Being spun 9 ways from last Sunday: Post-debate NDP leadership landscape taking shape
December 12th, 2011
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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
You can learn as much about the shape of the federal NDP leadership race from what the various campaigns say about each other, as from their own performance.
With two leadership debates out of the way now, the party's first bilingual one in Ottawa last Sunday (available from CPAC in full bilingual floor sound here, followed by the news conferences here), and the townhall meeting organized by the BC provincial section at their Vancouver convention yesterday (available for the time-being from the BC NDP's Livestream channel here), the contest and the spin wars are starting to be tentatively engaged, and they have a few interesting tells.
Some of the engagement has been at the level of the candidates themselves, while some has been left to their greek choruses on Twitter, Facebook, the Babble boards and assorted blogs.
Presumed front-runner Brian Topp has been a magnet for jabs from an assortment of directions, whether based on people's past encounters with him, their discomfort with the perceived too-early and too-muscular promotion of his candidacy in the media, followed by a series of heavyweight endorsements. That his opponents would pay the compliment of such attention to a retail-political neophyte is a testament to the near-universal acknowledgement of his strategic acumen and policy depth.
But politics is as much art as science, and the realization that learning presentation skills as a candidate is harder than it looks could be humbling for any long-time backroomer. For all that Topp has learned about himself to this point on the campaign trail — and for all his ability to strategically assess the best allocation of time resources in a debate, or the imperative to try and delicately land a hit on an opponent, or to touch gloves by way of setting up a clear distinction, or to play to the crowd in an area of supposed strength — he has not as yet fully mastered the art of retail politics. Some of his shots land with a bit of a thud, or seem ill-timed (trying to debate tax policy with Paul Dewar in answer to an audience question on the environment), or too calculated (inserting a drive-by reference to Buzz Hargrove in his question to Peggy Nash), or a little tone deaf.
And of course he has a lot less experience knowing how long a 30-second intro should feel like, regardless of whether one could see the clock, hear the moderator, or whatever else the problem was in BC Saturday afternoon. Moreover, earlier efforts by some members of his campaign team to corral support by dismissing potential competitors may have reinforced other peoples' resolve to enter the race regardless.
But where Topp excels is in the long-form socratic environments, as reports from OISE in Toronto, restaurants in Nanaimo, BC, or labour centre pubs in Winnipeg repeatedly confirm. His avuncular letters to the membership and the two policy papers he penned, coupled with the body of work in his blog in the Globe and Mail "Second Reading" online section, are ample testament to the man's depth and heart, and his commitment to building a social democratic party capable of governing in Canada.
I suspect Topp has the best strategic intelligence of anyone at this stage of the race, as his campaign is the likeliest author of the online poll of members two weeks ago, and indeed he confirmed to last weekend's post-debate scrum that he thinks he has a pretty good idea of the current ranking of the candidates. His first obvious path to win – inevitability – now looks a little less than inevitable, so his Plan B will necessarily entail making alliances with other candidates. It's not obvious to me at this stage of the game which alliances those might be, however.
Leading candidate and deputy leader Thomas Mulcair is looking much less like a stranger in a strange land as he travels throughout the "rest of Canada", meeting fellow travellers in his adopted party. The accelerated launch of the race left Mulcair's incipient campaign scrambling to catch up, and it's only been in the last number of weeks that his campaign manager has come on full-strength: a development that's now beginning to bear fruit in a leadership campaign more worthy of the calibre of its candidate.
If the first commandment of NDP leadership contests is to "go where the Dippers are", the early stretches of Mulcair's campaign did anything but, as his schedule often put him at the opposite end of the country from large pre-organized gatherings of party members. And he was slow to demonstrate a connection with long-time New Democrats by announcing endorsements from party elders, though this also came with time (notwithstanding that the historic contributions to the party of some of his marquee endorsers like Lorne Nystrom and Ed Schreyer were more, how to say, historical than contemporary). Moreover, Mulcair's itinerary had also seen him miss most of the labour central meetings taking place since the campaign's start: he missed the CUPE national convention in Vancouver, and the provincial conventions of both the Saskatchewan and Ontario Federations of Labour, while his competitors each attended at least one of the three. And he was the only leadership candidate not to campaign in the Saskatchewan provincial election.
Where he seems to be finding much more strength is amongst environmentalists, academics, professionals ("and lawyers; LOTS of lawyers," as one organizer told me). Notably, Mulcair has been endorsed and attended a very well-attended Toronto fundraiser organized by prominent defence attorney for the wrongfully convicted, James Lockyer, along with Peter Zaduk; while in BC he has recently courted Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist Andrew Weaver, joining the UBC's Michael Byers and former Saskatchewan MLA (not MP as I earlier wrote) and public servant Doug McArthur, now at Simon Fraser, along with one of the BC party's vice-presidents, Heather Harrison.
