Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dion's "Leadership" Gap

Partisanship aside, this poll finding suggests a major hurdle for Dion:
Other good news for Harper in the Leger poll suggests 57 per cent of respondents were satisfied with his government and 35 per cent saw him as the party leader who would make the best prime minister.
Harper was followed by NDP Leader Jack Layton at 14 per cent and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion at 12 per cent.

The Leger poll gives two party figures, hard numbers and an adjustment that factors undecideds. The bad news for Dion, even if you take the hard numbers, he is the only leader that shows a gap between party support and leadership:
Conservatives 33/Harper 35
Liberals 22/Dion 12
NDP 14/Layton 14

Almost half of the Liberal supporters don't give Dion the leadership nod, which doesn't bode well for a campaign, when the focus on the leader becomes even more acute. This isn't the first poll to find Dion lagging on leadership, and you can point to a million excuses to minimize what this actually means. However, these type of findings only confirm my opinion that Dion has a credibility problem.

I have heard some pundits say that Conservative strategists view Dion as weak, and they aren't particularly worried about any improvement in the future. I would argue that it's still to early to write Dion off as effective, but at the same time it is important to recognize the challenge.

A leader has to be relevant in parliament, whether it be in QP, scrums or press conferences. On all those scores Dion has been an objective failure to date, which the media loves to detail. Some have argued that Dion's strengths don't manifest themselves in this forum and we need to find other avenues to get the message out. However, that type of strategy amounts to a concession, a ceding of critical ground, that presents Dion as "challenged". You can't shield Dion, or attempt to shape the playing field. These are the realities of Canadian politics, and coverage will demand that you sink or swim within this lens. In my mind, Dion either gets it together in the traditional sense or we are fatally handicapped. Handlers should repeat one word over and over, leadership, leadership, leadership. That is the achilles heel, as the above clearly details, and you can't work on the margins, Dion needs to perform head on.


ottlib said...

I have said it once and I will say it again. The Leader of the Opposition always has difficulty getting his message out and always scores low compared to the sitting Prime Minister.

As well Steve you point out the difference between the Liberal Party support and Dion's leadership numbers and state that it is worrying that less than half of the Liberal supporters think he is a good leader.

What I find more remarkable is the fact the Liberals still have such high support despite low leadership scores for Mr. Dion. There is a disconnect there. His low leadership numbers are not translating into huge drops in support even though Mr. Dion's perceived failings in that area have been news for over a month.

As you have stated in previous posts we are going to have to wait a week or two after the budget to see where these numbers will really wind up. Everything we see in this poll can be characterized as a post budget bounce, especially since the poll was taken between March 20 and March 25.

No Liberal should be happy about these results but they should not be too unhappy either.

The House rises on Friday for two weeks so there will not be an election call for at least three weeks, if that is Mr. Harper's plan. In the meantime the memories of the budget and the Quebec election will fade and then we will see if Mr. Harper's new found support has legs.

Steve V said...


I read the disconnect as a testament to core Liberal numbers.

"The Leader of the Opposition always has difficulty getting his message out and always scores low compared to the sitting Prime Minister."

I actually considered that perspective as I wrote this post, but I don't give it the weight you do because of my personal perspective. To be blunt, Dion to date, has been hard to watch much of the time (with some exceptions). Can he grow? Sure, but you have to see the potential and that has been lacking.

As an aside, and I don't want this to turn into a Dion bashfest, I met with a group of local Liberals last week. I would describe the mood as defeatist. Only a small sample, in one riding, but it told me something. People were conceding the next election, people who overtly questioning Dion, there was no confidence. "He's not a leader" was the theme, and I actually found myself defending for balance. Will these people vote Conservative, not a chance, but it is telling if partisans are convinced. How does that translate to soft or undecided voters?

audacious said...


Scotian said...

I think this is not an unreasonable interpretation of the facts as currently exist and are being used in this post. While I give Ottlib's point a bit more credence than you do Steve V, I don't equal him. I do think though there is a factor everyone is neglecting to remember, both Harper and Layton have led their respective parties for several years and at least three elections whereas until the leadership victory Dion was mainly one of the top layer following the leader instead of being the leader and has still only had just under four months as leader, which is not a long time to be seen as such, especially in opposition.

I think this may also account in part for the disconnect between party and personal numbers although only in part. I do think there are some problems from what I've seen, and I do think the Libs and Dion have to get more on top of it than they have so far, but I don't see things quite as bleakly as some may. I see an electorate that is far more volatile than has generally been the case and a strong lingering unease/distrust of Harper unfettered by many non-aligned swing voters and increased discomfort from swing progressive party voters. I think that will come back to bit him and level off Dion more than we may think, and it is possible Dion is preparing to sandbag both the CPC and his own base and by doing so really spark them alive for the campaign itself. I'm not saying I think that is what he *is* doing, just that it is a viable possibility given his ability/history of underestimation and his clear intelligence.

