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What U.S.-style primaries would look like for the NDP

NDP candidates Peggy Nash and Nathan Cullen spar during a leadership debate in Quebec City on Feb. 12, 2012.

CLEMENT ALLARD/Clement Allard/The Canadian Press

The excitement surrounding the NDP leadership race pales in comparison to the headline-grabbing contest for the Republican nomination in the United States. But what if the New Democrats adopted U.S.-style primaries to choose their next leader?

The following is a work of fiction. It imagines that the NDP holds primaries in each province, allowing party supporters – and not just members – to cast their ballots to elect 1,000 delegates to the NDP convention in Toronto. Delegates are awarded to each candidate proportionately, based on their share of the vote in each of the primaries. Polling data, endorsements, and fundraising figures have been used to determine each candidate's vote share in each province:

Hoping to give its local issues national prominence, Prince Edward Island was the first province to hold its NDP primary in mid-January. Accordingly, the eight leadership candidates criss-crossed the island in the week running up to the vote in order to start the primary season off on the right foot, while a few pundits in the national media bemoaned the unfair importance of being assigned to such a small province. But with only four delegates at stake, any victory won in PEI was always going to be a moral one.

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With former PEI NDP leader Herb Dickieson campaigning with him, Thomas Mulcair won the first NDP primary with 43 per cent of the vote, outpacing rival Brian Topp (28 per cent) by a wide margin. It solidified Mr. Mulcair's position as one of the frontrunners, while Paul Dewar (13 per cent) and Peggy Nash (eight per cent) cheerfully shrugged it off and said they were looking forward to the next two primaries in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Following shortly on the heels of the Jan. 29 debate in Halifax, the primaries in these two provinces were the first real tests of the campaign with a combined 49 delegates at stake. While Ms. Nash got the nod from former NDP leader Alexa McDonough, the well-funded Topp campaign hit Nova Scotia with newspaper and radio ads. Yvon Godin, meanwhile, campaigned hard for Mr. Topp in his native New Brunswick.

When the votes were counted, Mr. Topp emerged as the outright winner in New Brunswick, taking 57 per cent of the vote. Mr. Mulcair finished second with 17 per cent and Mr. Dewar, with 12 per cent support, was the only other candidate to crack double figures. Nova Scotia, however, was a much closer race. The CBC could not declare a winner until late into the night, but Ms. Nash eventually squeaked by with 31 per cent of the vote against Mr. Topp's 29 per cent. Mr. Mulcair finished with a disappointing 19 per cent. A moment between Mr. Topp and Mr. Mulcair at the Halifax debate was blamed for his poor showing, but Mr. Mulcair reiterated that his campaign was focusing on the later primaries in Quebec and Ontario.

Romeo Saganash, however, failed to secure any delegates in these first three primaries and, also struggling to build a nationwide organization, withdrew from the leadership race.

All eyes turned to the west when, on Feb. 14, the primaries in Alberta and Saskatchewan were held a few days after the energetic debates in Saskatoon and Edmonton. With his history in the province and the support of former premiers Roy Romanow and Lorne Calvert, Mr. Topp was widely expected to take Saskatchewan. How Alberta would swing was far less certain, but with the support of Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, Mr. Dewar put a lot of effort into getting a good result in the province.

Saskatchewan broke as expected, with Mr. Topp taking 51 per cent of the vote and Mr. Mulcair finishing second with 25 per cent. Alberta was a far closer contest, with Mr. Topp narrowly edging out the others with 35 per cent of the vote. Thanks in part to strong labour support in the province, Ms. Nash turned out to be Mr. Topp's biggest competitor at 25 per cent, while Mr. Dewar received 19 per cent support, his highest of the primary season so far.

Momentum swung in Ms. Nash's favour the following week, as she won Newfoundland and Labrador with 31 per cent of the vote and the three territories with 38 per cent, outpacing both Mr. Topp and Mr. Mulcair. Ms. Nash hoped to carry that momentum into Manitoba, where the candidate had spent few resources, but her hopes were dashed.

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Instead, Mr. Mulcair (who had the support of former premier Ed Schreyer) narrowly edged out Mr. Dewar for the Manitoba primary, taking 28 per cent to 23 per cent for the Ontario MP. The Dewar campaign had staked a lot on this vote, as had local MP Niki Ashton, who finished fourth with 17 per cent support.

As the Quebec primary approached following the debates in Quebec City in February and in Montreal in March, Mr. Topp led the field with 87 delegates to 49 for Ms. Nash, 47 for Mr. Mulcair, and 40 for Mr. Dewar. But the Mulcair victory in Manitoba put the other candidates on the attack.

Despite the shift in tone, Mr. Mulcair romped to a landslide victory in Quebec taking 69 per cent of the vote and 159 of the 231 delegates at stake. Mr. Topp, originally from the Montreal area, finished second with 17 per cent of the vote, not nearly enough to prevent Mr. Mulcair from moving ahead by a wide margin in the delegate count.

This set the stage for Super Tuesday, when the primaries in British Columbia and Ontario would be held. With more than half of all delegates to be awarded in these two final primaries, every campaign spent the last of its resources on the province in which they expected to do best: Mr. Topp in British Columbia and Ms. Nash, Mr. Dewar (supported by former Ontario NDP leader Mike Cassidy), and Mr. Mulcair (also supported by a former leader, Howard Hampton) in Ontario. The debate in Vancouver on Mar. 11 was testy as the candidates vied for the last votes of the primary season. Despite Mr. Mulcair's status as the frontrunner, expectations of good performances by Mr. Topp in B.C. and Ms. Nash and Mr. Dewar in Ontario put the field on edge.

As expected, Mr. Topp finished strong with 45 per cent of the vote in British Columbia. His closest rival, B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, captured 19 per cent of the vote and enough delegates to be an important player at the convention. Mr. Mulcair finished third with only 13 per cent.

In Ontario, the battle between Ms. Nash and Mr. Dewar came to a head, with Ms. Nash finishing just ahead of Mr. Dewar with 32 to 26 per cent of the vote. The Ottawa MP had led the race early in the night thanks to strong numbers in his hometown and in the northern part of the province, but fell behind once the votes from the GTA began to pour in. And despite spending most of the preceding week in B.C., Mr. Topp managed to place third with 18 per cent, ahead of Mr. Mulcair.

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The result was a divided field. Though Mr. Mulcair performed poorly in the final two primaries, he had claim to the greatest number of delegates (282). Mr. Topp was not far behind with 256 but he also had the glow of his B.C. victory. Ms. Nash (208) and Mr. Dewar (154) had enough delegates to contend for the leadership and the advantage of being the preferred candidates in Canada's largest province. Mr. Cullen (47 delegates), Ms. Ashton (35), and Martin Singh (17), while far behind the others, had the potential to play a key role at the convention, perhaps even emerging as kingmakers.

But the primaries for the NDP leadership could not decide the race alone. In the end, the decision would have to be made by the members of the New Democratic Party on the convention floor.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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