Monday, January 30, 2012

Who can grow the NDP?

Late last week, Abacus Data released a very interesting poll on the NDP leadership race. It wasn't about who should win or who would win, but rather whether Canadians were familiar with the candidates, whether they would induce them to vote NDP, and what they were looking for in an NDP leader.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers, I invite you to take a look at my latest column in The Hill Times here on the opportunity that the current level of NDP support gives the next leader. You may need a subscription to read it, but The Hill Times is well worth it! Also, check out my round-up of polls in Alberta since the last election on The Globe and Mail website here.

The most important numbers in the NDP poll deal with name recognition. Are Canadians aware of the eight people vying for the job of Leader of the Opposition?

The answer is that a lot of them aren't. Fully 40% of Canadians did not recognize any of the eight leadership contenders. Thomas Mulcair's name was the most recognized, with 36% of Canadians aware of him. Brian Topp, who was a relative unknown when the campaign began, appears to have been successful getting his name out as 31% of Canadians recognized him. Paul Dewar came in third with 27%, while Peggy Nash was in fourth with 23% recognition.

About one-quarter to one-third of Canadians appear to be aware of the four frontrunners in the race. After that, however, it really drops off: 11% for Roméo Saganash, 9% for Niki Ashton, and 8% for Nathan Cullen and Martin Singh.

Among NDP supporters, people who should be more interested in the race, 35% were still unable to name one of the candidates. Among those who could, the order was not any different nor was the proportion who could recognize them. But every candidate except Nash had better or equal recognition among NDP supporters as they did among Canadians. That Nash had a lower recognition score among her party's own supporters is slightly odd.

Thomas Mulcair, of course, was top in Quebec at 67% recognition. Topp (31%) and Saganash (24%) followed. Atlantic Canadians were most familiar with Dewar (32%), while Singh got a good score (18%). Ontarians were most familiar with Dewar (36%) and Nash (33%), while western Canadians were most familiar with Topp (35%). Niki Ashton (15%) and Nathan Cullen (18%) had their best results among this group. Dewar's 30% was quite good as well, indicating he has decent name recognition across the country.

What was interesting is that Liberals were more aware of the race than NDP supporters - only 29% were unable to recognize a single the candidate. Conservatives were more indifferent, with 42% unable to name any of the candidates.

But it was the question of whether any of the candidates would make Canadians more likely to vote NDP that interested me the most. It speaks to growth potential for the NDP and among which groups each of the candidates might be able to make the most inroads.

First, I noted that 28% of Canadians "would never vote NDP". That is a surprisingly small number, and gives the NDP plenty of growth potential. The number was even lower in Atlantic Canada (22%) and Quebec (14%), but was higher in Ontario (30%), British Columbia (33%), and Alberta (55%). Nevertheless, the ingredients of an NDP majority do appear to exist.

But which leader is most likely to get them there?
Click on the image to magnify. The circles for each of the leaders are proportional to their recognition score. It shows quite clearly how the four frontrunners are very far ahead of the others.

Among all Canadians, Mulcair gets the best score in terms of being able to make people more likely to vote for the NDP (21%, most of it in Quebec). Topp is second with 10%. But it is more interesting to look at the breakdowns.

Thomas Mulcair would be best positioned to grow (or at least sustain) the party in Quebec, as 78% of Bloc supporters and 62% of Quebecers would be more likely to vote NDP with him at the helm. He also would be able to grow the party in the Prairies (18%) and could draw in the support of Liberals (18%) and Greens (16%).

Brian Topp, however, would bring in British Columbians (17% of whom said they would be more likely to vote for a Topp-led NDP), Atlantic Canadians (16%), Albertans (13%), and Conservatives (9%).

Paul Dewar gets the green light from Greens (21%), Atlantic Canadians (16%), Ontarians (15%), and Liberals (13%), while Peggy Nash attracts Ontarians (14%) and Liberals (10%) as well.

The other four would have far less potential for growth than the others. Roméo Saganash and Niki Ashton's best demographic are Prairie Canadians (8% and 10%, respectively), while Nathan Cullen and Martin Singh do best in their home provinces (10% in BC for Cullen, 3% in Atlantic Canada for Singh).

