The Push, the Pin, the Polls, the Plea, and the Counterpunch: NDP Leadership Race Gets Competitive
[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
A series of moves and counter-moves by NDP Leadership campaigns over the last few days has set the race on a much more competitive - even combative - footing for the next few weeks leading up to the Winnipeg debate at the end of February.
This time last week, both the Topp and Mulcair camps had been hoping and really expecting to be able to push Paul Dewar out of the contest Monday after what was expected to be a difficult Quebec City debate for him on the weekend. An exit by Dewar, who has been working hard on his french and his performance, but still making uneven progress, would have simplified the race for both (perceived) front-runners. And many observers (and some spinners) were also counting on an early exit by Manitoba M.P. Niki Ashton after weak fundraising numbers became public.
But the lady was not for turning, and Dewar was not born yesterday.
Ashton's campaign took a look at their fundraising progress since the new year, and retooled their message to highlight her ability to speak for her generation. Coupled with her academic background in foreign affairs and facility in the french language, it all allowed her to deliver a much-improved debate performance on the weekend, and live to fight on.
Meanwhile, the pros on Dewar's team had built handling the Quebec City debate into their campaign plan for months, and they were well-prepared to deal with the incoming volleys. The strategy had three parts.
There is a chess move called "a pin", where an opponent's piece is caught in a Catch-22 situation: either move and lose something else, or stay put and be sacrificed. You can't pin your opponent unless they are already badly positioned or step into it, but then again you have to be able to see the opening. The Prime Minister for example thinks he has the NDP pinned when he reportedly says that "if Mulcair wins, I win, and if Mulcair doesn't win, I win".
The move on Sunday began with an innocuous-sounding question from Dewar to Peggy Nash about whether she supported public healthcare, to which she gave the predictable answer "yes". He then followed up by asking what she would do as prime minister if the Québec government were to charge hospital user fees. Wanting to demonstrate that she understood healthcare to be a provincial matter, Nash answered that "We hope that we want our health care system to be public, but really it’s a provincial jurisdiction, so it’s the decision of Quebecers" (translation courtesy Joanna Smith of the Toronto Star).
Fast forward to the scrums after the debate, and Nash was pressed further for details by both english- and french-language reporters, saying that as PM she would make sure the provinces had sufficient funds to run a public system, but again repeating the assertion that it was a provincial jurisdiction and was therefore "their choice".
In his own scrum, the last of the day, Dewar took the obvious questions on his performance and his french, and then on his organizational plan for Quebec, and finally he was asked what he thought of Nash's reply to his question. "I was disappointed," he said. "Why?" the reporters asked him. "Because we dealt with this question in the last election, and Jack was very strong on it. We want to have the Canada Health Act enforced for everyone, and it's not fair that some people would have to pay user fees and not others," Dewar said. And all the reporters went over to mark down that spot on their recorders.
Nash was thus pinned. She would either have to retract her statement, or double-down on it. Dewar showed that he could challenge a female opponent while still behaving like a gentleman, and wedge Nash on an issue that would cause some of her supporters or potential supporters to think again. She responded the next day with an email blast from a young Québec M.P. who had recently endorsed her (Élaine Michaud), and a strong statement to Aaron Wherry of Macleans.ca saying she stood both in favour of the Canada Health Act and against user fees, but still never answering the question of what she would be prepared to do to prevent them if implemented.
UPDATE: Nash finally clarified this last point in a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star on Wednesday.
The next morning at 10 AM Eastern, minutes after Brian Topp's campaign released an endorsement letter from Jack Layton's mother Doris, the Dewar campaign sent a depth charge into the leadership race. They issued a media advisory saying that they would be releasing the results of a very large IVR poll at noon, previewing its sample-size and methodology, and asserting that only three candidates had a path to victory.
Since Brian Topp's "shock and awe" entry into the leadership race, he has been accorded the status of a frontrunner by every observer. But as with the Iraq war, shock and awe after awhile gives way to push-back; and Topp has been struggling to learn the performance aspects of being a candidate as much as Dewar has struggled with his french. To many observers, Topp's shyness, cheshire smile, confidence and occasionally awkward shots at his opponents have not come across well, and his phone bank was renowned for its excessively negative hits on his opponents when voters identified as supporters of other candidates on the first ballot.
