the numbers guy

NDP leadership race goes down to the wire

Posted on: March 21, 2012

For months now, political junkies from coast to coast have followed every twist and turn in the race to decide the new opposition standard-bearer – who will be chosen to step forward and challenge the nation’s leader at the next election?

More recently, one candidate in particular has seemingly gained momentum – to the point where he’s now seen as having a substantial, though not insurmountable lead. That leading candidate has campaigned on a platform more in tune with centrist voters across the country as a whole – worrying more traditional supporters of his party.

Indeed, his main challenge comes from a trio of competing candidates, each jostling to present themselves to party supporters as the more effective guardian of the party’s traditional values. Should one of those competitors succeed in consolidating the more traditionalist vote, the race may not yet be done and dusted.

Readers outside of Canada may assume that this all refers to Mitt Romney and the GOP – but most eyes inside Canada will be glued not to the Louisiana primary this Saturday, but to the race to determine the new leader of the NDP – and Canada’s next official Leader of the Opposition.

New Democrats from every province and territory across Canada will gather in Toronto this weekend for their leadership convention – the culmination of many months of campaigning.

For political junkies of all stripes, a tightly contested Canadian party leadership convention is just about as exciting as politics can get. Many will have fond memories of the hard-fought 2006 Liberal Party convention in Montreal, which, after days of drama and intrigue, went right down to the wire before Stephane Dion was elected leader.

In fairness, this weekend’s NDP convention doesn’t have quite the same sense of everything being up in the air with just days to go. For one thing, there’s a clear favourite, in Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair. For another, the NDP rules, unlike the Liberals, encourage advance voting – with over 25000 NDP members having already cast their vote online or by post. By the time NDP members gather on Friday morning for the start of the convention, most of the votes will already have been cast.

Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair is widely seen as leading the race, with a second tier of candidates – Toronto MP Peggy Nash, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, Montreal-born Brian Topp, and energetic British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen (a potential dark horse) – all competing to be the one to challenge Mr Mulcair on the final ballot.

Polling evidence on the race has been fairly sparse, though a couple of internal campaign polls were made public a few weeks ago, and pointed to a competitive race, albeit with Mr Mulcair in front.

Over at Three Hundred Eight, Éric Grenier (@308dotcom) has spent many months diligently updating his endorsements tracker, which allocates points to each candidate based on who has endorsed them (and on how weighty, within the NDP, that endorsement is). His most recent tracker, published today, shows Mr Mulcair with a modest lead in endorsements over Mr Topp and Ms Nash.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of polling evidence we’ve seen so far was not on the leadership race itself – but on the crucial question of which candidate is best placed to hold on to the NDP’s 59 seats in Quebec. Forum Research asked Quebec voters precisely this question a fortnight ago (2-3 March) – with impressive results for Mr Mulcair.

Here’s how, according to the Forum poll, the NDP would fare in Quebec under Mr Mulcair and under Mr Topp (the next most popular potential leader):

Mr Mulcair is, at present, clearly streets ahead in terms of potential appeal to Quebec voters. And this single fact alone is sure to weigh heavily on the minds of NDP members as they cast their votes. Nobody wants to lose those 59 seats. There will be those who may not be Mr Mulcair’s biggest fans, but will vote for him anyways, as the candidate with the best shot of consolidating the NDP’s position in Quebec.

And, as Chantal Hébert pointed out recently on CBC’s The National, it’s not like any of the other candidates have shown they are spectacularly ahead of Mr Mulcair in the rest of Canada. Here’s how that Forum poll suggested the NDP would fare under Mr Mulcair and Mr Topp across Canada as a whole:

That said, I’m not sure this contest is a done deal quite yet. Concerns about the direction Mr Mulcair might lead the party recently prompted a high-profile public warning from well-respected NDP elder statesman Ed Broadbent – and similar concerns may push quite a few NDP members to cast a vote calculated to keep their party true to its social democratic values, regardless of which candidate is best placed to consolidate Quebec.

Supporters of the more traditional candidates may also end up transferring largely to each other, denying Mr Mulcair the top job on the final ballot. Mr Mulcair’s supporters will be looking for a strong first preference vote to minimize the number of transfers they’ll need on subsequent rounds to get over the 50% mark.

Nor can you discount the atmosphere in the convention hall on the day itself. Although most of the votes will be cast in advance, a significant number of NDP members are expected to cast their vote in person on the convention floor – and, in a tight race, these votes could well make the crucial difference.

It should all make for exciting viewing on Saturday – and ThreeHundredEight will also be live blogging the convention, which should be well worth a read.

As for the bigger picture, the task facing the new leader is easy to state but, to put it mildly, very tough to accomplish – defend the NDP’s gains in Quebec, and win the ‘next 70’ seats needed from across the rest of Canada to form the country’s first ever federal NDP majority government.

Whoever prevails on Saturday will certainly need to unite the whole party behind their leadership to succeed on the challenging road ahead.

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