As of noon on Sunday, 105 delegates had committed to Steve Ashton, 72 to Theresa Oswald and not a single one to Greg Selinger in the countdown to the NDP leadership race.

These are the unofficial totals after 9 constituency delegate selection meetings.

There is no official count because the party does not track which delegates have committed to support which candidate.

These early numbers might suggest that Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger is in deep trouble in his fight to keep his job, but the numbers need to be interpreted cautiously.

In particular, would-be pundits have to pay careful attention to the constituencies that have voted so far.

It would be premature to declare anyone a victor at this early stage. In all likelihood, the leadership contest will become a tight three-way race.

The delegate-based selection model

Once again, the NDP is using a delegate-based leadership selection model, not the universal one-member-one-vote model that many parties across the country have adopted.

Delegate selection meetings have just begun across Manitoba’s 57 constituencies, based on a schedule that was set through a random draw.

Each constituency has the right to select a minimum number of delegates, with an entitlement to additional delegates based on the number of party members in a particular constituency.

After the delegate selection process ends on Feb. 25, it is estimated that approximately 2,217 delegates will be eligible to vote on the leadership of the party on March 8.

This formula for allotting delegates means there is a wide disparity among the constituencies in terms of the number of delegates each can potentially send to the leadership convention.

For example, according to an unofficial count, The Pas constituency (where a by-election is needed to fill a vacancy and an active membership drive has been underway for months), is entitled to 145 delegates, by far the highest number in the province.

There are several constituencies where the NDP is weak, such as Emerson, which has five delegates and Morris, has only six delegates.

Within Winnipeg the constituencies of the Maples (117) and Wolseley (48) lead in terms of delegates. 

How it will work in the NDP leadership race

The three leadership candidates will strive to develop slates of potential delegates for each constituency.

There was some talk earlier of joint slates of delegates orchestrated by the challengers to avoid splitting the anti-Selinger vote, but that almost certainly will not happen because of the deep, emotional divisions within the party.

Delegates in each constituency will be selected on a winner-take-all basis, not on a proportionate basis where each candidate would receive some of the delegates. This formula puts a premium on winning the constituencies where there is a large pool of potential delegates.

In addition to the constituency delegates, there are also voting rights for MLAs (36), youth members of the party (92) and NDP members who are also members of affiliated unions (between 20 and 30% of the total delegates, depending upon who’s doing the calculations).

Where do the candidates stand?

Spectators to the first few weeks of the campaign might have concluded that Theresa Oswald, former health minister and before her resignation, economic development minister, had the momentum based on the flurry of policy announcements and related media coverage.

After the nine early constituency meetings, she stands in second place.

Oswald presents herself as an appealing and empathetic leader who represents change. If the ability to be elected becomes the dominant concern of leadership delegates, she could do well.

However, for many New Democrats (the precise number is unclear), she is the face of an unnecessary and unwise revolt against the premier. There could be a backlash against her candidacy for this reason.

Greg Selinger has not made any policy announcements, insisting that his future agenda can be found in the throne speech, delivered in the fall of 2014.

His critics argued that he should have resigned because as premier, he had an unfair advantage. He insists that he is concentrating on government business, particularly on a spring budget document that is being developed in a strained fiscal context.

Critics of the premier insist that he irretrievably lost the trust and confidence of Manitobans when he broke his campaign promise to not increase the PST (in the April 2013 budget) and also by-passed the requirement of the Balanced Budget Law that a referendum be held before major tax increases are introduced.  

A balanced budget for 2016 is still the official target, but this may just be to avoid the appearance of breaking another promise.

If Selinger wants to retain his jobs as party leader and premier, he must count on resentment toward the rebels and respect for his 10 years of service as a successful finance minister, nearly six years as premier, and as the leader who led the party to a record number of seats in the 2011 election.

Steve Ashton is presenting himself as a third option, a veteran MLA and experienced cabinet minister who respected the NDP tradition of party solidarity.

He has made few policy pronouncements.

His focus has been on membership recruitment and cultivating the support of key stakeholder groups who comprise the governing coalition of the NDP. He has a strong following among members in the North, new Canadians and some segments of the union movement.

Outcome uncertain

Firm predictions of the outcome on March 8 are foolhardy at this point.  

The winner of the leadership contest needs to obtain 50% plus one of the votes to be declared. In a three-way race, there will almost certainly need to be two ballots.

Based on his initial victories and strong support in delegate-rich constituencies (like The Pas, Thompson, the Maples) it is likely that Steve Ashton will lead after the first round of voting. Perceptions of his appeal to voters on a province-wide basis may place a ceiling on his second ballot support.

If delegates place most emphasis on party solidarity and loyalty to the leader, Selinger could be in first or second place.

If the delegates believe Selinger’s leadership is toxic and vote to avoid “annihilation” at the next election, then Oswald could be in first or second place. 

Paul Thomas is professor emeritus in political studies at the University of Manitoba​.