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.
Restless voters are on the NDP lot. Soon they'll be kicking the tires, looking more closely at what's on offer. Will Tom Mulcair be able to close the deal? In part that will depend on the NDP leader keeping his cool. His opponents will throw everything at him, hoping to break his stride. His natural ebullience is one of his strengths and, occasionally, his biggest weakness. Voters like edge, not edgy.
Reassuring people that he is fit for the highest office is necessary, but likely insufficient. Inevitably, soft voters will revisit the reasons they never chose an NDP government in the past.
This will be the toughest test for Mr. Mulcair because it requires him to convey the idea that this is a new NDP – without saying so outright. The more radical sounding his change proposition is, the more likely he'll lose momentum. At the same time, if he looks too much the centrist, he'll find himself in hot water with his party's base.
Success lies in trying to meet mainstream voters halfway. What does that look like?
Yesterday's NDP was Canada's bare-knuckled champion of redistribution. "Make the rich pay" was a powerful sound bite. But today's mainstream voter cares about income growth, which they don't all see as a zero-sum game. Policy centred on "more growth and more fairness" will work better than a rant about the wealthy.
The NDP has often styled itself as the foe of big corporations. Tilting at Bay Street provided a political rush, but left many progressive voters noting NDP passion, while voting for Liberal reason.
Sometimes, the NDP has looked like a collection of interest boutiques, a loose agglomeration of unionists, environmentalists, socialists, Quebec nationalists, and pacifists. They agreed mostly that the status quo was bad. With little prospect of holding power, their platform was seldom tested for coherence and workability. The test this year promises to be more intense.
Generally the federal NDP has been the party that spends the least time calling for balanced budgets and lower taxes. In a country that strongly prefers governments that live within means, and tax with restraint, not enthusiasm, this positioning warmed the relationship with the base but cooled things with other voters.
Resources and the environment may be the biggest of the old-NDP, new-NDP challenges. The party's base includes the roughly 10 per cent of Canadians who are anti-economic development and the 12 per cent who are fiercely anti-fossil fuels. It's been easy to campaign against the Conservatives' record on these issues, but now voters will want to know that as prime minister, Tom Mulcair would support mining, forestry, oil and gas development and not get in the way of every pipeline.
Today, while lots of voters are looking with interest at the NDP, the big story remains this: 75 per cent haven't really made up their mind about how they will vote.
Mr. Mulcair's recent speeches suggest he's reshaping his party's message.
In Toronto this week, he praised the fact that so many corporations were headquartered there, saying they helped make it "Canada's most important city."
His words to manufacturers might have been spoken by a Liberal or a Conservative leader: "It's time that Canada's manufacturers had a partner here at home and a champion on the world stage to attract investment and help create export markets."
The small business community? "We have to provide immediate and permanent help to some of the hardest working job creators in our economy, Canada's small-business owners – the backbone of local communities".
Spending restraint: "It's fundamentally important that the federal government lives within its means".
On the environment and the economy, Mulcair's early forays as national leader left an impression that he would accept a slower economy if it meant a healthier environment. Today, he talks about developing the economy and improving the environment, not choosing one over the other. His policies won't convince everyone he's figured out how to do this – but today he will at least sound like his objective is the same as that of most people.
Leading the polls, this far out, is a mixed blessing for the NDP. They will draw more interest, attack and scrutiny. Their opportunity to win isn't happening because Canada has changed. If they win, it will be because more people think the NDP has.