The Front Runner Fallacy In The CPC And NDP Leadership Races
With both leadership campaigns heating up, some media have crowned specific candidates as "front runners". But the list of memberships sold hasn't been made public, so no one's asked those actually doing the voting. How accurate are claims of "front runner" at this point, and are they just based on spin from the various candidates? Richard Mahoney, John Capobianco and Tom Parkin are veterans of many a leadership race. Here are their insights.
It is always a bit of mug's game to cover the horse race of leadership campaigns, particularly when political parties oversee those campaigns and do not release data on how the candidates are doing in recruiting new members. In a nutshell, here is the dynamic of these things, in general terms:
First, candidates quietly build their profile by reaching out to key people and opinion leaders in their party. So NDP and Conservative leadership candidates will talk to caucus members, constituency association presidents and key players in the party infrastructure. This gives them a core of support from which to build.
Secondly, and most importantly, the candidates will use that network, and the policy positions they take, to convince key stakeholders in and around the political party to build a team of people who will recruit new members to the party for the purpose of supporting that candidate. There are time limits on when those new memberships can be made - usually weeks or sometimes months in advance of the vote. In the cases of the NDP and the Conservatives, there is a membership fee that must be paid to the party before an individual has the right to vote.
Finally, the campaigns work on motivating that base to come out and vote for them. In the case of long time party members, that is an effort to persuade the members that you or your candidate has the right mix of leadership skills and ideas to be the best leader. In the case of new members recruited by that campaign, your focus is on motivating those new members to come out and vote.
So we don't know, in any measurable terms, who has what level of support in either race. But party insiders, like Tom and John, will have a good sense of who is making progress. Although it is always difficult to be completely neutral about these things as you have to distinguish between your hopes and dreams and the reality of what is happening riding by riding across the country.
Public polls for leadership races are unhelpful and imprecise. In the past we’ve had newspapers print surveys of the general public or party’s supporters and then declare a leader. Frankly, any editor who prints such nonsense and purveys it as meaningful data should not be trusted for any political insight. They would be embarrassed if they weren’t so clueless!
Mainstreet Research has begun to address the problem by polling Conservative party memberships – obtained from the Conservative Party. The most recent show O’Leary at about 22%, Leitch at about 21% and Bernier at about 17%.
However, there are still significant problems. I quizzed a Mainstreet employee about the validity of data. While it may reflect the Conservative Party members from the list provided, the membership list is actually in flux because campaigns are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing – signing up members. That process ended on Tuesday.
And there’s a deeper problem: the design of the vote itself. The Conservative race is an all-member vote. But the total vote in each of the 338 constituencies is equally weighted at 100 points. Thus there are 33,800 points up for grabs – and the winner must get at least 16,901 – half plus one – to win the race. Without a massive sample that can be reweighted into 338 riding surveys, the poll will not replicate the effect of the voting system.
In fairness, Mainstreet says they will do exactly that sometime before the May 27 vote – so we shall just wait and see how this works out.
Another approach is that of Eric Grenier, the sponsor of ThreeHundedEight.com. Grenier, who is a poll analyst, not a pollster, has created an index based on endorsement points, fundraising, contributors and polls. This gut-check kind of index puts Erin O’Toole into the mix on the strength of his caucus (MPs and Senatorial) endorsements. O’Leary only has one endorsement and Bernier just six.
So let’s be clear – we have seen nothing of any accuracy yet.
Leadership races are always exciting times for any political party to go through since they signify an end of an era and new beginnings. They are also times for party members to reflect on what worked and, more importantly, what didn't work, since leadership campaigns usually occur after a party's election defeat or a leader has run out of gas and is forced out or resigns semi-voluntarily.
Case in point with both the NDP and the Conservatives losing in the recent election - the Conservatives lost government and therefore there really wasn't a choice for former PM Harper to make but to step away - even though I bet if he faced a leadership confidence vote he would have likely received the required percentage to stay on. But as it turned out he announced fairly soon after the election he would not run again.
However, the NDP's leaders fate wasn't so simple or clean. In fact Tom Mulcair wanted to stay on as leader after his party's devastating loss. For the first time in a very long time, the NDP actually led in the polls and many thought they could have formed government. When they lost and came in third, the proverbial "knives" were out for Mr. Mulcair within the various factions (read LEAPers) of the party. He campaigned before the leadership convention to solidify his position within the party. But all was for naught since he received an embarrassing low confidence vote at the convention and had to resign on the spot. Politics is cruel, especially for those in leadership positions.
Thus we are facing two leadership contests with two very distinct ways that each party selects their respective leaders. I will of course focus on the Conservatives since both levels of the party have long ago changed their ways of selecting leaders from delegated conventions to one-member-one-vote systems. A system that takes away from the intrigue and backroom machinations of delegated system, and with that massive media attention, to a more subdued preferential balloting system, but much more democratic and empowering of party members.
Tom’s point about Eric Grenier’s index measuring things like endorsements is bang on. This is one example of how party insiders can miss the dynamic. For example, many thoughtful Conservative elites, horrified by O’Leary’s Trumpian unreadiness and Leitch’s shameful aping of Trumpian intolerance, observe that their friends and allies generally agree, and then look to a more rational, sensible choice such as Erin O’Toole, and declare him to be a likely winner. But we all tend to talk to, work with and think like those around us, and often think that represents a broad consensus of what everyone thinks. They then miss the story of what is actually happening on the ground.
