06/28/2012 07:48 EDT | Updated 08/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Tories, NDP battling for small business, survey suggests

The NDP is seen as the party most sensitive the needs of the unemployed but is also not far behind the Conservatives when it comes to small business, according to a Nanos survey for CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

The national online survey was conducted in the wake of the government's controversial omnibus budget implementation bill, which included changes to Employment Insurance to set new criteria for suitable employment for people making EI claims. The changes mean people who make more frequent or longer-running claims will have to consider increasingly lower-paying jobs or have their EI payments cut off.

The changes also introduce new job alerts to let claimants know about job vacancies in their area.

The survey asked which federal party is most sensitive to the needs of different constituencies. When asked about the needs of the unemployed, 32.9 of respondents said the NDP was most sensitive, with 14.3 per cent picking the Conservatives and just 10.8 picking the Liberals. Fourteen-and-a-half per cent said none of the parties, while 23.5 per cent were unsure.

"When a government decides to engage on issues that other parties, that opposition parties, are strong on, it means they are going to take a hit," Nik Nanos of Nanos Research told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon. "You're basically creating a platform for those opposition parties.

"What's clear in this particular case is that this EI reform program that the Conservatives are embarking on has created a platform that appeals to a natural constituency for New Democrats — basically a political boost for [NDP Leader] Thomas Mulcair."

Small gap for small business

But the numbers also suggest strength for the NDP when respondents were asked about the needs of small business.

The Conservatives were seen as the most sensitive to this group by 22.8 per cent of respondents, but the NDP weren't far behind, at 19.7 per cent. The Liberals trailed at 14.3 per cent, while 11.9 of respondents chose "none" and 26.1 per cent were unsure.

"You would have thought the Conservatives would be doing very well amongst small businesses, but they only have a three-point advantage over the NDP, which has to be a disappointment," Nanos said, adding that in Quebec, the NDP actually leads the Conservatives in this category.

"This is a very critical part of the Conservative coalition — small businesses, entrepreneurs, people that are concerned about taxes and government spending.

"That's too low [a number] in terms of [the Conservatives] forming that winning coalition. You have to think of a core constituency: They have to have a lock on small businesses in order to form a majority government," Nanos said.

"All these initiatives — EI, pensions, stuff like that — could be a distraction from the core brand of the Conservatives, which usually has to do with jobs, prosperity, making money in the future."

The results follow other numbers from the same survey released Wednesday that suggest the NDP leads the Conservatives as the party seen to be the most sensitive to the needs of students, seniors and new Canadians.

The numbers overall suggest the NDP has benefited from the controversies surrounding the budget bill, Nanos said.

"Thomas Mulcair is eating Stephen Harper's lunch — or maybe a little bit of a nibble.

"The New Democrats are up, the Conservatives have been dealing with a lot of issues, managing a lot of moving parts, a lot of very controversial issues, they are taking a short-term hit; we have to see if this is sustainable or not.

"However, there are still a number of Canadians up for grabs ... [the Conservatives] need a strategy re-engage the coalition and start to stem — I won't call it the 'orange surge,' but the 'orange uptick,'" Nanos said.

The national online survey of 1,000 Canadians was conducted June 11 to 12. It is not a scientifically random sample and therefore a margin of error can't be stated.