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Bruce Anderson.

Bruce Anderson.

Mulcair could be the first NDP prime minister, if he can convince non-progressives Add to ...

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National’s “At Issue” panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Tom Mulcair is one of more talented and interesting politicians I’ve met.

Politics can come down to a battle of “head versus heart” choices. But Mr. Mulcair doesn’t want you to choose one or the other. He’s part wonk who loves the big policy questions. But he’s also got feelings, which, refreshingly, he doesn’t try to conceal.

The NDP Leader is not the least bit naïve; he knows he’s got challenges. But he’s also got the confidence needed to get up in the morning and do what it takes to lead a party. On many days, that’s about walking off the sprains and bruises, and not letting the other guys see you sweat.

The next 11 months may be the most important ones in the history of the New Democratic Party. They stand across the aisle from a government that can be beaten. On paper the NDP have a better chance of winning than they ever have.

They’ve got money, a seasoned and able front bench, and they aren’t handicapped by a huge federal deficit, which so often makes their appealing promises look like unaffordable hazards.

But for all that, optimism is guarded in NDP ranks.

In one sense, the NDP path to victory is not that complicated: voters grow wearier of the Conservatives and warier about Justin Trudeau.

But months are passing with scant evidence that this is happening. And time is growing shorter. What, if anything, can the NDP do to disrupt the flow and start to see some growth in public support again?

First, the NDP problem is not a Tom Mulcair problem. His Ottawa critics may point out his weaknesses, but our polls show he’s quite well regarded across the country. More than enough voters like his values, his ideas, his judgment and his attitude. He outpolls Stephen Harper on all these characteristics.

Instead, the challenge facing New Democrats comes down to this.

When we ask which party is likely to win the next election, only 7 per cent believe that will be the NDP. This may be the lowest number ever in terms of voters expecting that the party serving as Official Opposition will become the governing party (other than the Bloc Québécois in the 1990s). For every voter that thinks the NDP will win, five think the Liberals will.

This week’s by-election in Whitby-Oshawa triggered another wave of speculation about strategic voting and the risk it poses to the NDP. In that riding, the NDP lost a huge share of their vote, and Liberal support spiked. This follows similar setbacks in other by-elections.

Strategic voting is a clear and present danger for the NDP. In Quebec, the Liberals currently poll at 31 per cent, a few points behind the NDP. However another 19 per cent say their first choice isn’t Liberal, but they will vote for whichever party looks most able to beat the Conservatives, and they believe that will be the Liberal Party. Among francophone voters, 22 per cent fall into this category. Why? They want a more progressive government in Ottawa.

The NDP have been at pains to paint themselves as the party for true progressives – a party that dreams the dreams of the left, and faithful to the causes most dear to their hearts.

It’s a strategy with some merit, but risks too.

Every hour the NDP spend talking about their big child care proposal warms the heart of progressive and a lot of centrist voters too.

But it also means another hour not spent addressing the quiet doubts that some voters harbour about NDP economic instincts. Talking about building a truly sustainable economy and increasing taxes but only on business doesn’t help, it can make matters worse. Most voters on the centre don’t really fear the NDP as much as lack confidence they would take a balanced approach.

In contrast, even if those same voters never hear what the Liberals have in mind in terms of economic policy, they’ll imagine its not going to be radical. In Canada, the market for radical is pretty, pretty small.

None of this, I’m sure, is lost on Tom Mulcair. Chances are he has a plan. Step 1: bond with and build enthusiasm on the left. Step 2: do what’s necessary to convince voters you can win, which starts with making clear that you won’t upset what’s working in our economy.

If such a plan is going to work, Step 2 needs to start soon.

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