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.

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