Each of the frontrunners, then, has the potential to grow the party in different parts of the country. According to this poll, New Democrats concerned with holding on to Quebec would be best to vote for Mulcair. Those who want to grow the party in the western provinces might like Topp, while Dewar and Nash could put the party in a better position in Ontario.

Brian Topp, however, might have the best all-around numbers. He is second in Quebec to Mulcair, though he is far behind at 8% who say they would be more likely to vote NDP with Topp as leader. He is also close behind Dewar and Nash in Ontario with 9%. But Mulcair is not badly position either. Though he ranks fourth in Ontario, he is better placed than Dewar and Nash in western Canada.

This poll does not provide any clues as to how the members of the NDP will vote, nor was it designed to. The members will choose who they think is the best person to lead their party, but Canadians will decide whether that leader is the best person to lead the country. The two decisions are, of course, connected.


  1. The only thing this highlights is that the NDP will have to do a media push with the new leaders so they can define who he/she is before the Conservatives do with negative adds (hello Dion and Ignatieff).

    Part of the problem is the lack of coverage in the MSM but there's no sense crying about that. All the NDP can do is use social media. #ndpdb8 was the leading trending topic on twitter all day yesterday, even with the All-Star game and the Shafia media trial, so there is interest. Pundit's Guide said this last week:
    "For the mainstream media who are having trouble finding anything to cover in this race, well first of all you have to show up. You can't cover the NDP Leadership Race from Hy's, nor from Twitter. I'm sorry you have two decades' worth of Liberal sources you've cultivated over the years, but they can't help you cover this either (not that they wouldn't be willing to give it the old college try)."

  2. I don't think complaining about the media is a good strategy for the NDP. The goal should be to welcome and encourage media coverage. When a few journalists went to the recent NDP event in Toronto, the coverage was about how the debate wasn't very interesting. The ones who went to the Montreal event talked more about Mulcair's absence. So it's a bit more than merely having the media show up.

  3. "Interesting" debates aren't always very good for a party though. Case in point: the brutal no-holds-barred fight going on in the Republican Primaries in the US right now. Entertaining? Yes. Good for the Republican Party? Not so much...

    If were the NDP I'd just focusing on picking the best leader and going from there. More importantly, I'd focus on deciding whether to shift to the centre to make a win more likely, or to stay true to their own ideals.

  4. Query how keen the Tories will be to try to vilify the next NDP leader. If they're worried about the NDP picking up votes and gaining seats (say, on the prairies or BC), that strategy makes sense. If they're worried about the Liberals picking up seats (for example, because center-left voters shift back to the Liberals in Toronto), that strategy doesn't make sense.

    Plus, if the Liberals elect Bob Rae as their permanent leader, that'll be a two-fer for the Tories. They can attack him, while implicitly slagging the NDP (i.e., "As NDP leader, Bob Rae was a disaster for Ontario. Why let him do to Canada what he to Ontario? yada, yada, yada").

  5. I would rather have the media complain about the NDP contest being boring that have it be "interesting" in the way that the GOP contest is in the US with constant character assassination by Romney, Gingrich etc...A year ago everyone was complaining that the BC NDP leadership race was sooo "boring" compared to all the high drama in the BC Liberal contest to pick a successor to Gordon Campbell. Now a year later, the product of the boring NDP contest - Adrian Dix - has a double digit lead in the polls and is poised to win the next election, while the product of the "exciting" BC Liberal contest - Christy Clarke - has proven to be a total fiasco as premier and will be demolished when she finally dares to call an election.

  6. There's a difference between "compaining about the media" and "giving the media a tongue-lashing for determinedly keeping the race out of the mainstream spotlight".

    Look at the massive amount of free press lavished on a two-day (and largely uneventful) Liberal convention, then look at the struggle to find any mainstream/non-partisan coverage whatsoever of the NDP leadership race, and then tell me there isn't a huge and unspoken double standard in this country's media.

    The NDP should never be hostile to the media (that's the Conservatives' general MO after all), but should they have to suck up to the press for basic coverage of what will be a critical turning point on the national stage?

  7. Interesting doesn't have to mean destructive. A lively debate about different ideas that matter to Canadians would be interesting. One of the reasons Cullen's combined NDP/LPC/GPC nomination idea has gotten a lot of attention is that it is a big difference between the candidates.

