03/21/2013 12:19 EDT | Updated 05/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Nanos Number: Fewer Canadians See Harper As Most Competent

Nik Nanos digs beneath the numbers with CBC Power & Politics host Evan Solomon to get to the political, economic and social forces that shape our lives.

This week: Fewer Canadians see Stephen Harper as the most competent leader.

A new tracking poll by Nanos Research shows that while the prime minister still tops other party leaders when Canadians are asked who is the most competent, he is losing ground.

Thirty-two per cent of Canadians named Harper the most competent leader in February, down six percentage points from January.

The results are from two Nanos national random telephone surveys of 1,000 Canadians each, conducted between Jan. 26 and 31 and Feb.19 and 24. The results are accurate to within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is almost tied with interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae on the same question.

"This is quite significant because the Conservatives have focused on the economy and Stephen Harper, that's been part of their winning strategy," Nanos told Solomon on Power & Politics Wednesday.

If the Harper brand is not as strong as it has been and economic uncertainty remains, that might mean problems for the Conservatives in the next election, Nanos said.

"Stephen Harper for the last decade has always led his party, he's been more popular than his party. Now he's as popular as his party," Nanos said.

Nanos suggested the Conservatives might have to come up with a plan B for the next campaign and they have to do that now, not six or even 12 months before the next campaign.

"That's why things like the budget are critical, because a budget is a bit of a reset button, because it basically knocks everything off the political menu and Canadians focus on what the government is proposing in terms of the fiscal and economic plans for the coming year," Nanos said.

Battleground Quebec

The most dramatic changes to the political landscape were in Quebec during the last election. The results vaulted the NDP to Official Opposition status, and the latest tracking poll by Nanos Research shows NDP Leader Tom Mulcair leading when it comes to who Quebecers think is the most competent leader.

Quebec will again be a battleground during the next election. The Nanos tracking poll shows that while Mulcair gained between January and February, the prime minister took a big hit in Quebec during the same period.

Nanos said this trend has to be troubling for the Conservatives, because usually incumbent leaders get a bit of a bump.

"He or she has an advantage because they're actually sitting in the chair. So to see these numbers slide for the Conservatives have to be a little more concerned," Nanos said.

These latest numbers come after a series of Nanos Numbers that have signalled bad news for the Conservatives.

A recent Nanos tracking poll showed 32 per cent national support for the Tories, the lowest in the Nanos tracking since August 2009. Another Nanos tracking poll showed 27 per cent of Canadians feel the economy is getting weaker.

But the opposition also has reason to be concerned.

"The Quebec numbers are good for Thomas Mulcair, but the national number is not. If you took Quebec out of the equation, realistically Bob Rae, the interim leader of the Liberal Party, would be ahead of Thomas Mulcair on the competence front," Nanos said.

Nanos points out the low numbers could explain Mulcair's recent trip to Washington to speak with U.S. lawmakers. The trip may have been an effort to try to build up his image as a statesman.

Liberal wildcard

The Liberal leadership race is still the wildcard, and the numbers will change once someone is chosen.

Right now, the main driver behind the shift on the competency question is the uncertain economy, Nanos said. But the drop in Quebec could also be fallout from the Conservative government's push for the Keystone XL pipeline, he said.

"We know that focus does not resonate in the province of Quebec, that means that perhaps once the Conservatives get off Keystone, Stephen Harper can regain some numbers in Quebec," Nanos said.

Recognized as one of Canada's top research experts, Nik Nanos provides numbers-driven counsel to senior executives and major organizations. He leads the analyst team at Nanos, is a fellow of the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, a research associate professor with SUNY (Buffalo) and a 2013 public policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC.

Also on HuffPost

Day In The Life Of Stephen Harper