Stephen Harper may have pulled out of his dive. The annual opinion research conducted by Nanos Research for Policy Options in November 2014 found an 11-point jump over 2013—to 37 percent—in the number of Canadians who say Harper’s handling of the prime minister’s job is “very good” or “somewhat good” (figure 1). And Canadians are feeling slightly better about the direction of the country as well, with a 6-point rise in the percentage of Canadians who believe we are headed in the right direction (figure 2). The Nanos numbers reinforce emerging evidence in other polls that show Harper closing the gap on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, suggesting the federal election to be held sometime in 2015 may be more of a race than once expected.
A year ago, Harper had sunk to the lowest performance ratings Nanos had measured since he became prime minister, with the percentage of those saying the country was headed in the wrong direction never greater. Conventional wisdom at the beginning of 2014 had the federal Conservatives limping to the end of an uninspiring mandate, still recoiling from the lingering, tawdry scandal in the Senate that reached into the Prime Minister’s Office. The Keystone XL pipeline project, the government’s top policy priority, was foundering amid testy relations with the Obama administration. And early in the year, the Conservatives lost Jim Flaherty, their trusted, capable finance minister, first to retirement and then to his sudden, tragic death. With Trudeau’s lead in the polls beginning to look to be more lasting than a honeymoon spike, speculation about Harper was starting to focus on when he would leave rather than whether he would run again.
But Canadian politics—and questions of leadership—were in a different headspace as the year closed. In the wake of recent events, drift gave way to fear. The atrocities committed by ISIS in the Middle East dragged the country back into war. There was alarm at the distant yet terrifying spectre of an Ebola contagion. A gunman’s deadly attack on Parliament Hill and the murder of a Canadian soldier by a Quebec man apparently radicalized by extremist propaganda pushed domestic security issues higher on the agenda.
Harper’s identity as a resolute leader who sees the world in black and white may have boosted perceptions of performance. He leaves it to others to wrestle with questions such as whether the attack on Parliament Hill was a signal of an organized terrorist threat or the terrible act of a deranged loner. Meanwhile he has been aided by the Republican conquest of Congress to the south, which has shifted the US political dynamic to the right and, among other things, breathed political life into Harper’s pipeline.
The numbers are not all sweetness for the Conservatives: 45 percent of respondents still rate the government’s performance as “very poor” or “somewhat poor,” and the 48 percent who say the country is headed in the wrong direction make it the second worst score during Harper’s eight years in office. “There has been a bit of a recovery in 2014 from 2013, but many of the variables are still net negative,” says Nik Nanos, chairman of Nanos Research. Harper is clearly not back to the commanding heights of his mid-mandate. But nor, as he makes his calculations about whether and when to run again, does he find himself without hope.