Following the kind of strong debate performance last weekend that long-time political experience permits, the Mulcair organization looked finally to be on a par with that of Topp and Dewar who had been in the field longer, and Nash whose organization emerged almost fully-formed at the time of her somewhat later campaign launch. While he didn't turn any wrong foot at the BC debate Saturday, however, he stood out somewhat less from the field than during last week's match-up, but clearly performed well enough to pick up another slew of endorsements the following day. Predictions of his demise were therefore predictably exaggerated.
I'm fairly sure I was privy to the exchange between Paul Wells and "Mulcair guy" or at least one very similar between "Mulcair guy" and some other opinion leader in the Ottawa press gallery after the first debate. But the spin I heard there, and from Mulcair operatives since then, leads me to believe they now have a very clear path to victory in mind. Namely: to build up the very clip-able Nathan Cullen in BC as a way of limiting Topp's base there, and energetic Niki Ashton on the prairies to likewise stymie Paul Dewar, and then benefit from both their support on subsequent ballots and/or the preferential ballot in advance. Mulcair's people will tell you that Cullen and Ashton are the only other two who showed any charisma in both languages. Coincidentally or not, the two of them showed up at Mulcair's post-debate party at Brixton's Pub last Sunday, rather than Topp's which was held in the opposite direction, and in Cullen's case in spite of his declared preference for Peggy Nash in the debate question on second choices, whose party was steps from the convention centre where the debate occurred.
As a top tier candidate with strong appeal amongst the NDP's activist establishment, Peggy Nash's campaign has been able to chart a course that hasn't put it in direct confrontation with her competitors in the early stages of the contest. Thus her campaign's spin efforts have been almost unanimously positive to date, with only a tiny bit of sniping by some of her younger supporters towards Brian Topp.
She released a series of economic policy papers designed to burnish her credentials in advance of the Ottawa debate, which was followed by a post-debate endorsement by five of the leading progressive economists associated with the party: Andrew Jackson, Jim Stanford, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, Gordon Laxer and Mel Watkins, and then with a series of post-debate provincial telephone town hall meetings early in the week.
Her debate performance has been the most consistent across the two weekends (though the most over-tweeted of any of them yesterday, if you ask this old curmudgeon, who's already had a lifetime's worth of exclamation marks and park-knocking-out-of spinning in her decades of political watching). And Nash has shown a pitch-perfect ear for the right progressive touchstone to invoke with her supporters, without breaking out the full activist's lexicon to a national television audience.
An assessment of some of the candidates' economic platforms by Tom Walkom in the Toronto Star captured some of the nuances between the Topp and Nash philosophies and their approaches towards the market. Dewar is taking a more bite-sized programmatic approach, while Mulcair is focusing on sustainable development for the time being.
A challenge for Nash will be to expand beyond the urban activist base which forms the core of her appeal. Outside Halifax-Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto-Vancouver her support remains largely unproven, though she has picked up key organizers on Vancouver Island and southwest Ontario, and is said to have strong support amongst Hill staff. A Nash-Saganash alliance would complement one another's bases, given the rural focus of his campaign and his status as a Quebec candidate.
The best that can be said about Paul Dewar's somewhat stiff performance in the Ottawa debate is that his campaign didn't try to oversell it in the post-debate spin-wars, but wisely chose to lay low for a few days, break some news with his proposal of public subsidy incentives to promote the nomination of women candidates, and then parlay a critical column by Kelly McParland of the National Post into a second day of news — all so he could live to fight another day.
The smiling, confidant, passionate Dewar of his campaign launch showed up again in Vancouver the following weekend, and proved he shouldn't be counted out, as the chippier of his competitors' campaigns were clearly trying to do a week earlier. He should, however, be given a quota of no more than five "right across this country"'s per speech by his campaign team.
Dewar's french showed some improvement over the past in the Ottawa debate, though apparently at a cost to his overall comfort level, but he will need to demonstrate accelerated progress by his next french language outing to stay in serious contention. To that end, he is apparently travelling with his tutor and spending at least an hour a day working on that objective.