    If the candidates have generally similar plans then it is a good thing for party unity going forward. But unless those are very different from what the NDP has stood for before, it isn't going to get a lot of attention from the media.

    DL, the Clark/Dix dynamic doesn't really exist at the federal level, though. And much of the NDP's lead in BC is built on the emergence of the BC Conservatives, not on taking votes from the BC Liberals. The NDP might be doing just as well in BC under Farnworth or Horgan. Harper is also a known quantity, so it doesn't seem likely that opinion will turn so dramatically against him. I'm not sure if the federal NDP will be able to count on the kind of angry electorate that there is in BC.

    Adam, the turning point (the convention itself) will get more coverage than the recent Liberal convention, you can be sure of that. The Liberal convention, however, had some things at stake, tough decisions to be made. The NDP leadership race doesn't have that yet. Coverage will change once we get close to the NDP convention. The Liberal one only received a lot of attention in the run-up. The NDP convention is still two months away.

  8. I think Mulcair is the best to grow the party. I'm very impressed by him so far. I think the NDP should pick him to entrench the Quebec support (since Quebec is not very loyal to any party).

    And he has appeal beyond the NDP base, he attracts liberals, greens for sure. He was a good environment minister in quebec.

  9. The most important number is Who is best able to grow the party in Quebec. Mulcair is supported by 62% . Topp by only 8% and the rest hardly even register. The NDP would be exceedingly foolish to ignore these numbers.

  10. Nazar, I like Mulcair's chances to grow the party too, but I suspect he may be a little too centre for most NDPers. That's the real question here - does the NDP want to become the Liberals 2.0 and have a good shot at power, or do they want to remain social democrats and risk being frozen out of power for years to come? It'll be interesting.

  11. I don't think the Tories will run immediate attack ads. They're still focused on destroying the Liberals. I expect to see a lot of ads showing pictures of Bob Rae and Shiela Copps before too long.

    The Conservatives would love to see the NPD emerge as a long-term credible opposition, because that would mean the Liberals were gone.

  12. Ira,

    Do you think the Conservatives are THAT stupid, or something? The NDP are the largest and therefore the most immediate threat. The second they choose a leader, the Conservatives will either be out or work straight away on attack ads. If they instead focus on just kicking around the third party, they're going to miss the chance to nip another bud before it blooms in the NDP - and that right there would spell the end of their government. All it takes is for anti-incumbency to kick in and the NDP become the prime beneficiaries.

    Besides, the Conservatives has the resources to run two sets of ads - one against the NDP, one against the Liberals. Why wouldn't they kill two birds with one stone?

  13. Sheila Copps Ira? Why? She has no position whatsoever with the Liberals right now.

  14. Volkov,

    If I were running the Conservative campaign I might adopt a tactic of ignoring the NDP and focusing on the Liberals for a couple reasons:

    1. An NDP-to-Liberal swing is almost as bad for the Conservatives as a Conservative-to-NDP swing, as it puts a lot of seats in Ontario in play. I wouldn't want to risk that.

    2. Attacking the NDP implicitly validates them as an alternative to the Conservatives. This may sound convoluted, but I feel it's true. And it's a big mistake that the BC Liberals made with the BC Conservatives.

    I'm not saying that's what they'll end up doing (or that it's "fair") but just that it's plausible.

  15. The NDP has the greatest potential out west because they are polling strong and many of the close seats are currently held by Conservatives. The next NDP leader would be foolish to abandon the west to keep Québec because that would mean another Conservative majority. Québec is a volatile province so it would be better to try to secure seats in their western heartland (Bob Rae is the most trusted leader and the leader with the best vision for Canada in Québec so that could mean that the NDP could lose many of its rookie Québec MPs).

    I don't particularly see the Conservatives putting lots of money in ads to attack Bob Rae when the NDP poses a bigger threat to their seats (the most the Liberals could do is take back a handful of seats in the GTA and the Atlantic, while the NDP could take a larger chunk of seats in the Conservative base).

  16. There is a good chance that Mulcair becomes NDP leader and Rae becomes the permanent Liberal leader. If thats the case, the Liberals and NDP would start to look similar as both leaders do not differ greatly in ideology.

