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Is Tom Too Calm?

As NDP plunges, pundits blast Mulcair's mild campaign. But strategists say there's more to come.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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While some observers have been quick to count out the New Democratic Party under leader Tom Mulcair, party officials are still banking on making the case to voters in the final weeks of the campaign that the NDP is the best option to defeat Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"We have an endgame plan we are implementing now," said Brad Lavigne, an adviser to the NDP campaign. Various issues have arisen during the last five weeks that have moved the polls, but when it comes time to vote, most people will make their decision based on turfing the Tories, he said.

"If your ballot question is getting rid of Stephen Harper, the only party that can do that is the NDP," said Lavigne. "We know that message resonates."

Throughout the campaign, Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have been fighting to position their respective parties as the best to bring a change of government to Ottawa. So as the leaders entered the French language debate on Oct. 2 on TVA, the final debate of the campaign, pundits described the stakes as high, especially for Mulcair whose NDP held most Quebec seats going into the election.

In that debate, Mulcair accused Harper of using the niqab issue to distract from his own record that had weakened Canada's economy and shown poor job creation, and he pointed out that despite what Trudeau says about the country's finances on the campaign trail, the Liberal leader had voted for Harper's budgets in Parliament.

But Mulcair's final remarks kept a calm tone as he stressed his experience and said he had a plan to repair the damage done by Harper. He encouraged people to vote for hope. Trudeau, in contrast, said people have had enough of Harper and encouraged them to dream big, invest in the future and be ambitious for the country.

Early lead

The NDP started the campaign period leading in most polls and was seen by many as having a good chance to form the federal government for the first time in its history. But by the start of October, with just over two weeks until voting day, the party had dipped to third place, according to Éric Grenier's poll tracker on the CBC website, which averages publicly available poll results.

One survey, an Angus Reid Institute result released Oct. 1, found "modest increases for the CPC and Liberals of four and three points respectively, while the New Democrats have seen their support decline by fully 10 points over the last month, largely due to softening support among eligible voters in Quebec and Ontario."

The online poll of some 2,000 eligible voters had the Conservatives at 34 per cent with the NDP and Liberals tied at 27 per cent. The firm also found Mulcair had the worst momentum score of any of the leaders.

Other polls had similar results and were duly reported in the media. "NDP slide in poll appears to signal end of three-party tie," read an Oct. 1 Globe and Mail headline.

A few days earlier, Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin had concluded "the [NDP's] big dream of winning it all, a dream that looked so achievable at the campaign's outset, is gone."

Over at the National Post, like Martin, Richard Warnica argued that running a cautious, risk-averse, front-runner's campaign had backfired for the NDP.

Echoes of BC 2013

For observers in British Columbia, where the NDP's provincial wing lost an election in 2013 that it was widely expected to win, the federal dynamics were feeling eerily familiar.

"The federal NDP campaign in 2015 was starting to look like the 2013 BC NDP campaign," said Bill Tieleman, a Tyee and 24 Hours Vancouver columnist and political strategist who directed communications for the BC Federation of Labour and NDP premier of B.C. Glen Clark.

Tieleman said the federal NDP, which uses many of the same senior strategists who were involved in the B.C. defeat, had been playing it safe, and he particularly lamented the lack of attack ads targeting the party's opponents.

"I've seen that change in the last week," he said, noting the party is now widely running an ad that reminds voters of Conservatives who have been charged or convicted of crimes including electoral fraud. The ad features footage of former Conservative ethics spokesperson Dean Del Mastro being led in handcuffs to a police van.

"The NDP attack ad on the Conservatives is clearly the toughest ad any party has put out this campaign, by a mile," Tieleman said. "I like hardball."

Guy Gentner, a former NDP MLA who is volunteering on a federal campaign in Powell River, said he had worries the campaign was too complacent, but everything seems back on track with the focus on integrity. "Certainly they've rebooted it and hopefully they're back on message," he said.

Gentner said he's paying little attention to polling, but added the slide could turn out to be useful. "People are getting in gear again," he said. "It's waking the rank and file up. 'Roll up your sleeves, we can still win this one, start working hard.'"

Deliberately dialled down?

Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of political science at York University in Toronto, said the federal campaign has felt more like the B.C. flop than the 2015 Alberta breakthrough. "They've been running the same campaign that failed in British Columbia," he said. "Mulcair is not connecting, and the party has not made the best choices in crafting their message for the public."

The NDP strategists seemed to count on voters wanting a change from Harper and that Trudeau would be seen as lacking depth, but so far it hasn't worked, he said.

"Mulcair has deliberately dialled down the enthusiasm," Pilon said. While that might prevent pundits and opinion makers from finding the NDP threatening, and might be forgiven by the party's base as a reasonable approach, he said, "It doesn't necessarily send people running into your arms who don't normally support you."

The Liberals and Conservatives are better connected with corporate Canada and tend to be treated better by the corporate media, so it's understandable the NDP might want to play it safe, Pilon said. "The evidence is they're not going to get a fair shake. I still think they need to take risks."

For example, Trudeau's pledge to run deficits has been widely accepted, Pilon said. "If the New Democrats came out and said they'd run a deficit, all the dogs would pounce on them."

The NDP has some good policies around making daycare cheaper and raising the minimum wage for federal workers, but with the economy grinding down there was an opportunity for the NDP to present a broader vision, he said. "[Their platform] doesn't sound sweeping enough."

Pilon said Trudeau talks a good game, but expressed doubt that he would be able to deliver, as his government would be beholden to powerful interests as past Liberal governments have been.

There's still a long way until Oct. 19, Pilon noted. "It's still early days," he said. "There's something fundamentally unpredictable about election campaigns."

'Very competitive': NDP adviser

NDP adviser Lavigne said that despite the views of columnists and the reporting on polls showing the NDP trailing, three other polls since Thursday put the party in second. "It's very competitive," he said. "With 17 days to go in the campaign, this is an incredibly competitive race."

The NDP is now running ads targeting Harper, but also two contrasting the NDP with the Liberals. One highlights the Liberal support of Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism law, while the other reminds people of Trudeau accepting speaking fees from charities and school boards while he was also collecting an MP's salary, Lavigne said. "It shows the bad judgment that Mr. Trudeau has shown," he said.

The timing is deliberate, rather than a response to recent polls, he said. "We've always ensured we have most our resources toward the end."

But the main message is that the NDP has the best chance to defeat Harper, Lavigne said. The party has incumbents in three times as many ridings as the Liberals do, making the NDP path to forming government much clearer, he said.

"Now, as we enter the close, our focus will be laser like," he said.  [Tyee]

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