Harper is after all the king of playing destruction politics, and if he is overconfident he will overplay his hand leaving enough ammunition for Dion to riddle his political corpse with if played right. I have watched him, and while I do not claim to have as good a sense of where he wants to take this country as I would like, it is significantly more open that what I see from Harper even today let alone from his earlier more candid period (1887-2005). I also get the feeling of quiet competence, which while not sexy normally does have its appeal, especially after watching where obsessive ideological government led by incompetence can get you by the CPC's American soul mates and Harper's former idols until their feet of clay became too negative a drag to continue public veneration of. I suspect that Dion may translate better than many Liberals think, I suspect part of their fears is that Dion does not translate as well as would be preferred for someone in his role. This is where I do agree with you Steve V, they cannot simply say he doesn't do that well in these formats. This is a known and expected aspect of the job he ran in the leadership race for so he has to show he can cut it in it or acknowledge he is not the best person for the job after all to his team and structure a proper counterweight/balance within his team to better compensate for it than we have seen so far.

As much as I want Harper gone, I am not going to pretend to ignore reality where my main option for removing him is concerned, and Dion is clearly struggling somewhat. Whether it is totally or partly by design may be possible, but even if it is if it is kept up for much longer it runs the risk of dispiriting the Liberal troops beyond the point of resurrection for that campaign.

I don't think it is as bad as Steve V does, but I also think it is more serious than it would appear Ottlib does. I am probably a hair closer to Ottlib's side than Steve V's on that score but only by that hair or so. There are reasons for concern here from what I see and Steve V wrote a post that made some very good points IMHO. Granted, I am not a Liberal myself, but as I have said before I see them as the best chance of removing Harper and his variant of Conservativism from not just leading the country but the CPC itself and hopefully the more traditional PCPC type Conservatives are finally able to come to power within that party. Then it may become something I won’t have to fear hates the country as I do with this one. Even when I was most critical of Mulroney on policy and politics grounds I never once felt that he did not love Canada and its progressive nature overall, which is not the case with Harper and those closest to/around him. For me this is no small issue, as I have never known any federal party leader to feel that way to me outside of those from the BQ in my entire life.

I think that underlying negativity still is felt by a lot of the Canadian voting public. If Dion is smart he can take the troubles he is having now and the way Harper is trying to exploit and encourage them in some of the nastier methods available and use them against him. Dion has earnestness and sincerity oozing out of him, it is clearly not an act but rather it is his basic nature since it is consistent with what I remember of him from his entrance into federal poltiics onwards to today. That has a powerful allure to it when properly channeled/focused on people, this is something that has been shown time and again throughout history. In this country in particular I think it may have its appeal, especially as people more and more get overdosed on the hostility and all attack all the time Harper approach to not just opposition but governing as well.

Steve V said...

"and if he is overconfident he will overplay his hand leaving enough ammunition for Dion to riddle his political corpse with if played right."

The one line that stands out from Harper's "Training Sessions" speech was when he said:

"We will take it to them when an election is called"

The posture will be offensive, and I've noticed in the past that Harper stumbles when he gets comfortable.

If I sound doom and gloom in this post it's just a function of this particular point.

Gayle said...

If I may wade in with an uneducated opinion. I am not a member of the liberal party, nor have I ever been a member of any party. Like many people in this country (apparently 60% or so), I want Harper gone. I agree with Scotian's opinions that Harper is dangerous for this country.

As a result of this general feeling, there is a lot of expectations and therefore a lot of pressure on Dion. Not only has he not been the leader as long as Harper and Layton, but I honestly believe the general public have greater expectations for a liberal leader than they do for any other party.

Dion became the leader of a bitterly divided party. He was not the choice of the caucus but of the grass roots. So, you have the fact that these divisions need to heal, and at the same time you have members of caucus possibly resentful of the fact the grassroots decided not to go with "their man".

He is certainly not a leader in the mould of Chretien. If I recall correctly, when Chretien became leader in 1990, the conservatives had been in government for 6 years. There was a majority government and no immediate expectation that Chretien would win an election. He did not have to go to the polls until 3 years later. Dion has not been given the same amount of time to gel with his party and his caucus. When was the last time a party selected a leader and was expected to win an election 4 months later? (besides Stockwell Day, because quite frankly I think Chretien did the Reform party a favour calling that snap election, allowing them to rid themselves of this albatross sooner rather than later).

People need to relax. The liberals may indeed lose the next election - they certainly will if one is called soon. I believe, however, that it was important for the party to elect a leader for the long haul, and not simply elect the flavour of the day.

Let the liberal party do what it was elected to do, and stop thinking about the next election. They have taken good steps to justify stalling an election, and despite his great effort, Harper has yet to solidify his support in to majority territory. We should be happy this is the case, because the party needs the time.

burlivespipe said...

