On the night of Oct. 19, Tom Mulcair walked out onto a stage in Montreal to put a face on defeat—his smile seeming more strained than usual, his eyes perhaps hinting at the loss, teary-eyed supporters before him. He looked out at the crowd and offered a slight shrug.

Just weeks earlier it had seemed to be his party's moment, but now his caucus had been halved, with some of the party's most prominent MPs defeated and even the faint hope of holding the balance of power extinguished as the Liberals ran up a majority.

"I think right now the swelling in our collective jaw has gone down," says Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, "and we're no longer seeing stars in our eyes from the wallop in October. So it's now time to pick ourselves up and get back and figure out what went wrong and what we need to do to go forward."

New Democrats have had nearly three months to regain their faculties, but thinking through the questions raised by last year's election result will require many more months yet. Most prominent is the question of Mulcair himself. At the very least, he seems to have a chance to make his case.

Despite some anonymous grumbling — and the public protestation of Ontario NDP member of the legislature Cheri DiNovo this week — there does not seem to be any concerted effort to dump the leader, nor any serious organizing to replace him. 

But the question of Mulcair's leadership will be put to New Democrats directly in April in Edmonton, when party delegates are asked to endorse his performance. Something more than 50 per cent would be enough officially, but surely something more than that will be required to hang on (Joe Clark put his leadership of the Progressive Conservatives on the line in 1983 after being effectively endorsed by 66.9 per cent of PC delegates). 

Mulcair has said that he would like to lead the party in 2019, but there would seem to be some onus now on him to explain why and how he would do that. 

"As leader, he's going to need to be able to show what's the plan going forward. And that's what I'm hearing from the grassroots," Angus says. "I've certainly got enormous amount of respect for Tom and I want to know where we're going. It's the realistic question. We didn't win. We came close, but we didn't get it. So you've got to go back to the leader and say, 'So, what? How do you see us rebuilding? Rebuilding the brand, rebuilding the grassroots and taking back ridings that we should not have lost.'"

What went wrong? And, what now?

Untangling what happened to the NDP through the summer and fall of 2015 is not easy. DiNovo has said the party betrayed its progressive principles to move closer to the political centre, but Angus says the party's platform, with its commitments to address child care, pharmacare, student debt and pensions, "was clearly the most progressive that we've run in a long time."

Justin Trudeau has said the campaign turned on the NDP's unwillingness to outdo the Liberal commitment to run deficits, but it's debatable whether the public would have accepted such largesse from the New Democrats. The niqab controversy cost the party support in Quebec, but that might not have mattered if the NDP had done better to establish itself outside Quebec by then.

Angus points to the so-called air war. "I certainly think the Liberals cleaned our clock on the advertising. It was brilliant, their spots on the Blue Jays," he says. "We need to learn about how the air war overtook our ground game. We ran probably our best ground game ever, but we lost in areas where we should never have lost."

Possibly more ominous than the actual vote last October was a survey conducted by Angus Reid a week later that found fully 71 per cent of NDP supporters were "pleased" with the arrival of a Liberal government. That enthusiasm might soon fade, and Mulcair is obviously, and understandably, eager to nag at every hint that the new government is backing away from its campaign commitments. But in the meantime the NDP finds itself approximately returned to its pre-2011 status: sitting third and trailing the traditional powers of federal politics.

Tom Mulcair

The NDP under Tom Mulcair finished the election with a seat total similar to what the party had before it made huge gains in 2011 under Jack Layton. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The NDP does not have the history of brutal leadership politics that has often marked the Liberal Party, but the decision is no less delicate. The last time an NDP leader seemed to have the party within reach of a breakthrough only to meet with a disappointing result, Ed Broadbent resigned in 1988 and the party spent more than 20 years trying to get back to where he had brought them.

Is Mulcair the right leader for 2019? And if not him, who? As Mulcair prepares to face those questions, he is now notably accompanied by Raymond Guardia. Formerly the NDP's campaign director in Quebec, Guardia left the party in 2012 after managing Brian Topp's campaign for NDP leader.

"Tom needs to reach out to various elements in the party to reassure his position and to reassure people that we're getting back on track," Angus says. "So Ray brings a lot of respect to the table."

Before Christmas, Mulcair travelled to Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa to hear the opinions of party organizers and, according to his office, "a very open process of consultation and analysis will continue in the months ahead." Mulcair has often been accompanied by Paul Dewar, the former Ottawa MP who is assisting with an analysis of what went wrong and where the party goes from here. That report is expected to be sent to party members in mid-March.

It is easy to note that leadership is not everything, that organization, strategy and infrastructure are necessary no matter who a party chooses as its leader. For that matter, it is tempting to lament for leader-centric politics. But in practical reality the leader is paramount. On election night, it is the leader who is on national television accepting victory or, more often, conceding failure.

"When a party loses that thinks it's going to win, there's going to be people who are certainly going to be not pleased. That's the way it is with a leader," Angus says. "I think what I'm hearing from people is they want to know what's Tom's plan to take us forward. And that's going to be the question that people judge this on.

"Is Tom the guy who's going to take us to 2019? Does he have a plan to rebuild the party? People are asking practical questions as opposed to blame questions."