If candidates like O’Leary and Leitch can recruit enough new members to overwhelm the numbers of more solid consensus choices, and then bring them out to vote (the hardest part) it doesn’t matter what the broad choice of thoughtful party activists might think. And the rest of us don’t have real ability to measure objectively.
But subjectively, we can see a few things that might be true (in my case from the outside). In the NDP race, a candidate like Charlie Angus can appeal to a broad section of long time party activists who see in him a competent politician who has some abilities (including being a great musician, btw, but I digress.)
On the other hand, a candidate like Jagmeet Singh, largely unknown outside the GTA, has the ability to reach out to new constituencies, bring them in, and possibly overwhelm the numbers. That said, the NDP does not have a long history of massive outreach into new communities in previous leadership contests, so we will see.
That same dynamic is at work with candidates like O'Leary, who has the name recognition and some populist buttons to push. That may overwhelm the hopes and dreams of long time members.
Finally, we already have, in the Conservative race, allegations of illegal or fraudulent recruitment of new members and candidates paying for votes. This not only brings discredit to the race and the candidates but also can demotivate a campaign's base. It is one of the reasons why, in 2017, it does not make sense to require that members pay a fee before having the right to vote for a leadership candidate.
For this and many other reasons, the Liberal Party chose to do away with this requirement - to pay a membership fee before having the right to vote. This makes the political party more open, transparent and helps eliminate the kind of shenanigans we are now seeing.
In the end, it will be fascinating to see how both parties respond to the challenges in front of them and building a credible alternative to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.
Having totally trashed the pundocracy’s unscientific mismeasurement of leadership races, we should also take a minute to trash the insider information that comes from campaigns.
Leadership campaigns used to be able to identify their vote. The voters were qualified and defined through delegate selection meetings and campaigns would canvass them – then try to lock them up with endorsements literature. Back in those days, the campaign manager would know where the campaign stood and how to strategically move.
But now, with parties having moved to all-member votes, the job is far, far more difficult. Tracking is almost impossible. It’s become a campaign of fundraising, sign-ups, touring and communications – and hope it pays off.
And now there might be a new twist. The Conservatives are using a single ranked ballot – ranking up to ten candidates. The vote will be recalculated, based after the lowest candidate is eliminated. It’s all over in one day and no one really knows what’s going to happen until it’s all over.
The NDP has added an innovation. The race will have sequential ballots over several weekends until a final showdown. This will allow campaign managers – and the public – to know where they really stand and to use a week of intense communications to swing members who supported defeated candidates into their camp. It will, really, be one long campaign followed by about four single-week campaigns.
I think party members and the media will find this interesting and high stakes. Let’s see how it goes.
In the Conservative leadership selection process, quite frankly with any leadership selection process, it is very difficult to gauge who is leading, for the reason that drives the media crazy - and that is you really can't conduct a poll with any accuracy because you are not dealing with the public at-large, you are dealing party members and many of them aren't on any party list until the very end of membership cut off.
So in the Conservative race, which has been going on longer than the NDP's and has 14 or so candidates, the media have tried to determine who is the front runner. They have consistently pegged Kevin O'Leary as the front runner with Maxime Bernier a close second (full disclosure - I am supporting Kevin O'Leary).
However, pollsters can try and gauge support based on calls they make to identified Conservative supporters, but even then they may not be card-carrying members or even inclined to vote in the leadership contest. So what they invariably do is to ask the question of Canadians, "Who of the CPC leadership candidates would you vote for and if said candidate was running in the next election against PM Trudeau, would you vote for him/her?" This then gets the required headlines, as we have seen, wherein media quote pollsters suggesting that Kevin O'Leary "has the best chance of defeating the PM in the next election," which then translates into "front runner" status.
The reality is that we just don't know definitively. Sure, each campaign will spin that their candidate is the front runner and you might intuitively guess who might be in first place (one only needs to review the history of the recent provincial PC leadership race). But in our system you really don't know until the ballots are tabulated and counted based on members' first, second, third, etc. choices. At that point the count is based on who is in first place and by how many votes, and who will give second and third ballot support to others and if those will be enough to carry the candidate over.
It is certainly not perfect and it is not as exciting as a delegated convention, but it does allow leadership candidates to campaign across the country and talk to as many Canadians as possible, in as many provinces as your fundraising will allow, to build the party membership in their favour.
We have our issues, as any leadership contest does, and will no doubt have in the future. As Richard mentions above, our race has had some recent bad press about memberships being disqualified, but I can assure you that Richard's party has had it's fair share of leadership convention shenanigans, as has the NDP. It is the unfortunate nature of the beast, but that said, how parties respond to these missteps is what is important. In our case we quickly reviewed the allegations, investigated them and acted swiftly to ensure the integrity of the process was maintained.
So as to the question at hand, leadership contests are extremely unpredictable until the final votes are counted, and any media speculation of who is leading is based on polling that doesn't get to the true nature of the actual voters' intentions and thereby makes for good headlines, but poor prognostications.
Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance. He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues.