Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On the NDP numbers and race

The NDP leadership race membership numbers rolled in yesterday, accumulating to about 128,000 members, so I thought I'd do a rare blog post on their race. I have been watching but like many others on the outside, have found it very hard to gauge. They don't do things the way a lot of other parties do and they take great pride in that. It's not clear it's necessarily a good thing beyond their membership though, at least if they were hoping that the leadership campaign would be a huge boost to the party's fortunes.

You have leadership campaigns, theoretically anyway, for a few reasons. The campaign is supposed to mean something. Person(s) are supposed to rise to the top, distinguish themselves over the course of many months. Be tested. Make an impression on the great issues of the day. Capture some imaginations, not just in the membership but beyond. 

I haven't felt much if any of that from the NDP candidates and I'm not sure that can be solely chalked up to my being a critical observer. It's hard to peg one or two as having risen to the challenge of this campaign. It's been like a game of inches.

My impression is that Mulcair would be the one candidate you could put above the others, simply by appearing to be the one who is a political breed apart from the rest. He seems like the most politically professional, business like throughout, at times maybe succeeding by not taking the bait from others, such as when Brian Topp took him on during a debate over his environmental platform (stretched for that example). But he hasn't really, truly been challenged by the others. They seem reluctant to do so.

Maybe that's the party cultural thing that many point to. It still seems odd, though, not to have some conflict or at least some major issue over which candidates can disagree and thereby draw enough of a contrast to stand out. Again, since I'm not a party member, maybe I'm missing it. Maybe there's a sense that you don't have to go after a frontrunner, you play for the second choices. But they seem to be forsaking the opportunity to rally the larger Canadian audience with this path.

In terms of other candidates, you could say Cullen's cooperation plank has distinguished him, along with how he's conducted himself personally, presenting as a reasonably likable character, at least slightly moreso than others. Whether his party will roll with him on his plank is an entirely different question though. Any reporting I've seen seems to routinely put a kibosch on party support for the notion and those Leadnow/Avaaz numbers that are being bandied about don't seem to be high enough. (Those groups seemed late in terms of making their appeal on the cooperation front, in relation to the NDP membership deadline.) In a very, very split race, however, who knows how a few thousand votes might figure.

Brian Topp just seems to have lost the initial sheen. So in that way, maybe the duration of the campaign has been helpful. The comments by Francoise Boivin the other day where she, who had initially endorsed Topp, spoke favourably of Mulcair seemed to be quite harmful. Like she was feeling that the winds are changing.

But then the Quebec membership numbers appeared and at 12,000 or so, are not exactly stellar. Does that help or hurt the Mulcair case? Help him as in the need for a Quebec based leader is solidified. Or does it hurt him in that he didn't excite in Quebec enough to even meet his own target? Tough call.

Back to Topp briefly, at least he has tried to stir things up, get things going in the race. If you want to take that as a mark of leadership, he's not afraid to step up. Whether it counts among members, again, who knows! Maybe Topp gets a dance partner, or two or three, finally in the month of March as the voting begins on the 1st and candidates' conduct will be under a greater magnifying glass. Could be a month of opportunity and pitfalls.

One final thought, couldn't help but think, after the numbers rolled in, about one comparative measure in particular. Look at Leadnow who launched in March and have gained 80,000 members (just under 12 months). They're a newbie grassroots online organization. The NDP growth in membership is just over 44,000 in total (5 months). It looks like the NDP would have ended up with around the same number as Leadnow if the time period had been comparable. But shouldn't the official opposition party with a much higher established national profile have done much better?

It might suggest that there is a type of political membership that is more attractive to Canadians at the moment and it is not necessarily membership of the partisan stripe. That could apply to the coming Liberal campaign as well. But it might also suggest that Liberals were wise to create the new supporter category. It's not membership but it's something more flexible that may have a lower barrier to entry. We'll see.