I'd agree with the above that its too early to come up with damning conclusions at this stage. Harpor, prior to mid-October 2005, was still mired so low that it looked like the party knives were being drawn for his benefit. The cowboy picture could have haunted him, along with all those old quotes, but the media (certain members) decided the focus should be elsewhere.
The next election's story will be written on the fly, not set now. Dion has the chance to set a tone and demeanor which can woo the Canadian public -- he's already had to face deep pocket negative advertising (and I'd agree his performance, or at least the coverage of his performance to some respects, has been at best middling); he's growing into his role, perhaps too slowly for some of us, but I think he's definitely wise enough to have a solid strategy. He didn't go toe-to-toe with wild-eyed separatists in the mid-90s and late Chretien era without inducing his share of hits.
Now Harpor seems to continue to hold onto high numbers despite some wonky acts. Today he was broadsided by Danny Williams' anger, and it looks like Harpor can't take his own medicine. We'll see if there are legs to these stories and traits that are now surfacing.

Anonymous said...

Harper has "brainwashed" Canadians and has manipulated them to look at Dion in this light. That's why the attack ads, election or no election.

You know the theory of first impressions - well, Harper has used that.

Apparently, Dion is getting an advisor-chief of statt (I can't remember his name) who is a crackerjack - maybe there's some hope.

Harper knows how to pull Dion's strings - Dion has to change that. Not be so offended all the time - laugh at Harper (in QP especially) when he tries to put him down.

If Dion did that, watch Harper's temper flare.

ottlib said...


I do not worry about polls in between elections and I only worry about them slightly more during elections.

You just have to look at the last polls before the Quebec election to see how much stock we should put into them. Remember Strategic Council had the PQ in the lead while Crop had the PLQ in the lead and both had the ADQ running in third. They were both wrong, just days before an election.

Your post is based largely on a poll so forgive me if I sounded dismissive of your concerns.

I have been concerned about Mr. Dion's performance since his election but I was also concerned about Mr. Graham's when he took over as interim leader. Mr. Graham grew into the job and so will Mr. Dion.

As well, if an election is called it will be a whole new ballgame. No one will remember his struggles in QP. Instead they will see him performing is a setting where he has obvious strengths, namely talking to Canadians. The man drips integrity and gravitas in those situations and such attributes do not often translate well in the over-heated partisan environment that is QP.

In addition Mr. Dion has a strong supporting cast. He has strong representatives from all regions that can fight the next election on the ground, in their particular regions, while he takes on Stephen Harper. Stephen Harper on the other hand is a one man show. That advantage cannot be ignored. Mr. Harper will need to run himself ragged during the election while Mr. Dion can count on a strong team to assist him.

Will the Liberals win the next election? Ask me the day after election day. However, I am not writing them or Mr. Dion off. Neither am I writing Mr. Harper off. I have seen nothing to indicate that any party is set to run away with the next election so it is still anybody's game at this point.

Steve V said...

"Your post is based largely on a poll so forgive me if I sounded dismissive of your concerns."

Just to clarify, I'm not raising the white flag and calling for Dion's head. It is early, there is time, and Dion can turn it around. I'm only commenting on the now.

With regard to the poll, these findings only confirm my own sense. I also hesitate on falling back on historical examples for false comfort. It is better to recognize the weak spots so you can take action, rather than deluding ourselves with a passive attitude IMHO.

Closet Liberal said...

Like Gayle, I am not a party member of any political stripe. I'm just cheering from the sidelines.

My sideline perspective:

I feel there is a large portion of the undecided/volatile electorate that hasn't "forgiven" the liberal party yet, and isn't ready to return them to power. They feel (rightly or wrongly) that the Liberals had their shot, and its someone else's turn.

The Liberals need a coherent policy. Right now we don't know what the party stands for. The only message getting out, is they disagree with the Conservatives on everything. That message don't fly.

Dion needs to master the 30 second sound bite. He is a thoughtful person who likes to reason things through, and given the time to explain himself actually shows a high degree of intelligence and understanding of Canada. Unfortunately the average Canadian is not going to see this part of him and only see the headlines or hear the clips on the TV/radio. (In a lot of cases he sounds hysterical at worst or whiny at best).

Lastly, based on the 30 second sound bite (and not underlying party ideology), I find the Conservatives have jumped left and have occupied (temporarily) the centrist position the Liberals traditionally held so well. In reaction, Dion has jumped further left, almost into NDP territory, and that is a tactical error. When the conservatives jump left, the Liberals should jump right.

Werner Patels said...


I have said it once and I will say it again. The Leader of the Opposition always has difficulty getting his message out and always scores low compared to the sitting Prime Minister.

Well, that explanation doesn't hold water, because if Dion can't get the message out, as you say, Layton as the leader of only the third-strongest party should have even more difficulties, yet people give him a higher score than Dion.

knb said...

I think we can say that these polls are not worth much, particularly when they are so close together. They really do reflect a tiny snapshot in time, rather than a trend.

Here'syet another one.

One thing is clear, Harper can't seem to move forward.

Werner, apples and oranges.