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Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair speaks during the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2011. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)
Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair speaks during the NDP leadership debate in Ottawa on Dec. 4, 2011. (BLAIR GABLE/Blair Gable/Reuters)

Crunching Numbers

Mulcair gathering steam in NDP race, Wikipedia tea leaves suggest Add to ...

The race to become the NDP’s next leader is moving into its final stretch, with five more debates planned before the vote is held on March 24. But the campaign to succeed the late Jack Layton is now almost four months old and there is precious little to indicate who might be leading the pack. An unlikely source, however, could provide a clue.

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Being an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, Wikipedia is often maligned as a source of unreliable information. It is nevertheless one of the most popular websites in the world and its pages are often among the first that come up in any internet search. The views each individual Wikipedia page receives every day are tracked and these statistics are publicly available. Might this be of any use?

The number of views the pages of Dalton McGuinty, Tim Hudak, and Andrea Horwath received during the final two weeks of the 2011 Ontario election campaign ranked in the same order as their parties did on election night. Traffic for Mr. McGuinty’s page moved ahead of that of Mr. Hudak’s in the final days of the campaign, echoing what the polls were suggesting was the case at the time.

In mid-April during the federal election campaign, when New Democratic support in Quebec spiked, the NDP’s French Wikipedia page began to receive more views than that of any other party – after previously having lagged behind.

An analysis of Wikipedia page views would have suggested that Alison Redford was a far more important candidate than was generally thought during the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race, and it would have also shown that Christy Clark was the leading contender to replace Gordon Campbell as leader of the B.C. Liberals (even accurately suggesting in what order the three other contenders would finish).

In the most recent federal leadership race, the traffic of the French pages of the three Bloc Québécois leadership hopefuls suggested Daniel Paillé would eventually prevail. The numbers also indicated that Maria Mourani was a far more popular candidate than Jean-François Fortin, who was eliminated on the first ballot. During the campaign itself, it was generally (and erroneously) thought that Mr. Fortin was a stronger candidate than Ms. Mourani.

Having been an intriguingly successful indicator in the past, what might Wikipedia’s traffic tell us about the NDP leadership race?

Between September, when the campaign was formally launched, and the end of December, Thomas Mulcair’s French and English Wikipedia pages have received the most visits of any candidate: almost 17,806. Brian Topp comes second with almost 16,647 visits. In the first months of the race, these two men were widely considered to be the front-runners.

The limits of what these statistics can tell us, however, become quickly apparent. Niki Ashton and Martin Singh are third and fourth, respectively, in total page views. The most likely reason is that both of these candidates are relatively unknown while also having traits (Ms. Ashton is the youngest candidate, Mr. Singh is a Sikh) that make them stand out, leading people who know nothing about them to look them up.

Robert Chisholm, the first candidate to drop out of the race, received the fewest visits over the last four months of 2011, while Roméo Saganash (6,611 visits) and Nathan Cullen (5,772 visits) were the next two lowest. Peggy Nash, at 9,898 views, and Paul Dewar, with 7,948, finished in the middle of the pack.

If we focus on the four candidates generally seen as the main contenders (Mr. Dewar, Mr. Mulcair, Ms. Nash and Mr. Topp), we see that Mr. Topp’s campaign launch started strong with almost as many views in September as the three others combined. Mr. Mulcair received the most views in October, when his campaign was launched, while the three other candidates fared generally even.

Over the last two months, however, Mr. Mulcair has held a narrow edge over Ms. Nash. Mr. Topp has fallen to third. This matches nicely with what many have perceived as the current state of the race – that Mr. Topp is now trailing behind Mr. Mulcair and Ms. Nash.

But the amount of traffic may in large part be driven by the media attention each candidate is receiving rather than their popularity within the party. Any similarities between Wikipedia traffic and election results may be mere coincidence and too much should not be read into these results. However, with so few indicators available, and with this one having had some success in the past, these tea leaves may be just as prescient as any other currently on offer.

Eric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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