The NDP leads the race, but Mulcair still needs definition

Tom Mulcair: In front but not quite in focus

The NDP tops polls, but Mulcair’s image remains fuzzy

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Within a year of Thomas Mulcair winning the NDP leadership in the spring of 2012, the party’s strategists were admitting they had a problem. Mulcair was an experienced, sure-footed politician, yet something crucial was missing.

It was a personal narrative, something voters could latch onto for a sense that they sort of knew this guy. So, in the spring of 2013, the NDP debuted a video about his life—big-family upbringing and all—at a policy convention in Montreal. They touted it to reporters as the beginning of a concerted push to introduce him properly to the country beyond his native Quebec.

You don’t recall the video? Don’t worry, nobody does. That early effort to inject Mulcair, the great guy, into the collective imagination failed. Part of the problem was that Mulcair, the tough politician, was so much more riveting. After all, the Mike Duffy affair broke big that same spring, and Mulcair started making question period fun again with his relentlessly precise drilling—almost minimalist in its efficiency—for answers from a beleaguered Stephen Harper.

Yet the anxiety among NDP backroom players that Mulcair still needed to be known, or known differently, never dissipated. They watched Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau riding high in the polls, largely because he seemed so approachable, and his backstory, as son of a famous PM, meant many Canadians instantly felt familiar with him. By early this year, the imperative to convey a more rounded Mulcair, to showcase qualities beyond his House of Commons tenacity, was being reasserted as the top priority by his advisers.

A reconfigured group of senior aides put Mulcair on the road through much of 2015 with a stump speech that highlighted his yarn, which is pretty interesting. “Growing up the second-oldest of 10 kids,” he said, over and again,we had to work for everything we had . . .” And now, in the still-early stages of this marathon 78-day campaign, his NDP is, to the surprise of many, leading in the polls.

All that repetition, one might reasonably conclude, must finally have driven home a notion of Mulcair that Canadians feel comfortable enough about to contemplate voting for him. But there are signs something less definitive has happened. Consider the data presented by Leslie Church, Google Canada’s head of public affairs and communications, at a panel discussion hosted by Maclean’s in Ottawa earlier this week.

Church pointed out that, among online searches for information this month about the federal campaign, questions about the NDP outnumber those about the Liberals or Conservatives. But among searches for information about the leaders, questions about Mulcair remain far less frequent than those about Harper or Trudeau.

In other words, when voters are wondering about the election, they seem to be markedly more curious about the NDP, relatively speaking, than about Mulcair. For both of the other main parties, that relationship between leader and party, in the inquisitive minds of Google searchers, is reversed; the leaders tend to draw relatively more questions than the parties.

Church also listed the top campaign-related questions about the issues, as measured by the number of online searches. Is Canada in a recession? Who does Trudeau consider middle class? Is the U.S. economy recovering? Is the Keystone pipeline a good idea? She noted that questions about platforms on climate change, taken together, ranked fifth. But here’s the interesting nuance: Searchers tended to ask about Harper’s policy, or Trudeau’s, or the NDP’s—rather than Mulcair’s.

None of this is to suggest that Mulcair’s personal profile isn’t an important aspect of his party’s recent surge in the polls. Abacus Data this week put the NDP in front with 35 per cent, followed by the Conservatives at 29 per cent and the Liberals at 26 per cent. Supporting that snapshot of the horse race, Mulcair is seen in a positive light by 41 per cent, according to Abacus, compared to 35 per cent for Trudeau and 28 per cent for Harper.

Still, Abacus pollster David Coletto, who participated in our panel discussion with Church, agreed with her that there remain telling signs that Mulcair’s persona is overshadowed in some ways by the NDP brand, which is clearly not the case for Harper or Trudeau. For instance, Abacus asked survey respondents to use just one word to sum up what they thought the election is about, and while words like “change,” “expensive” and “economy” came up most often, both “Harper” and “Justin” also figured. But search even the smallest print on the word cloud Abacus created to illustrate those responses, and you won’t find “Mulcair” at all, let alone “Tom.” The name of the leader on top in the polls didn’t figure.

