As Thomas Mulcair poured pints at a bar in Windsor, Ont., NDP officials had poll numbers on their minds.
Not the recent surveys that show a rise in NDP support across the country, but rather the findings of an internal poll that has guided a clear shift in the party's pre-electoral strategy.
The detailed poll of more than 4,500 voters, conducted for internal party purposes late last year, revealed Mr. Mulcair's name-recognition level across Canada was dangerously low with less than one year to go to the general election, party sources acknowledged in recent interviews. The finding prompted a drastic change in Mr. Mulcair's public appearances, bringing him increasingly out of his comfort zone in Parliament and into main-street Canada, such as a microbrewery in southern Ontario last week, to highlight his middle-class roots and hammer away at the highlights of the NDP's platform.
The Globe and Mail has spoken to NDP MPs, senior official and outside strategists about what the party felt its weaknesses were when it conducted the poll late last year, and about the new strategy that was put in place in the lead up to the Oct. 19 general election.
The finding in the internal survey that a high percentage of Canadians simply "didn't know Thomas Mulcair" came more than two years after he became Leader of the Official Opposition and months after he earned rave reviews for grilling Conservatives over the Senate spending scandal. While there was a shock factor in the numbers, it confirmed the "gut feeling" of many New Democrats: A high-profile figure in his political base of Quebec, Mr. Mulcair was an "unknown factor" in the rest of the country, with less than one year to go before the next election.
Mr. Mulcair reacted to the findings by reshaping his office. In January, he brought in a new chief of staff, lawyer Alain Gaul, who had served him in the same position when he was Quebec's environment minister. Mr. Gaul quickly made it a priority to bring back a veteran of the 2011 Orange Wave, Brad Lavigne, as a special adviser.
Along with other senior staff, they developed and deployed a new strategy to get Mr. Mulcair across the country to sell a simple political offering, in the lead up to the election. The premise was that "the more people get to know him, the more they like him," a party official said.
Mr. Mulcair has drastically increased the number of days he spends on the road, and outside of the House of Commons, focusing especially on British Columbia and Ontario, with a heavy GTA focus.
Wearing a permanent smile, he regularly heads off to daycares, small shops, restaurants and microbreweries, such as Walkerville Brewery in Windsor, which he visited on Wednesday. In addition, the NDP has organized a series of rallies with the leader from Victoria to Montreal that have drawn hundreds of supporters.
Mr. Mulcair is plugging the same message at every stop, which is a feat for a leader who loves to debate and highlight his personal erudition, party officials said. As part of his routine, Mr. Mulcair regularly talks about being the second-oldest child in a middle-class family of 10, in addition to his time and experience in government in Quebec. The two elements offer clear differentiation between him and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who is the other rival in the race to replace Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The goal for the NDP is to create links between Mr. Mulcair's upbringing and his political values. While he derided Mr. Trudeau for writing an autobiography last year, while in his early 40s, Mr. Mulcair, 60, has just announced the publication of his own personal story later this year, to be called Strength of Conviction.
"He is well established now at prosecuting Stephen Harper in Parliament," an NDP strategist said of Mr. Mulcair. "Now, the next layer to add to that storyline is to … make a connection with the people."
Mr. Mulcair is focusing his messaging on a few elements: subsidized daycare spaces across the country, a new $15 minimum wage for employees in federally regulated sectors, a reduced qualifying year for Old Age Security and help for small businesses.
"It's a disciplined message, but it's also a very concrete message," Mr. Mulcair said in an interview this week.
When Mr. Mulcair has been prompted by political events to take other stands – such as opposing the Conservative government's anti-terrorism legislation – the NDP has made sure that he came out "speaking with clarity and purpose," a party official said. The goal, once again, is to provide a contrast to Mr. Trudeau.
Mr. Mulcair was prompted to shift his strategy after what party officials acknowledge was a tough autumn. He first announced his daycare plan in September, but the shooting in Parliament on Oct. 22 and the subsequent controversy over allegations of Liberal MPs harassing NDP MPs derailed the party's plans and messaging.
By the end of the year, the caucus was getting restless, according to NDP sources. Mr. Mulcair demoted his chief of staff, Raoul Gebert, asking him to focus all of his energies on the NDP's operations in Quebec. He replaced him with one of his closest advisers, Mr. Gaul, who quit his partnership at a large law firm in Montreal. A long-time provincial Liberal, the 42-year-old Mr. Gaul doesn't have the NDP logo tattooed on his heart, but he deeply wants Mr. Mulcair to win, a party source said.
"If you ask yourself: Why is Tom doing more travelling, why is Tom more disciplined with his message, why does he have a richer, more detailed storyline? A lot of this is the change that happened [in the leader's office in January]," an NDP strategist said.
One of Mr. Gaul's first steps in his new position was to call Mr. Lavigne and get him to meet Mr. Mulcair at a restaurant in Hudson, Que., called Mon Village. (It was the same place where Mr. Mulcair first discussed his move to federal politics in 2007 with Jack Layton and their respective spouses.) Mr. Lavigne was not known as a fan of Mr. Mulcair during the 2012 leadership race, but he quickly agreed to return to work part-time for the NDP. On Friday, he announced he was quitting his lobbying job to work full-time on the campaign.
While he is happy to see the NDP in a three-way race in recent polls, Mr. Mulcair continues to portray himself and his party as underdogs. To make his point, he quickly goes from his upbringing in Montreal to his party's attempt to break the Liberal and Conservative parties' stronghold on Canadian politics.
"Everyone seems to have discovered the importance of talking about the middle class. Well, I come from the middle class," he said. "We worked very hard and nobody gave us anything. It's what's good about being in the NDP: We're the party where nobody has ever given us anything. We've had to fight for everything."