

If O’Toole sees a surge of between 13 and 18 points over the next 11 weeks, that would put him between 27% and 32% — probably enough to be in contention to win a minority government. To be popular enough to pull the Conservative Party into majority status would need an even better campaign on his part than Trudeau’s in 2015 or Singh’s in 2019.

But here’s the bad news for O’Toole: the movement in both 2015 and 2019 came to the left of his party.

About half of Trudeau’s jump in 2015 came at the expense of Tom Mulcair, who fell nine points on the Best PM question.

In 2019, Singh’s surge hurt Elizabeth May, who dropped four points. The “unsures” dropped 11 points, which also seems to have helped Singh a lot.

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But Harper’s support shifted only a little bit, while Andrew Scheer’s hardly budged in 2019. This is the problem for O’Toole. Past movement has largely been among progressives deciding between their options, not among centrists deciding between Trudeau and the Conservative leader.

It’s also a problem that O’Toole’s score of 14% is so low. He’s starting off in a worse position than either Harper in 2015 or Scheer in 2019. That he’s a newer leader than either of them were at this point is not much of an excuse — Scheer routinely scored over 20% on this question about a year after he became party leader.

All is not lost for O’Toole. Some 24% of respondents to the Nanos poll say they are “unsure” and another 3% are backing Maxime Bernier, so O’Toole could fish in that pond. But, as Singh showed in 2019, the “unsure” pond is not necessarily all, or even mostly, Conservative-friendly.

Trudeau, Singh in good spot, Paul is not

If the election is held in 11 weeks, Trudeau is looking better than he did going into the last two campaigns. At 37%, he’s polling far higher than he was before the 2015 vote and is actually polling similarly to where he was at the end of that campaign, when his party won a majority government.

He’s also doing better than he was in 2019 when, pre-campaign, his support had been sapped by the SNC Lavalin affair and, at the end of the campaign, he had been through the blackface scandal.

Perhaps more important than his own numbers, his edge over the Conservative leader was 12 points at the end of the 2015 campaign and five points at the end of the 2019 campaign. That margin is currently 23 points.

Get 15% off forever

For Singh, he is in a good position to build off the gains he made in 2019. He was polling in fourth behind May that summer, but he’s now polling second. He has a 17-point lead over Annamie Paul, compared to a two-point deficit with May two years ago.

The question might be whether he can push past this ceiling. The last time an NDP leader was polling over 20% on this question was before the 2015 election.

On the other end of the scale, that Paul is registering just 1% is disastrous and it is likely due to the recent turmoil swirling around her leadership.

(An editorial aside: While I don’t believe Paul handled the early stages of this coup d’état very well, what we have publicly seen of her leadership does not justify the way the Green Party federal council has treated her. Either there are things we don’t know, or the federal council has been hugely disproportionate in their response to her mistakes surrounding the Jenica Atwin floor-crossing.)

This is the lowest Paul has scored in Nanos’s polling and is well below May’s worst days since at least 2014. This is a big problem for the Greens, and is probably one of the reasons why both Trudeau and Singh are polling where they are.

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Nothing in these numbers is going to slow Trudeau’s election roll, if he is indeed rolling in that direction. If O’Toole and Paul weren’t in such trouble, Trudeau could be somewhat wary of Singh’s potential. But, with these sorts of numbers for the Conservative and Green leaders, there’s more than enough room for both the Liberals and NDP to have a good campaign.