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Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats Drift Into The Background

With a new leader at the helm of the Liberal Party and the whiff of scandal in the Conservative government's handling of Senate problems, the New Democrats under Thomas Mulcair have drifted into the background of Canadian politics.

What is going on with the NDP?

The Liberal Party has dominated headlines despite its third-place position in the House of Commons, even before Justin Trudeau was selected as leader in April. Accordingly, the polls have shown a surge in Grit support. Though the party's numbers are falling back down to Earth after flirting with 40 per cent and majority-government territory, they are nevertheless ahead of the pack and showing impressive growth in Quebec — the likely stage of 2015's most hotly contested battleground.

The Trudeau honeymoon has been undoubtedly boosted by the problems Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been suffering, primarily due to the Duffy-Wright affair and the government's changing story concerning what happened and who knew what when.

Mulcair won praise from the press gallery for grilling the prime minister in the House of Commons with pointed, effective questions about the scandal. His performance stood in sharp contrast from the unfocused approach often on display in a typical question period. By many accounts, Mulcair demonstrated that while Trudeau might have the charm, the leader of the Official Opposition was Harper’s real adversary.

But his performance has not paid much dividend in the polls. Mulcair's own arrival on the political scene was followed by a surge in NDP support as the party moved into first place. But when his numbers dropped, they settled at around 28 to 29 per cent at the end of 2012 and the first few months of 2013. Compared to where the NDP had traditionally been in the polls, and the 31 per cent the party took in the 2011 federal election, it was not a bad place to be. A challenge to the Tories could easily be mounted from such a platform.

However, the party has since fallen to around 23 or 24 per cent support and third place. The party has taken a hit in the West worth a few points and has also sagged in Atlantic Canada, but the growth it managed in Ontario and surge of support Mulcair gave the NDP in Quebec has all but disappeared. The New Democrats are now in the low-20s in Ontario as voters in the province return to the Liberal tent. After all, Ontario was the primary source of Jean Chrétien's majorities in 1993, 1997, and 2000.

In Quebec, the NDP has fallen behind the Liberals and is now being challenged by the Bloc Québécois for runner-up status. The province remains in a state of flux, with some polls showing the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Québécois within a whisker of each other, others showing the Liberals soaring above, and still others putting the Bloc in the mid-teens. The only consensus is on the poor state of Conservatives in the province.

The accident at Lac-Mégantic has turned attention away from the federal scene but, if anything, the event has only worsened things for Tories. They have widely been seen in the province as having handled the tragedy much worse than the provincial government of Pauline Marois, which has received praise. In that context, remarks Mulcair made linking the federal government with the accident — roundly criticized outside of Quebec — may not have been received so negatively by the local audience.

The New Democrats are in a tricky position. Voters are still unfamiliar with the party, a large percentage of whom voted for the NDP at the federal level for the first time in 2011. A charismatic leader of the Liberals — and the aura of a winner, at least in light of the polls — makes it difficult for New Democrats to capitalize on the Liberal fatigue that propelled the NDP to their historic breakthrough in 2011.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers every week. Grenier is the author of, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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