NDP leadership quest has promise and peril, poll suggests

A special Nanos Research poll provided to CBC News suggests federal New Democrats should be heading into this weekend's leadership convention with an uneasy mix of hope and heartburn.

Almost half of Canadians surveyed open to possible NDP government

A special Nanos Research poll provided to CBC News suggests federal New Democrats should be heading into this weekend’s leadership convention with an uneasy mix of hope and heartburn.

On the one hand, the poll suggests almost two-thirds of Canadian voters are comfortable with the NDP in its role as Official Opposition, regardless of the party’s lack of a full-time leader since Jack Layton’s death last summer.   Almost half of those surveyed suggested they would be open to the New Democrats someday forming government.

On the other hand, the Nanos poll underscores the extent to which the NDP’s electoral breakthrough last year was directly tied to Layton’s popularity.

According to the survey, almost 27 per cent of those who voted for the NDP in last year’s federal election did so because of Layton, making him the party’s largest single draw at the polls.

Since then, various polls have suggested the NDP’s popularity has cooled, especially in Quebec where more than half of the party’s seats are located.  

Pollster Nik Nanos says New Democrats could be excused for feeling nervous going into this weekend’s leadership convention.  

"The fact is, Jack Layton has left a significant void in the political landscape. And when parties go through leadership exercises, they are risky endeavours. Anything can happen."

Looking for a leader to trust

Nanos did not poll on the popularity of specific candidates. But the survey does offer some interesting insights into what qualities Canadian voters might be looking for in a new NDP leader.

The first is honesty and integrity.

More than anything, the Nanos poll suggests voters want a leader they can trust.

The poll asked the completely open-ended question: "In your opinion, what is the top personal quality that a federal NDP leader should have?"

Nationally, by far the leading response (37 per cent) was honesty and/or integrity.

The result was similar both among those who voted NDP in the last election (36 per cent), and those who voted for one of the other parties (38 per cent).

The second quality voters want in a new NDP leader — and it is a distant second at only about eight per cent — is charisma.

Nanos says: "They have to realize the main reason they made a breakthrough is because, for a lot of Canadians, the New Democrats are a personality-driven popular front.

"For the NDP to continue to be successful, they have to remember they need a leader who has charisma, and can be a rallying point for the movement."

While other leadership qualities such as strength, compassion and consensus building are no doubt of interest to party insiders and other NDP stalwarts, they barely registered with regular voters in the Nanos poll.

Economy and jobs top concerns

Nanos says the "eye-popper" in his survey was how much — or how little — average voters seemed to care about issues at the ballot box.

For more than seven months, the various NDP leadership candidates have been spending most of their public face-time debating what they see as the important economic and social issues facing the country.

But according to the Nanos survey, only 17 per cent, or roughly one in six, voted NDP in the last election because of the party’s policies and platform of promises.

Looking ahead, voters of all political stripe seem to agree on what should be the new NDP leader’s top policy priority — and it’s not health care, the environment, pensions, poverty or other social issues widely associated with Canada’s party of the left.

Nanos says: "At the top of the list was the economy and jobs. This really speaks to the issue that is on the minds of all Canadians, regardless of what political party they choose."

Of course, there is no telling how or why the more than 130,000 card-carrying New Democrats will vote on the leadership ballot this weekend.

But if the Nanos poll is any indication, the average NDP voter is looking for a leader with honesty, integrity, charisma and a policy focus squarely on the economy and jobs.

The Nanos Research poll is based on a representative random sample of 1,004 Canadians, conducted online by Nanos Research March 9-12, 2012. The firm believes the weighted data is a true reflection of Canadian opinion at the time of the research.