It might be a long wait before Tory, NDP leadership contenders make the jump

The leadership campaigns to replace Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair are off to a slow start. An analysis of other campaigns suggest that may not change any time soon.

Last is better than first in a leadership campaign when it comes to getting started

Peter MacKay, seen as a leading contender for the Conservative leadership, attended the party's convention in Vancouver in May and said he had yet to decide on a run. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

And they're off! Eventually.

The Conservative and NDP leadership campaigns are taking some time to get going. In addition to being abnormally long, they both suffer from a lack of high-profile candidates officially in the running.

So when will the serious contenders step forward?

The Conservatives will choose their next leader on May 27, 2017, while the New Democrats will hold their leadership vote between Sept. 17 and Oct. 31, 2017. Three contestants have entered the Conservative race: Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong and Kellie Leitch. No official candidates have yet emerged on the NDP side.

The conventional wisdom is that the higher profile candidates may wait a significant amount of time before taking the plunge — and with good reason, according to an analysis of how federal and provincial leadership races have played out over the last decade.

By any standard, these campaigns are long-distance marathons. The Conservative campaign will last 586 days starting from election night in 2015. From the leadership review vote that Tom Mulcair lost at the party's convention in April, the NDP race will last between 525 and 569 days by the time the ballots are counted.

(The Bloc Québécois will also be holding a leadership vote, likely in 2017.)

On average, provincial and federal leadership campaigns held over the last 10 years have lasted 316 days, counting from the moment the top job became vacant. Only the 2013 federal Liberal leadership race that selected Justin Trudeau, as well as a handful of provincial campaigns in Atlantic Canada, have been longer than the current federal ones.

Leadership campaigns organized by opposition parties tend to be even longer. They average 375 days in length, compared to 148 days for a leadership race held by a governing party.

In or out?

Most contestants do not launch their campaigns at the outset of a leadership race. On average, contestants have announced their candidacies 155 days before the vote, or roughly five months out.

Here again, there are differences between races held by governing and opposition parties. Contestants join the campaign 116 days before the vote, on average, for the leadership of governing parties — roughly 32 days, on average, after the leader to be replaced steps down.

Number of federal and provincial leadership campaign launches by days before leadership vote, 2006-2016. (Éric Grenier)

Contestants running for the leadership of opposition parties, on the other hand, wait an average of 207 days before launching their campaigns. This is not surprising, as leadership races in opposition parties are often triggered by electoral defeats. Having an interim leader for an extended period of time is more palatable in an opposition setting than when the party is in government.

But here's the key point, and it may be surprising: the winners of leadership campaigns tend to get into the race later than the contestants they defeat.

On average, the winning contestant launches his or her campaign 15 days later than the average losing contestant. This two-week difference holds whether the party is in opposition or not.

Getting in first does not seem to give a candidate any advantage. Over the last decade, only about 10 per cent of the time has the first candidate in the campaign prevailed at the end. By contrast, being the last in the pool improves the odds — the final contestant to launch his or her campaign has won just under half of the time.

Quando, quando, quando?

​Based on these past examples, there might still be some time before higher profile contestants begin to launch their campaigns for the Conservative and NDP leadership.

On the Conservative side of the ledger, if we expect the average candidate to join the race 168 days before the final vote, that puts the date in early December. For the New Democrats, we would expect the average candidate to join the race in April or early May of next year — a little less than a year from now.

If the campaigns play out this way, it could make for a long stretch with a short and potentially unimpressive list of candidates for both the Conservative and NDP leadership positions.

But recent history suggests this may not signal a lack of interest in the jobs.

The Pollcast: NDP leadership up for grabs — who wants it?

Host Éric Grenier is joined by NDP insiders Sally Housser of Navigator and Robin MacLachlan of Summa Strategies to handicap the early days of the NDP leadership race.

We take our first look at the race to replace Tom Mulcair with strategists Sally Housser and Robin MacLachlan. 17:46

Subscribe to The Pollcast podcast here.

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Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.