On Wednesday evening, the Liberal Party’s board of directors will formally release Interim Leader Bob Rae from his pledge not to seek the permanent leadership. Mr. Rae is then almost certain to run, and almost certain to win, unless Justin Trudeau decides to challenge him.
The Papineau MP says he doesn’t want the job at this time, that family demands come first. It is, of course, his decision.
But before making up his mind once and for all, Mr. Trudeau should consider this: Unless he runs now, he is unlikely ever to become prime minister.
The reason: Ontario voters won’t let him.
One mistake that many analysts make – and they make it over and over and over again – is to assume that the path to power for either the Liberals or the NDP runs through Quebec.
Quebec is an outlier province: it hasn’t voted in substantial numbers for a governing party since 1988. One day, Quebeckers could become the catalyst for a new progressive coalition that sweeps the Conservatives from power.
There is not, however, a single shred of hard political evidence that such a day is at hand.
In the next election, as in every election for decades, millions of middle-class voters who inhabit the swath of suburban ridings surrounding Toronto and other Ontario cities will cast the deciding votes.
Those suburban middle-class Ontario voters are not inclined to deliver the federal government into the hands of an inexperienced newcomer.
Provincially, they voted for Mr. Rae in 1990 only after he had been defeated in 1987. They voted for Mike Harris in 1995 only after he had been defeated in 1990. The voted for Dalton McGuinty in 2003 only after he had been defeated in 1999.
Federally, they voted for Stephen Harper in 2006 only after he had been defeated in 2004. They voted for Jean Chretien in 1993 in part because they had known him as a major figure in the Liberal Party for almost 30 years.
Suburban middle-class Ontario voters opted for Brian Mulroney, a political rookie, in 1984, but they had watched Mr. Mulroney jockey for the job for almost a decade, and his opponent, John Turner, had just returned to federal politics after a hiatus of nine years. In that sense, both were newcomers.
They voted, reluctantly, for the relatively unknown Joe Clark in 1979--though the Liberals held enough seats in Ontario to deprive him of a majority government--then emphatically changed their mind a few months later.
And in 1968, they voted for Justin Trudeau’s father over Robert Stanfield. Both men were new to the national stage.
In other words, anyone who assumes the leadership of a national party without a substantial track record at the national level is unlikely to impress suburban, middle-class Ontario voters, who believe that anyone seeking to govern the nation should have some meat on their resume.
A new arrival usually only has a shot at winning when confronting another new arrival.
If Mr. Trudeau chooses to seek the leadership now, and if he prevails over Mr. Rae, then history and precedent suggest suburban middle-class Ontario voters will reject him in 2015. He will be too young, at 43, and too inexperienced for the job compared to the veteran prime minister, Stephen Harper.
But if he hangs in and offers himself in 2019, he will have a much better chance. He will be 47, he will have led the Liberal Party for six years and he will have been through the tempering fire of an election defeat. Nothing teaches a leader more about himself or herself, and about the calibre of his or her advisers, than losing an election.
By 2019, the Conservatives will be very long of tooth and blunt of claw. Ontario suburban, middle-class voters may decide Mr. Trudeau, who will be 47, is ready.
But if he does not run now, then someone else will lead the party into the 2015 election. Mr. Trudeau will remain the inexperienced outsider, unable to taste victory because he is unwilling to confront defeat. The voters who matter most will have little time for such a politician.
Who are those voters? They’re in Ontario. They live in suburbs. And they’re middle class.