Trudeau, Mulcair top Harper in approval ratings, but regional swings key

Stephen Harper's approval ratings compare poorly to those of Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair but there is more to the story than meets the eye, poll analyst Éric Grenier explains.

NDP leader has yet to capitalize on his strong personal ratings

Stephen Harper's net personal ratings are worse than Thomas Mulcair's and Justin Trudeau's. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal Liberals and Conservatives remain in a dogfight when it comes to voting intentions, with the New Democrats trailing in third. But Canadians' views of the three major party leaders differ greatly from the national party picture, and from one part of the country to another.

No matter how these personal ratings are measured, the picture is similar.

More Canadians disapprove of Prime Minister Stephen Harper than approve of him, but the latter group is still large enough to potentially win an election. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's ratings are more mixed, though a slightly larger proportion think he is doing a good job. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, meanwhile, boasts the best net ratings but has yet to capitalize on that goodwill.

Harper has averaged 38 per cent approval in four EKOS Research polls conducted since the beginning of 2015. His disapproval rating sits at 54 per cent. 

That compares poorly to Trudeau's 46 per cent approval rating and 41 per cent disapproval, and is even worse than Mulcair's 50 per cent approval to 37 per cent disapproval rating.

But these national numbers mask the more important regional variations in personal support.

Average approval ratings of Stephen Harper (blue), Thomas Mulcair (orange), and Justin Trudeau (red) over four polls by EKOS Research, January and February 2015.

Harper's ratings are best in Alberta, where a majority of respondents have, on average, said they approve of the Conservative leader. His numbers are also better in the Prairie provinces and in Ontario, where his rating stands at 41 per cent approval to 51 per cent disapproval.

His numbers are worse in British Columbia, however, and are very poor in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. His disapproval rating in those regions stands at 63 and 64 per cent, respectively. On the East Coast, his approval rating is just 23 per cent.

It is the opposite with Trudeau, who has the support of a majority of respondents in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, and puts up his worst numbers in Alberta. But in the battleground provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, Trudeau's numbers are better than Harper's: 48 per cent approval to 37 per cent disapproval in B.C., and 46 per cent approval to 43 per cent disapproval in Ontario.

Mulcair sees high net approval results

But that is still a relatively even split. While Trudeau has the higher approval ratings, his disapproval ratings are nearly as high as Harper's.

Mulcair does not seem to have this issue. He scores best in Quebec, with an average approval rating of 60 per cent and a disapproval rating of just 33 per cent. His numbers in British Columbia are also strong, with 51 per cent approval to 35 per cent disapproval. Only in Alberta and on the Prairies does he have a net negative rating — and that by just one point.

These numbers hint at growth potential for the New Democrats. Mulcair's approval ratings are significantly higher than the support the NDP is garnering in the polls. Trudeau also has some potential for growth, whereas Harper has mostly maximized his support in every part of the country except Quebec.

Yes, no, maybe

But polling by Abacus Data provides a somewhat different perspective. In its polls, respondents are asked if they hold a positive, negative or neutral impression of each of the leaders. That last option provides a potentially more revealing look at what Canadians really think of these men.

With this option on the table, the broader narrative of how each leader is viewed does not change. But the number of Canadians saying they are unsure or hold a neutral impression of Mulcair has averaged 53 per cent in two polls conducted by Abacus between Jan. 26 and Feb. 16. In other words, Mulcair has left little or no mark on more than half of the country.

By comparison, that number is 35 per cent for Trudeau and just 26 per cent for Harper.

Here we get an indication of why the NDP is struggling to capitalize on Mulcair's stronger personal ratings.

While on balance Canadians approve of the NDP leader, many do not feel strongly enough to go beyond a response of "neutral" when given the option. The proportion of respondents saying they are unsure or neutral on Mulcair tops out at 58 per cent in Atlantic Canada and on the Prairies and 57 per cent in Ontario. Quebecers, unsurprisingly, are the most likely to hold an opinion of Mulcair (and, by a wide margin, it is a positive one).

Average positive impressions ratings of Stephen Harper (blue), Thomas Mulcair (orange), and Justin Trudeau (red) over two polls by Abacus Data, January and February 2015.

When we look at Abacus's regional breakdowns, they are rather similar (taking into account the higher unsures and neutrals) to EKOS's estimates for Trudeau and Harper. They also broadly align with regional voting intentions. 

But Mulcair's numbers drop significantly, putting him in third place in every part of the country except Quebec. Only in that province are his numbers markedly higher than his party's current support, however. This suggests the NDP could reasonably hope for gains in the province once the campaign starts and voters in Quebec pay greater attention to the contrast between Mulcair and Trudeau.

Gender divide

EKOS and Abacus recorded similar patterns in support between men and women.

Harper's approval and positive ratings are better among men, while his disapproval and negative ratings are higher among women. Across the two polls, Harper's net rating (approval/positive minus disapproval/negative) is –5 among men, but –19 among women.

For Trudeau, men are almost evenly divided on their opinions. His net rating averages +3. Women like him more, with a net rating averaging +8. However, a larger proportion of women than men say they hold no opinion or a neutral impression of Trudeau, averaging 41 per cent in the Abacus polls compared to 29 per cent for men.

The same pattern holds for Mulcair, with 60 per cent of women on average telling Abacus they are unsure or neutral on the NDP leader, compared to 44 per cent of men. And also like Trudeau, Mulcair scores better among women, with an average net rating of +13, compared to a rating of +10 among men.

This aligns with voting intentions, which continue to show better numbers for the Liberals and New Democrats among women and higher scores for the Conservatives among men.

This article uses averages derived from a number of polls carried out since the beginning of 2015, which differ in terms of methodology, sample size and field dates. The polls from EKOS Research can be found here and here. Those of Abacus Data can be found here and here. These surveys have not been individually verified by the CBC.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.