Dewar's bases of support include eastern and northern Ontario, the latter a particularly large concentration of party members and the region for which his key organizer was responsible federally. He is the clear choice of the Manitoba NDP establishment (with Niki Ashton claiming the support of northern MLAs and cabinet ministers, and many of the same Winnipeg supporters as her father's provincial leadership bid of a few years ago), and is also said to have a lot of support in Edmonton, along with the backing of regular party vendors such as Viewpoints Research of Winnipeg and Now Communications in B.C. The campaign boasted of city organizational leads in every city weeks ago, and has a well-developed mainstream media strategy, has staged a variety of event types, and put an early focus on practical propositional policies and grassroots Marshall Ganz-style organizing.
Was Topp targeting Dewar in Ottawa because of his perceived organizational strength, the fact that he had released a jobs plan that Topp needed to tee up against in order to make his point about the revenue side, or did he do it to try and marginalize Mulcair? Who knows, but while that set-to created the only early news cycle story out of the debate, it was only really in the Dewar camp's interest to keep it going, and they decided to just stop talking about the debate altogether instead.
BC's Nathan Cullen has emerged as a media favourite, in part for advocating their pet tactic of forming electoral alliances between the opposition parties. Cullen, a skilled facilitator who is quick on his feet and comfortable in his own skin, argued early on that the leadership wasn't worth seeking if one didn't take some risks with controversial ideas. While, sadly for him, the risk he took in proposing joint nomination meetings instantly put him at the bottom of the list for many New Democrats, he has nevertheless been winning positive reviews for both debate performances, and notably did not mention the joint nomination proposal once during the BC Convention debate.
Niki Ashton, likewise, breezed past the low expectations of casual observers to twice give the kind of spirited performance her five years of electoral experience would make possible for even someone of longer years. What she hasn't rounded that out with as yet is a substantial campaign, though again with a full-time campaign manager just coming on board now, that's expected to change. As would be expected of someone from her generation, she showed very well in a recent study of social media visibility in the leadership race, something BC NDP convention speaker Van Jones from the States reminded delegates not to overlook the power of, if used effectively. Her base is in Saskatchewan, where her campaign manager and co-chair both hail from, and she is also said to be building a team of campus captains across the country.
Romeo Saganash's improved health showed up in improved energy and focus in Vancouver, over his halting english in Ottawa the week before. He is continuing to pick up support in corners across the country, but will have to offer more program specifics to sustain that momentum for another three months. The big unknown is how new membership sign-ups are going for him.
Meanwhile, Kady O'Malley is going to wish she didn't write off Martin Singh's vote potential, I predict. While no other leadership candidate has opened a single campaign office, Singh has opened two of them: storefronts in both Brampton, Ontario and in the Newton-North Delta area of BC. Sign-ups are unlikely to be a problem for him in the very politically active South Asian community, particularly after landing a key organizer in BC (whose boss had already endorsed Topp).
Robert Chisholm picked up the endorsement of long-time friend and former Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton, the highlight of an obviously difficult week for him after the debut of his efforts to date to learn french. In my opinion, if he is determined to stay in the race, as he seems to be, the best contribution he can make to his party is to leverage his evident skills at connecting with people to visit every community in Prince Edward Island, rural Newfoundland, and southern New Brunswick, introduce them to the NDP and sign up as many of them as possible.
Another leadership campaign (at least one presumes that's who it was) conducted a single-question IVR poll Sunday night, asking respondents for their current first ballot choice. So, at least two campaigns have a rough picture of the current standings, one taken prior to the Ottawa debate, the other taken after the BC one.
Suppose Mulcair dominates in Quebec, and shows well in various pockets across the country. Combined with Cullen, Ashton, and perhaps even Singh, that would be a reasonable path for him to win on.
Suppose Topp maintains strength in BC, and benefits from sign-ups and a base of support amongst the private sector unions, from artists, and from his contacts in greater Montreal. That's a base of support that would be well complemented by either Nash's public sector union and activist base or Dewar's regional bases, though many supporters of those other two candidates made their choices after mentally ruling out the supposed top two. If the positions were reversed, on the other hand, Topp could play a decisive role in choosing the final winner as between the two of them. Dewar and Nash could also team up, but would likely need significant support from BC (either themselves or through for example Singh or Cullen) to assemble a winning tally.
Saganash has a lot of sentimental favourite support and will therefore be an attractive ally for whichever campaign builds the successful alliance with his.
For the others, if they can sign up new members and "livrer la marchandise" on voting day they will be able to have a significant influence over the outcome.
At least that's the way I see it this week. Only 12 or so more weeks to go.
For the latest on the NDP Leadership Race, don't forget to follow the half-hourly news updates, and social media tickers at the Pundits' Guide NDPLdr portal page: http://ndpldr.punditsguide.ca