There are reasons a voter might be thinking, “Maybe the NDP,” rather than, “Maybe Mulcair.” The surprise for Canadians from Alberta earlier this year wasn’t that somebody called Rachel Notley won; it was that the NDP did. The history of the party taking power in Edmonton, not the new premier’s qualities as an individual, drew our attention. Even the federal NDP’s 2011 election breakthrough—despite almost entirely resulting from the late Jack Layton’s unique appeal in that campaign—has gone down in political lore, to the great benefit of the party he left behind, as the “orange crush.”

The fact that the NDP brand remains as important as Mulcair’s image is among the most fascinating, and unexpected, elements in the early weeks of this campaign. But it can’t go on this way. As Canadians realize that Mulcair is seriously contending to actually win, they will surely grow rapidly more interested in who might be prime minister, not just which party he leads.

Those NDP strategists who have long wanted Canadians to show an interest in Mulcair as an individual with a life story, not just as a parliamentary performer, are about to have their wish come true. What that inevitable shift of focus to the front-runner’s saga does to their recent ride on a polling updraft could be the story of the long weeks of campaigning still ahead.


Tom Mulcair: In front but not quite in focus

  1. I’m sure Macleans and the rest of the MSM will help to raise his profile a bit more, because of their distaste for the newly modernized liberal party of Canada under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. After all they(MSM) did a good job on promoting his Perry Mason moment in the HOCs. But the truth is, Thom is a carbon copy of the guy who now sits in the drivers seat. Canadians know who Trudeau is, and now starting are to see the real Harper. Voters are also just getting a taste of the man who speaks to French PQ in one tone, and speaks to English Canada in another tone, he also has been wearing flip-flops, while dithering over debates. Remember MSM, JFK was only 43 when he became the president of the United States of America, so don’t be too quick to rule out Trudeau as PM, and remember, Harper was only 45 when he won his first shift as PM, but he, Steve has really stunk up the PMO and the job as PM, with his cover-up, to cover-up a cover-up, it is an insult to the democracy of our country and it’s institutions.

    • The difference between the young JFK/Harper and Trudeau is that they had IQ’s over 100.

      • Those with IQs over 100 don’t used apostrophes incorrectly.

        • The IQ’s owner does not grasp the correct use of the apostrophe.

    • It is obscene to compare Justin Trudeau to JFK,for obvious reasons.

      • True, JFK was a raving lunatic who almost brought the world to nuclear doom over
        the Cuban missile crisis. JFK also had a hard time keeping his pants on.

  2. Mr. Mulcair should be hounded daily on his lack of integrity, honesty, and corruption in QC and the Charbonneau Comm Inquiry where he sat silently and denied everything until the Charbonneau Comm Inquiry was demanded by the people of QC. They lambasted Charest to call the Inquiry into corruption and Charest had to either call it or not, the people/businesses were ready to revolt. He called it and then, and ONLY then did Mr. Mulcair speak to investigators and admit it. Also, lots of photos of Tony Accurso, Mulcair and Charest. Yachts of the la familia, climb on board gents and let’s get er done!

    Also Mulcair needs to be hounded in the media about owing tax payers close to $3 MILLION dollars.

    The board ruled last August that the MPs had inappropriately used their House of Commons budgets to pay for 28 employees in satellite party offices in Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto.

    On average, sources say the MPs are being asked to pay back about $30,000.

    But for some MPs the tab is more than $100,000; sources say the leader’s office is being asked to reimburse about $400,000.

    The NDP is challenging the board’s ruling on the satellite offices in Federal Court, as well as an earlier ruling that found New Democrat MPs had wrongly used $1.17-million worth of free parliamentary mailing privileges to paper 26 ridings with almost 2 million partisan missives.