    There is also a factor of irony as Mulcair was a Quebec Liberal and Rae of course the notorious NDP premier of Ontario.

    A Mulcair-Rae coalition in 2015 perhaps?

  17. Ryan,

    The greatest source of votes for the NDP right now is the Conservatives. Not because of ideological similarities, but because the roughly 10% of the electorate that's not the CPC's base but currently park their votes with them anyways are generally the middle-ground, centrist voters that see the Conservatives as such, and could easily see the NDP as such as well under the right circumstances.

    And again, why can't and why wouldn't the Conservatives just attack both? It's not as if they don't have the resources to.

    I don't buy the argument that "attacking them validates them" - it's BS. People simply have to pay attention to the news at least once between 2011 and 2015 to see, "Liberals third place, NDP Official Opposition," and realize that the NDP are a lot better positioned than the Liberals are. The NDP are already validated as the main Opposition party - the question is whether or not they can get the momentum to capitalize on it. The Conservatives would need to ensure they don't, otherwise they can kick at the Liberals when they're on the Opposition benches together.

    Besides, the BC Liberals didn't make a mistake in attacking the Cummins Conservatives - they were going to be swamped anyways. If not by the Conservatives, then by the BC NDP. The Liberals were in deep shit long before the Cons came along.

  18. It's a very small subset of voters who determine who forms government - less than 50% of voters in less than 50% of the seats even. The NDP have more voters, but the Liberals' traditional bases of support in Ontario are more strategically located.

    Which is great. Because if we as Liberals can get our act together, we've got a good shot of swinging this the other way.

  19. For just one election, could we please get serious and unite the other parties against the Cons by whatever method works!

  20. Dewar picked up a couple of senior MPs last week along with a couple of MLAs. He seems to have momentum.

  21. Volkov,

    Ryan's right, the question is, who poses the greatest threat to the Tories, the Liberals or the NDP. The NDP may have more seats, but that doen't mean they pose the greatest threat if there's little chance for them to increase their seat holdings (for the same reason, while the Bloc may have been the official opposition from 1993-97, they didn't pose a threat to the Liberal majority). The NDP has never scored as many seats as they did in 2011, and their growth outside of Quebec (which has a history of taking short-term flyers on political parties - Creditiste, PC, Bloc, Tories (sort of in 2006), the ADQ, maybe now the NDP) was not enormous in 2011 so there's at least some reason to wonder how much growth potential they really have (and certainly that's what Stephen Harper thinks - given a choice between a centre-right conservative party and a social democratic party, he believes, I think with good cause, that Canadians are inclined to choose the centre-right party).

    As for attacking both, if the NDP doesn't pose a threat to the Tories, why would they do the Liberal's work of attacking the NDP for them? I wouldn't go so far as to say that attacking the NDP validates them, but successfully attacking the NDP may shift soft-left voters back into the Liberal camp - in places like the 416 and 905 belt in Ontario, that translates into lost Tory seats to the Liberals. Think of it this way, we saw that process in reverse in 2011, don't you think that the NDP benefited from the mud the Tories slagged Iggy with? It made Jack Layton look like a more credible opposition leader.

    On another note, it's too bad that Abacus doesn't break down the regional numbers between existing NDP voters and others, because you wonder to what extent the regional popularity of some of the candidates reflects their support amongst existing NDP voters rather than their ability to grow the party amongst non-voters (I have a hard time seeing Peggy Nash or Paul Dewar bringing in new votes in Ontario - but I have no trouble seeing them being fave-raves among the hard left in Ontario).

  22. Carl,

    You have some good points.

    The NDP is relatively weak in upper-middle class suburban ridings in Ontario, primarily in the 416 and 905. The Liberals still have a strong presence in the riding as evident by the party's strong 2nd place finish in most of these ridings. McGuinty's Liberals have also won most of these seats by large margins in the most recent provincial election.

    The NDP would basically need to become Liberals to win in these regions. Even then, the party needs to do a lot of ground work, as their local riding associations are almost invisible in these areas.

  23. The Abacus polls are missing one crucial piece of data. The respondents are NDP supporters, of which there are millions in Canada and they can only vote for the next NDP leader if they are one of the 100,000 NDP members across the country. Your list of endorsements is going to be a far more accurate indicator of electability.


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