That Topp was not in first place was not really a surprise to anyone (likely even him). That a poll would place him slightly behind Nathan Cullen in fifth place was unimaginable for that campaign, which shot back in complete disbelief of the results, impugning their validity and the integrity of the polling firm and the campaign that had commissioned it, and unleashing a torrent of innuendo on Twitter. This was followed by a statement extolling his campaign's own phone canvassing results, hinting that they were more reliable than "robo-calls" (as though calling on behalf of a campaign did not introduce any response bias, when everyone knows that phone canvassing is far better at picking up checks than X's).
Meanwhile, the poll's reported leader, Thomas Mulcair, was left to watch his opponents duke it out for the right to take him on later, while his campaign released their own poll later in the evening, also showing him in first place, though with Dewar lower than Topp. Never get in the way, as they say, when your opponents are already busy with each other.
Finally, Dewar's camp released their raw unweighted results with some other regional information in an email blast later in the evening, accompanied by a defence of their candidate's campaign to date, and a plea to rally the "strong social democratic" forces against a move to take their beloved party to the right. To say this email was badly received by its intended audience (the party establishment backing Topp) would be an understatement, but it clearly signalled Dewar's intentions as to the eventual outcome of the contest.
By Tuesday, the Topp campaign decided it needed to bomb the bridges not only on Dewar's french but on his entire strategy, with the candidate personally giving an interview to the Globe and Mail attacking his opponent (something he had earlier sworn he would never do), and other supporters calling the campaign's late evening e-blast "bizarro".
The Side Story
Meanwhile, Nathan Cullen appears to be building momentum – in some quarters because of his joint nominations proposal (for example, the boost by the LeadNow.ca youth engagement organization, and recovering strategic voting advocates such as Project Democracy's Alice Klein and Catch-22's Gary Shaul) - and in other quarters, increasingly, in spite of it.
And under the radar of the other storylines at the Sunday debate, Cullen happily served as the foil against which Tom Mulcair could demonstrate his bona fides to party faithful by criticizing the Cullen plan, all the while giving it and Cullen more oxygen.
The candidates are each heading out on their own tours between now and the Winnipeg debate on February 26, and thus are unlikely to cross swords again except through the media.
But if there's one thing we can say now, it's that the two ingredients for the national media to find a contest interesting (polls and conflict) have finally surfaced in the NDP leadership race. And these are stories they know how to cover.
Finally, some notes on the data.
The Mulcair poll was done by a consulting firm (they won't say who), which conducted live phone interviews with a sample of 1,105 between February 6-8, 2012, having an undecided rate of 32%, and a margin of error on the national decided vote of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. It reported the following first ballot results, as given to Postmedia News, which were weighted by the proportion of members in each province (as of an unknown date):
Thomas MULCAIR – 31.1 %
Peggy NASH – 17.5 %
Brian TOPP - 14.8 %
Nathan CULLEN – 14.2 %
Paul DEWAR – 13.8 %
Niki ASHTON – 5.3 %
Martin SINGH – 0.9 %
Membership sales close on Saturday, February 18, and the party will be releasing the final membership counts by province on Tuesday, February 21 (five days before the Winnipeg debate). The Mulcair campaign is now setting expectations that it won't meet its earlier goal of 20,000 new members in Quebec, but more probably a figure somewhat above 10,000. Will there be a February upside surprise? I guess we'll have to wait and see. That lower number would represent approximately 270 memberships sold per Québec MP endorsing him for most of the race (I used the figure of 37, although he's recently up to 40 Québec caucus members).
Brian Topp's campaign reports that their checkmarks are running 28% of contact across both phonebanks (Montréal and BC), and that they expect good membership sales from a number of target groups. Martin Singh's campaign earlier reported selling 3,800 new members. The Nash campaign is apparently targetting CAW members for sign-ups, as well.