POLITICS

NDP Leadership Race: Brian Topp Or Thomas Mulcair?

09/16/2011 06:07 EDT | Updated 11/16/2011 05:12 EST
CP Files

Brian Topp or Thomas Mulcair?

The NDP leadership race may come down to that, but these sorts of things do not always turn out as expected.

In six months, the New Democratic Party will choose its next leader. As is often the case this early in a leadership race, identifying the likely winner is a mug’s game.

Brian Topp, the NDP’s president, is the only officially declared candidate, but Thomas Mulcair, one of two deputy leaders and the only NDP Quebec MP to have been elected prior to 2011, is almost certainly going to throw his hat in the ring as well. They are, at this stage, the frontrunners.

Mulcair is the NDP’s most well-known figure in Quebec and was an important part of the party’s success in that province. He has won three elections in his Montreal riding of Outremont, and was a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s provincial Liberal government before entering federal politics.

Topp, however, seems to have the backing of the party brass. He recently received a high-profile endorsement from Ed Broadbent, former leader of the party and, before Jack Layton, their most successful. Fluently bilingual (and not just passably so), Topp can communicate with the NDP’s massive Quebec caucus and the party’s new supporters in the province and is only limited by his much lower profile in Quebec.

But Topp also has a profile problem in the rest of the country. A poll by Léger Marketing taken the week after the passing of Jack Layton asked respondents to name the person best suited to be his replacement. Brian Topp managed only three per cent. Thomas Mulcair scored 14 per cent, tying him for first with Olivia Chow, who has declared she has no intention of running for the leadership of the party.

Perhaps more significantly, Mulcair had the support of 46 per cent of respondents in Quebec.

The problem for Mulcair is that the NDP’s membership in the province is miniscule. Ontario and British Columbia are home to many, many more of the NDP’s members, undoubtedly giving an advantage to the Toronto-based Topp and other potential, but long shot, candidates like Ottawa’s Paul Dewar or BC’s Libby Davies and Peter Julian.

In a Harris-Decima poll taken earlier this month, Mulcair was ranked as the best known potential candidate and the most qualified. When asked whether respondents knew anything about those likely to run for leader, 36 per cent said they knew a little or a lot about Mulcair. When asked who was best suited to be the next leader, Mulcair was well ahead of the others with 14 per cent.

Davies, Dewar, and Topp all scored between 24 and 28 per cent on recognition, but only managed two per cent (Topp and Davies) or three per cent (Dewar) on being the best candidate.

This seemingly gives Mulcair the popular edge, and with each member getting a vote in the contest this can be a decisive edge – if Mulcair and his supporters increase the NDP’s Quebec membership by leaps and bounds.

But if the country’s last major leadership race is any indication, the result might be a surprise.

In the last Liberal leadership race, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae were considered the two frontrunners. Ignatieff led on the first two ballots before being overtaken by Stéphane Dion, a man few had given a real chance when the leadership race had begun.

As with Rae and Ignatieff, Mulcair and Topp come from different wings of the party. If the same kind of leadership convention unfolds in March and the NDP opts for a consensus candidate, will the New Democrats have a Stéphane Dion of their own?

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls, and electoral projections.