Honeymoons, marriages of convenience and vote-splitting: Trudeau & Mulcair’s Challenge Ahead

Photo: Toronto Sun, Dec. 28, 2012

Photo: Toronto Sun, Dec. 28, 2012

This article is based on an op-ed published in The Globe and Mail: 

Justin Trudeau predictably is now the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. With 80 per cent support based on an 82 per cent voter turnout, the win validates that he is the Party’s consensus choice to lead them to the next election. While his proposal and level of engagement appear strong, there is much he and his party have to earn to substantiate a future marriage with the voters of Canada.

Trudeau’s election this weekend came amidst the confluence of four independent and interconnected initiatives and activities: the NDP’s Policy Convention in Montreal; the upcoming May 13th Labrador federal by-election for the seat vacated by Peter Penashue; Joyce Murray’s call for collaboration among progressive parties; and thought leaders calling for a one-time collaboration with the NDP. All, in various ways, point to challenges that Mr. Trudeau will face over the next two years. And the unifying theme here is marriages of convenience.

By definition, a marriage of convenience is one contracted for reasons other than relationship or love. It is done for a strategic purpose and personal gain. The gain framed here, and called for by many, is one whereby Liberals and NDP form a one-time pact to win the 2015 election with a goal for electoral reform.

Let’s take a closer look at these events.

On the one-time collaboration, much has been written by thought leaders such as Andrew Coyne and Jamey Heath. They have all called for a coalition of the Liberals and NDP to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and to change the First Past the Post system in favour of proportional representation. Within the parties, such collaboration has been favoured by Nathan Cullen and Joyce Murray, who each finished third and second in their respective leadership races. Like the thought leaders, they too crunched the numbers and surmised that 60 per cent of voters presents a real opportunity for a unified progressive party. Joyce earned just over 10 per cent of the points, but also attracted support from those seeking party cooperation, including Green Party and post-partisan voters (i.e., a growing segment with no party affiliation). This notion of collaboration speaks to the quiet majority of Canada’s progressives – a group that heavily favour electoral reform, desire their vote to matter, and who seek representation.

This leads to the forthcoming May 13th by-election. Many are calling for the original race to play out as it did in 2011 between the Conservatives (Penashue) and Liberals (now Yvonne Jones). In the spirit of cooperation, the Green Party immediately stated that they would not be fielding a candidate. However, the reality is that they never had a chance, and Elizabeth May – who has the most to gain – was not going to miss an opportunity play politics with this event. Meanwhile, Thomas Mulcair is adamant that the NDP are in the mix and stated “we have every intention of getting Harry Borlase elected.” While this may be a worthwhile endeavour, some may feel that this is a waste of their resources and could be a low-risk test of collaboration. This seat will likely return to the Liberals – solely on the events that lead to need for this by-election, and not the strength of the Liberal brand.

This leads to the last key event: the NDP convention on the weekend. Over two thousand delegates came to Montreal, in their 59 seat Quebec beachhead, their attention squarely focused on the 2015 election. Present were stalwarts, such as economist Joseph Stiglitz, associated with the U.S. Democratic Party. But the most dramatic event of the weekend was the dropping of “socialism” from their constitution. This is a clear play to broaden their appeal, move to the centre and improve their electability.

This brings us back to marriages of convenience.

Trudeau, a fresh face at 41, buoyed by recent polls, was always the clear choice for the Liberals. However, the most cynical would say that this was never a race. It was a marriage of convenience. Some may argue that Trudeau from Day One, because of his name, may have benefitted from the “halo effect” (i.e., judgments of character can be influenced by impressions of him and his name) – an effect that the party is hoping to leverage. No doubt pollsters will begin to investigate the substance and effect of the Trudeau brand, and his famous last name, among the electorate amidst this dead zone between elections.

But who exactly is Justin Trudeau? A likeable character with politics in his DNA, he appears to be open to defining himself and his leadership of the Liberal Party. His performance over the last four months has generally been faultless, and he established a track record as a revenue generator. In his acceptance speech he distanced himself from his father’s past, and decried the “negative, divisive politics of Mr. Harper’s Conservatives.” However, Justin is no fan of party cooperation; he is “unimpressed that the NDP, under Mr. Mulcair, have decided that if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.” On the prospects of a party marriage, Trudeau speaks to the partisan core of Liberals in Canada here.

The reality remains, that a marriage between the NDP and Liberals is hard, Trudeau or not, no matter how you cut it, even if with their similar policies and positions,.  In my own polling over the last five years, there are notable differences between their supporters.  NDP supporters are mix of highly-engaged, educated, socially active innovators and less-connected older, blue collar union-oriented types. The Liberals, by comparison, look a lot more like the Conservatives in terms of age, education and social and political engagement. A recent poll by Abacus Data (March 19-21, 2013) indicated that the second choice party for over one-quarter (28%) of Liberals would be the Conservative party. For Conservatives, a Liberal vote would be the second choice for over half (57%). This is understandable. Liberals and Conservatives are the only parties to ever lead the country. Even while they hold one-third of the number of seats as the NDP, most partisan Liberals still view their party as the natural party to lead Canada.

Deja vu all over again

Much of this new round of dialogue about marriages of convenience emanated from the three by-elections last November – specifically, the one in Calgary Centre, where progressives managed to get 63 per cent of the vote and yet lost to the Conservative. There were a number of critical events, connected to this by-election, beyond low voter turnout, that both Trudeau and Mulcair should consider:

  • Of the three centre/left parties, the Liberals were the most unwilling to cooperate –  even though the candidate (Harvey Locke) would have been the beneficiary of cross-party support and would easily have won with unified, progressive support.
  • The Green candidate picked up support from disaffected and former Liberals.
  • The NDP fielded a full campaign, with a late-entry candidate, even though they never stood a chance.
  • The three centre/left parties each fielded a fantastic candidate – each a quality individual who voters would have been happy to get behind, but instead ended up splitting the vote.

Sounds familiar? Painfully familiar to many voters across Canada.

With the Liberals re-emergence in the polls under Trudeau’s leadership and Mulcair moving the NDP to the centre, voters can expect more of the same for the future. This lack of consideration does not bode well for progressive voters. Recent research by Samara (December 2013) found that 55% of respondents were very/somewhat satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada – down from 75% in 2004. Samara also found that the public were dissatisfied with their MPs – a dissatisfaction driven by the thought that MPs do a better job of representing the views of their parties than they do representing their ridings and constituents.

Either way, Mulcair and Trudeau will continue to lead their parties for a share of about 60% of the electorate. Harper likes this math and continues to quietly cement his support with the balance, with a hope that the vote-splitting will likely lead to another Conservative majority. The reality of electoral math is that, beyond most partisan faithful, the centre-left is running the risk of frustrating their base.

In the absence of cooperation, Mulcair and Trudeau have to demonstrate that they and their party brand are relevant for Canada – relevant and in tune with the desire of the electorate for quality representation – and that they do reflect the values and aspiration of Canadians. Not just 60%. But to make inroads into Conservative support to grow the progressive pie, they need to demonstrate that this is not simply about defeating the Conservatives; it is about inspiring Canadians to consider their vision for the country while, at the same time, rebuilding the guts of their parties and building meaningful relationships with Canadians.

It is still in the eyes, minds and hearts of Canada’s progressive electorate, two (and three) sets of party infrastructure squarely aimed to get their vote. And both have their challenges. Of the two-thirds of Canadians voters who lie within the centre/left spectrum, Trudeau needs to convince them that the Liberal Party is the one of the future and to move them out of the doldrums of 35 seats to Canada’s second party (at worst). For Mulcair, the challenge is to show that the NDP is a party that can lead the country. Either way, Harper and the Conservatives are moving along with their existing strategy and will continue to stoke the fire that divides progressives.

Another key event of the weekend was the presence of Jeremy Bird, co-founder of 270 Strategies and Obama’s national field director for his successful 2012 campaign. He told the NDP convention delegates to use “Moneyball-style” analytics, establish meaningful relationships with voters, and build a strong ground game to win elections.

If executed, the problem remains that the Liberals and NDP will continue to approach the same pool, courting similar voters. Thus, the immediate challenge for both Trudeau and Mulcair is for each to annex the largest share of the pool, and then woo others who are in the remaining smaller share. And most importantly, woo those who have not turned up to the pool at all.

In the absence of any resolution on cooperation, Trudeau as Liberal leader and Mulcair with a new constitution both appear to have committed their party to another individual battle in the 2015 battle. Regardless of the state of or interest in partnership, like any marriage they have to earn the trust of the electorate. And they need to remember that a strong marriage is based on an alignment of values. Values of Canadian progressive voters that continue to taxed and tugged two and three ways.

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