Towards Stornoway: The Topp campaign

In this week’s print edition—on newsstands tomorrow—John Geddes and I co-author a few thousand words on the NDP leadership race. The piece is based on numerous interviews with those in and around the campaign and hopefully provides some insight into what happened and why. Unfortunately (or fortunately), we ended up with way more material than could be squeezed into the magazine. So that such testimony and explanation doesn’t disappear into my computer’s harddrive, I’m going to detail much of what I have here.

First up, Brian Topp’s campaign.

Shortly after Jim Rutkowski, a senior aide in the Topp campaign, arrived at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Friday, he was asked if it was over. “The first question I got when I got to the floor here from a reporter, a very good reporter, somebody I have great respect for, said to me, ‘So is it true your campaign’s imploding?’ ”

The notion that Brian Topp’s campaign for NDP leader was in trouble had been circulating in one form or another for some time. After a dramatic launch—appearing alongside Ed Broadbent at his introductory news conference, announcing the endorsement of Roy Romanow soon thereafter—the campaign had seemed to hit something of a lull in December. The Dewar campaign’s release of an internal poll in February undermined the notion of Mr. Topp as either the frontrunner or even one half of a two-man race (with Thomas Mulcair). Mr. Broadbent’s attacks on Mr. Mulcair in the final week were viewed as a sign of desperation within the Topp camp. From the outside, the narrative arc of the Topp campaign seemed to move only downward.

The feeling was different inside the campaign. “Every time I turn on the television or read the newspaper I go, oh my god, we’re behind Niki Ashton and just barely ahead of Martin Singh,” campaign manager Raymond Guardia said a few days before the convention. “The advice I keep getting from the elders that I talk to and I rely on for guidance and mentorship say, ‘Believe in your own numbers, believe in your own numbers.’

The campaign’s information was “encouraging,” but the pundits were convinced otherwise, seeming certain of who was running where. ” I have found that kind of punditry unhelpful, certainly unhelpful to our campaign, but those are the breaks,” Guardia said. “And we can surprise people on Saturday.”

Guardia acknowledged that the punditry and the narrative had worked to the campaign’s benefit in the early going. “You know, I wasn’t complaining in September and October … so I can’t have it both ways, either. I just think it happened and if there’s a moral to the story it’s whatever the most compelling narrative out there is the one that’s going to be the most prevalent one. And at various stages, some candidates had it and others didn’t.”

The Topp campaign had sought to be the “the firstest with the mostest”—to not be boring—but the race would take various turns. As the party’s polling numbers in Quebec slipped, holding the party’s seats in the province took on greater importance. After struggling at first, the Mulcair campaign found its footing and benefited from the Quebec concern. The Dewar campaign’s numbers then established Mr. Mulcair as the clear frontrunner. Peggy Nash and Mr. Dewar came to be seen as possible contenders, alternatives to Mr. Mulcair. Nathan Cullen seemed to gain momentum with each passing week. But underneath all that, at least in the final two weeks, there was a two-man race emerging.

“It’s pretty remarkable, in terms of media coverage over the last couple of weeks,” Guardia noted, “if you’re Peggy Nash, if you’re Paul Dewar, even Nathan Cullen to a certain extent, although he’s had a few momentum stories that have been helpful to him, but Nash and Dewar, they’re nowhere to be found in the coverage because the coverage has become Mulcair and Topp, centre or stay true to your values.”

(That makings of that had been established months earlier. “January was a far better month for us. We got back and took Tom on and in a way contributed to the polarizing of the race that we saw early on,” Guardia recalled. “That was I think, very early January, when Brian first challenged Tom on his take the party to the centre approach.”)

For the sake of narrative, Topp was also showing improvement on the public stage. “I think the advantage we had in a way was that he kept on improving, whereas everybody else because they were, quote, more seasoned and more professional, pretty much, what you saw was what you got,” Guardia argued. Shortly after second ballot results were announced on Saturday afternoon, I sat down with Rutkowski and asked if anything had surprised him about the leadership campaign. After thinking about it for a moment, he talked about his candidate. “It’s been really interesting to watch a candidate like Brian. I mean, Brian did surprise me,” he said. “I mean, you jump into this game, into politics from where he was, and I think he just showed an extraordinary ability. And I think you saw that in the speech that he gave … He was giving those speeches around the country. He was connecting with people like that around the country. That was having an effect. And it’s why we did well on the first ballot.”

That sense had been supported by the results of the first two ballots. “It does confirm what we believed about our campaign. That it was strong, that we had a clear message and that our ground organization, combined with the extraordinary reach of the excellent people who had come around by it, was having an impact,” Rutkowski said. “And all of that together … andI shouldn’t exclude the candidate, also Brian was getting the response, particularly in the last couple months, at the town hall meetings he was doing, was really quite extraordinary. He was building a support base. I saw him him address a room in Winnipeg, 40-50 people … his message resonated. It really resonated with people. And so people were coming on board, but you never know for sure.”

So the Topp campaign wasn’t imploding. But it also wasn’t winning. On the third ballot, he trailed Mr. Mulcair 31.6 to 43.8. Some observers speculated that Mr. Topp should have stepped aside at that point. But the Topp campaign still saw a chance. Cullen supporters in British Columbia were thought to overwhelmingly support Mr. Topp as a second choice. The two phone banks that the Topp campaign were operating throughout the convention might’ve been able to find the necessary votes. “When I saw the third ballot results, I realized that it was a big, big hill to climb,” Rutkowski told me on Monday. “Although you keep hope alive always when you’re in politics. I knew how big a climb it was, so I wasn’t surprised when we lost, but I never gave up complete hope that we might.”

There was apparently no discussion before the third ballot results were announced about dropping out. If Mr. Mulcair’s support had been something like 48%, such a discussion would’ve been made unavoidable. But at 43 to 31, the Topp campaign would continue. “There was no question of moving on,” Rutkowski said. “I think that was a totally reasonable and sane decision to take.”

In the moment it seemed a controversial decision. It was getting late, the voting was taking longer than expected, party unity seemed something of a concern. That consternation might soon be forgotten to the history books, but, for the record, Brian Topp had his reasons. In an email on Monday evening, he explained himself in some detail.

First, why drop out when you still have chance to win? We had two phone banks working until the final ballot closed. It was a long shot, trying to engineer the 7% swing required to win that final ballot — but I’m used to long shots. It’s always been my advice to the federal NDP never to concede in the middle of an election. I was taking my own advice.

Second, we have no tradition of candidates negotiating an end to voting in leadership races. James Laxer (1971), Rosemary Brown (1975), and Dave Barrett (1989) all let members make the final decision, staying to the end against David Lewis, Ed Broadbent and Audrey McLaughlin, respectively.

The only exception was Svend Robinson in 1995, who conceded to Alexa McDonough after a single ballot. I listened to his meeting with his delegates after he did that — they were incredulous he had (many of them seemed to feel) deprived them of their chance to vote, their chance to say how they felt the leadership should go.

Learning from this, I felt it better to hold to the traditions of our party, which leave it to the members to decide who the leader is.

By 9pm, the members had made that decision. Shortly beforehand, Mr. Topp’s supporters gathered together to make one last march down the escalator to the convention floor, singing Ease on Down the Road, the theme song to The Wiz, as they went.

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