Monday, November 13, 2006

Who will lead the Libs?

Someone I know quite well, who is a life-long loyal Liberal and well-known to friends and associates as such, told me that he is often quizzed about who he supports for the Liberal leadership. We will call our loyal Liberal Harry. In response to the question about which candidate has his support, Harry answers: Martha Hall Findlay. Given her quite limited delegate support, the questioners then want to know: who do you really support or who is your second choice. But Harry doesn't have a second choice, and so he just repeats: Martha Hall Findlay. While this reply is highly unsatisfying to his interrogators, I find it both thoughtful and honest (Harry is not a delegate so he has only his opinion to offer), and a metaphor for the race as a whole.

The reality is that there is a widespread lack of confidence in the leading candidates: Ignatieff, Rae, Dion and Kennedy. They all have enthusiastic backers but all are perceived to be deeply flawed in some way:

1. Ignatieff has made many mistakes and is gaffe prone precisely because he has spent most of his adult life outside Canada and outside politics. I continue to find it amazing that he marshaled as much support as he did early on. However, he has in fact stumbled so badly that, although he will lead on the first ballot, crumbling support thereafter may mean he is not on the final ballot.

2. Bob Rae has performed well on the stump and it could take him all the way to the top but he would be a divisive choice as many, especially Ontario Liberals, have not forgiven or forgotten his NDP past. My own view is that Rae has consistently demonstrated poor political judgment over the years, most recently simply by waiting until the eleventh hour to join a party he aspires to lead. More problematically, his record can be easily demonized by opponents, especially the Conservatives. They can say quite factually that the last Rae government broke its major promises, permitted the deficit to rise dramatically and presided over one of the worst recessions in the province's history. Letting the deficit rise was appropriate given the recession but not popular, and the budgetary pressures themselves arose from the bad economy, which was beyond Rae's ability to correct on this own, but the explanations always sound weaker than the accusations.

3. At first I could not take St├ęphane Dion seriously as a leader. He seemed too much the academic and not a man of politics. He has been demonized by nationalists in his home province and has limited skills speaking English. But unlike Ignatieff he has been in the game for 10 years and his campaign focused on the environment, especially climate change, the issue on the verge of capturing the global zeitgeist. (Editorial note: everyone who has not done so should see An Inconvenient Truth). Dion has performed far better than expected. He is everyone's second choice. If it is true that a significant chunk of Ignatieff's support will desert him after the first ballot, then Dion's prospects would improve dramatically. If TC had a vote at the convention it would go to Dion on the climate change issue.

4. Kennedy doesn't speak French and for that reason is being discounted. Another good reason to discount him is that he is a micro-manager and they do not make good leaders.

The leadership race from history that is brought to mind by the current contest is the NDP leadership race in 1989 (Audrey McLauglin won), when there was real despair in the party about the alternatives and the party's brightest lights, including Bob Rae, sat it out. The NDP then went on to a humiliating defeat in the next election, although much of that was due to the unpopularity of the Rae and Harcourt governments in 1993 rather McLaughlin's own limitations.

There have been numerous efforts to poll the race. The latest is a poll from SES that tries to gauge which candidate would most assist Liberal prospects in the next election by asking whether the candidate would make the respondent more or less likely to support the Liberals or whether it would make no difference. Now I regard this formulation as so conceptually fuzzy as to render it meaningless. What does it mean to be "less likely" to vote exactly? It seems to measure feelings but not actual prospective behaviour. Beyond this problem, take the case of being more or less likely to vote NDP - a highly germane issue for Liberals. In this poll only 108 respondents said they voted NDP in the last election; that gives us a margin of error of ±9.4%. This erases most of the distinctions found in the poll. It is both statistically and conceptually meaningless. Delegates will be far better off simply exercising their judgment in casting a vote and paying no attention to polls like this.

Who will win? Ignatieff could have won but the outcome now looks completely opaque.

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