The NDP leadership race by the numbers

Graph: Christopher Majka

As the dust settles on the NDP leadership race, this may be an instructive "teachable moment" to examine some dimensions of the campaign and what messages it sends to the NDP. In the months leading up to the 2012 leadership convention, a number of measures were proposed to track how the campaigns of the respective candidates were being received. With seven (initially nine) leadership candidates crisscrossing the country, a series of six national debates to expose Canadians to the ideas and policies of the candidates, and a preferential voting system that allowed members to rank the candidates, getting a read on their standing in the race was far from clear or easy.

Several measures were used to try and track candidate performance, including fundraising (Alice Funke; Pundits' Guide to Canadian Federal Elections), endorsements (Éric Grenier; ThreeHundredEight.com), and Facebook support (yours truly; Project Democracy). How well did they foreshadow final candidate support?

Well, it would appear that people do put their money where their mouth is. Examining the graph above reveals that the first-ballot ranking of the candidates at the convention was precisely the same as their fundraising ranking -- Mulcair, Topp, Cullen, Nash, Dewar, Singh, Ashton [Note: these figures are based on reporting to the end of the first week of March. Although fundraising continued after that, more recent data is not available]. Moreover, the proportion of fundraising of each candidate (the green bars) mirror the proportion of first-ballot support (black bars) rather closely, although Thomas Mulcair did somewhat better than predicted (receiving 30.3 per cent of the vote with 24.3 per cent of funds raised) while Paul Dewar did significantly more poorly (receiving 7.5 per cent of the vote while having received 15 per cent of the fundraising support).

Endorsements (the orange bars) were a poorer indicator of candidate support [Note: different numbers of points are awarded depending on the prominence of the person giving the endorsement; see ThreeHundredEight.com for the specifics]. There was a significant disparity between the proportion of votes received and the proportion of endorsements for all candidates except for Thomas Mulcair. The most extreme examples were in the case of Nathan Cullen who received 16.4 per cent of the first-ballot support but only 5.6 per cent of endorsements; Peggy Nash who received 12.8 per cent of first-ballot support and 23.4 per cent of endorsements; and Martin Singh who received 5.9 per cent of first-ballot support and no endorsements. Even the rank order did not reflect the order of first-ballot support, with Nathan Cullen and Martin Singh both being out of sequence.

Facebook support (blue bars) was similarly a poor reflection of first-ballot voting support. While the comparative level of support and rank order was reasonably well-reflected for the bottom five candidates (Cullen, Nash, Dewar, Singh, Ashton), it was completely out of synch for the top two candidates (Mulcair, Topp). Mulcair (30.3 per cent of the vote vs. 12.5 per cent of Facebook support) and Topp (21.4 per cent vs. 12.4 per cent) drew more voters than Facebook supporters, whereas Cullen (16.4 per cent vs. 28.6 per cent), Nash (12.8 per cent vs. 24.4 per cent) and Dewar (7.5 per cent vs. 15.6 per cent) had proportionately more Facebook support.

What does all this tell us about the campaign? Fundraising appears to be a good indicator of a candidate's performance. Endorsements, while perhaps illustrative of where the party brass and establishment is leaning, is much less reflective of where the membership stands, and certainly so in the case of a "one member-one vote" convention rather than the "delegate" approach of past conventions. Similarly, engagement in social media is not necessarily an accurate barometer of voter support at the convention. In part, this may reflect the comparative novelty of social media. Although there are almost 17.3 million Canadians who have Facebook accounts -- 51.2 per cent of all Canadians and a 65.9 per cent of all Canadians who are online -- this may represent a younger demographic than the Canadian population overall. Mulcair and Topp's comparative lack of engagement in social media is perhaps indicative of less support amongst younger people, although Peggy Nash, at age 60 the oldest of the leadership contenders, did very well with the second highest (after Nathan Cullen) number of Facebook supporters.

In that context, it is interesting to note that of the four NDP candidates who went on to second ballot at the leadership convention (Mulcair, Topp, Cullen, Nash), only Nathan Cullen (age 39) was younger than 50, whereas of the three candidates who fell off after the first ballot (Dewar, Singh, Ashton), all were under 50 years of age -- perhaps an indication that an older generation continues to enjoy greater political influence, even though 71.5 per cent of the Canadian population is under 50 years of age.

One other result carries particular significance. Despite an extended, intensive and effective membership drive, which increased the membership of the NDP to 131,152 eligible voters -- a 50 per cent increase since October 2012 -- the number of party members who actually voted must surely be disappointing to the party. The percentage of NDP members voting on the first ballot was 49.7 per cent, which fell slightly to 47.7 per cent, 47.8 per cent, and 45.2 per cent on subsequent ballots. Although online voting problems on the day of the election may have diminished numbers slightly on the second, third and fourth ballots, this still seems a very low turnout, particularly given that the party made available so many methods of voting (by mail and online prior to the convention, in person at the convention, and online during the convention) and the three-week period during which members could register their votes.

This seems particularly surprising given the considerable effort and success that the party, and the individual leadership contenders, made in engaging and recruiting new members, apart from efforts made by third parties such as Leadnow.ca's "Cooperate For Canada" campaign, and a similar campaign by Avaaz.org to recruit and engage membership in political parties based on the issue of political co-operation. Given all of the above, which one would expect would generate a membership base galvanized for participation in the leadership process, and the extended six-month leadership campaign with many debates and endless peregrinations of the candidates across the Canadian landscape, a participation rate of less than 50 per cent is both puzzling and disappointing. How to more thoroughly engage its own membership will surely be an important topic of discussion within the party if it wishes to engage a greater proportion of the Canadian populace in the next federal election.

Christopher Majka is a writer, editor, and journalist writing on politics, electoral reform, science, environment, climate change, and arts policy. He is the chair of the Nova Scotia Cultural Action Network and a member of the Project Democracy team. He is also an ecologist conducting research on the biodiversity, biogeography, and systematics of invertebrates.

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