Despite 2015 defeat, NDP in better spot now than during most of party's past leadership races

Despite the big names within the NDP who opted to sit the leadership race out and the lack of enthusiasm for the contest outside of the party's existing membership base, the New Democrats are currently in a better position in the polls than they have been in most of their seven previous leadership contests.

Only during the 1989 and 2012 NDP leadership races was party polling better than in today's contest

Tom Mulcair took over the NDP in 2012 when it was in a better position than it is today. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The New Democrats failed in their bid for government in 2015 and have struggled to spark enthusiasm for their leadership race outside of their existing base, but the party is still more popular today than it was in most of its past leadership contests going back to its founding in 1961.

The NDP's top job might not be the glittering prize that it was in 2012, when the New Democrats played the role of the Official Opposition for the first and only time in history. The death of Jack Layton had made the leadership of a party on the upswing unexpectedly available and the contestants who stepped forward to fill the void were auditioning for the role of Canada's next prime minister.

After a disappointing election result in 2015 which relegated the New Democrats back to their traditional spot in the back corner of the House of Commons, the party's leadership might not seem as appealing today.

This could be part of the reason that popular New Democrats like Nathan Cullen, Megan Leslie and Alexandre Boulerice decided to sit on the sidelines.

But with an average support of 17 per cent in the polls over the last three months, the party is actually in the third-best position it has been out of the eight times that its members have been asked to choose a new leader. And its caucus, at 44 MPs, is the second-largest it has ever been at the time of a leadership contest.

By comparison, when the party was first formed out of an agreement between the Canadian Labour Congress and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1961, its prospects were not nearly as bright.

Looking for a breakthrough

In the run-up to the selection of Tommy Douglas as the first leader of the NDP, the CCF was polling at just 10 per cent support (polling numbers in this article are derived from an average of polls conducted three to six months before the leadership vote). The party had just nine seats in the House of Commons.

It also ranked in third place while John Diefenbaker's governing Progressive Conservatives led in the polls 31 points ahead. At the moment, the NDP trails Justin Trudeau's Liberals by 23 points.

Tommy Douglas is carried to the convention platform on the shoulders of supporters after the announcement was made that he had won the NDP leadership in 1961. (Associated Press)

By 1971, the NDP was only slightly more popular. It had improved its representation in the House to 23 MPs, but was not much further ahead in the polls. When David Lewis was vying for the party's leadership in that year's campaign, the NDP was still wallowing at 12 per cent support nationwide — 51 points behind Pierre Trudeau's Liberals.

Prospects improved spectacularly in 1972, however, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority government that needed the support of Lewis's 31 New Democrats to survive.

By 1975, Trudeau had been returned with a majority and Lewis was out as the NDP's leader. The party had only 16 MPs in the House at the time of the leadership vote, and the party's support was still just 14 per cent. The Liberals were ahead by 39 points. 

Ed Broadbent then took over the party's leadership, improving the NDP's standing in three of the next four elections.

1989 and 1995: New heights to new lows

By the end of Broadbent's tenure, the NDP was reaching new heights in its popularity. In the run-up to the 1989 leadership vote, the New Democrats were polling at 25 per cent support, 16 points behind the opposition Liberals and had 43 seats.

Ed Broadbent raises the arm of Audrey McLaughlin at the 1989 New Democratic leadership convention. (Canadian Press)

Audrey McLaughlin was chosen as leader that year and she led the party to its worst results in the 1993 election. By 1995, the party held just nine seats and was polling at nine per cent nationwide, 45 points behind Jean Chrétien's governing Liberals. Alexa McDonough took over, improving the party's performance in the 1997 election but dropping back again in 2000.

2003 and 2012: Towards Official Opposition

When Layton beat Bill Blaikie to take over the reins of the NDP in early 2003, the party had 14 seats in the House and just 13 per cent support in the polls.

Layton improved the NDP's standing in each of the next four elections, reaching his zenith in 2011 when the NDP captured 103 seats and 30.6 per cent of the national vote.

Jack Layton speaks to delegates after winning the NDP's leadership on Jan. 25, 2003. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

After he died a few months later, the party counted 102 seats and was polling at about 29 per cent support. Tom Mulcair took over on a promise of being able to deliver Quebec for the NDP again and form the party's first federal government. For a brief time, the NDP was ahead in the polls and Mulcair was on track to keep that promise.

Instead, by election day the NDP dropped to 19.7 per cent and 44 seats in the House. But that still ranks as one of the party's best performances in its history — and on paper makes the NDP a better prize than it was in any leadership contest besides those of 1989 and 2012.

NDP prospects for gains?

Those two campaigns seem anomalous for the NDP. They were the only two instances when a new NDP leader lost the support the party had at the time of his or her arrival by the subsequent election. 

Between her leadership victory and the 1993 election, McLaughlin saw the party's support drop by 18 points. Mulcair saw it fall by nine points between 2012 and 2015. In both occasions, PCs or Conservatives were the incumbent government — perhaps an indication that the NDP struggles most when the Tories are in power and voters are in the mood for a change of government.

The five other leaders — Douglas, Lewis, Broadbent, McDonough and Layton — improved their party's fortunes by an average of four points between the leadership campaign and the next election. 

Leadership candidates, left to right, Guy Caron, Jagmeet Singh, Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus participate in the NDP leadership debate held in Saskatoon on July 11, 2017.

If the New Democrats are able to repeat this feat with their new leader in 2019, increasing their vote share to 21 per cent, they would likely contribute significantly to either defeating the Trudeau Liberals or reducing them to minority status — shades of 1972, when the current prime minister's father took a step back in his second trip to the polls.

But seven leadership contests represent a small sample size. The next leader of the NDP may not be able to meet such a high bar, as 21 per cent would tie the party's second best performance in its history. Signs that the NDP is on the cusp of such a result — its fundraising numbers, for example, have been tumbling — are not readily apparent.

Nevertheless, those New Democrats lamenting that the party's situation today could have been a lot better should take heart. History shows it could have been a lot worse.


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.


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