    In the case of the mailings, the board ordered the MPs to repay $36,000 to the Commons and urged Canada Post to recover the rest.

    It emerged Tuesday that lawyers for the board and the NDP have been discussing the possibility of an out-of-court settlement of both matters and jointly asked the court last November to suspend proceedings pending further negotiations.

    Those negotiations are still in progress.

    The NDP maintains its MPs have done nothing wrong and that both decisions are the result of a partisan gang-up by Conservatives and Liberals on the board.

    “NDP parliamentary staff have always performed parliamentary duties,” NDP House leader Peter Julian said in a statement late Tuesday, referring to the board as a “kangaroo court.”

    “No evidence to the contrary has ever been provided by our Liberal and Conservative opponents who are acting as judge, jury and executioner against all principles of natural justice.”

    News that the board has sent bills to more than five dozen MPs was first revealed late Tuesday in a bizarrely worded statement from NDP whip Nycole Turmel, who is the authorized spokesperson for the board. She is also one of the MPs who’s been ordered to repay money for the satellite office scheme.

    Her statement noted that none of the MPs or satellite office employees has been heard by the board. Moreover, she said “multiple errors have been identified in the [dollar] amounts cited.”

    “The goal of today’s decision is to create leverage against the MPs cited” by the board, she asserted.

    A later statement from Andrew Scheer, Speaker of the Commons and chair of the board, identified the number of MPs involved in the satellite office scheme and the total amount owed. It made no such references to errors, lack of due process or the board’s motivation.

    “Since members [of Parliament] are responsible for the use of House resources, they bear sole responsibility for any inappropriate use,” Scheer said.

    Should New Democrat MPs lose the court challenge and still refuse to pay, the board can order a garnishee of their salaries

    Where is the MEDIA on these two issues … CORRUPTION and $3 Million of taxpayers money???

    Don’t even get me started on Trudeau!

  3. again, we see the media with this elitist tripe about voters not understanding the issues – and it’s engrained to the point that when they get evidence that people are interested in the issues more than they are in the “charisma” of the leader, they have to find some way to explain it, to work it into their warped narrative – or perhaps to even distract from the issues, because it’s conventional wisdom that cold, cerebral issues sell less units than personalized, special interest pieces.

    i’d like to get trump up here, have him round you all up in an auditorium and give you what’s coming.

    hopefully, the internet evolves enough that the media is out of the picture by the next election – so we can focus on the issues.

    • Several studies have shown that the media in general is left wing. Harper would need to be Mother Teresa to get any positive recognition!!

      • Several unnamed studies – right I see. Meanwhile below is an actual list of papers who endorsed the Tories in 2011 – including the two national newspapers, and our one national political magazine. Kind of give the lie to your argument, doesn’t it:

        • The Brampton Guardian
        • The Recorder and Times (Brockville)
        • Burlington Post
        • Calgary Herald
        • Calgary Sun
        • The Economist
        • Edmonton Journal
        • Edmonton Sun
        • Etobicoke Guardian
        • The Globe and Mail
        • The Mississauga News
        • The Gazette (Montreal) ]
        • The Hamilton Spectator
        • Inside Toronto
        • Maclean’s
        • National Post
        • Oakville Beaver
        • Ottawa Citizen
        • Ottawa Sun
        • The Province (Vancouver)
        • The Suburban (Quebec)
        • Sudbury Star
        • Toronto Sun
        • The Vancouver Sun
        • Waterloo Region Record
        • Windsor Star
        • Winnipeg Free Press
        • Winnipeg Sun

  4. Am I the only one to remember how we got here?

    Jack Leyton, despite being one of the nicest guys around, made the biggest mistake in recent political history.
    Let us not forget that it was Mulcair’s boss and ally that forced this last election that gave Harper his majority and a free reign to destroy Canada, had Leyton continued in his role as a king maker in a minority government, none of Harper’s folly could have been realized…None !