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Politics Why this is the most important campaign the NDP has ever fought

Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of the At Issue panel on CBC's The National and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians 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.

In the 54-year history of the NDP, I'd say this is the most important campaign the party has waged. The New Democrats start with more seats, more dollars, more profile than ever, and more support in the polls than any other party.

How has this come to pass?

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Some hold that Canada has become a lot more conservative in recent years. But if that were true, it's doubtful a leftist party would be leading the polls and the only conservative party would be struggling to find 30 per cent support.

Still, there's been some shifting of views on economic policy. Canada is less interventionist in its preferences than when David Lewis and Ed Broadbent battled with Trudeau the Elder. Canadians are also more open to the idea that the right free-trade agreements can be good for workers and consumers here.

Anyway, if the NDP is more competitive than usual, it's certainly not because the country has moved to the left.

Instead, I see these reasons:

  • Thomas Mulcair has used the visibility afforded an Opposition Leader to become known as articulate and capable of putting heat on Stephen Harper. At the same time, Liberal leader Trudeau felt the sting of millions of dollars of negative ads portraying him is amoral, incompetent and immature.
  • The NDP has shifted somewhat towards the centre over time. There’s no more talk of nationalizing banks. Today, the NDP leader talks less about helping unionized workers than he does helping small businesses.
  • The election and NDP government in Alberta was caused by an exhausted and weak effort by the PC Party. Many who voted for Rachel Notley were not choosing a different ideology, but a fresh approach. And when Alberta voters picked the NDP, voters in other parts of the country decided to take another look at the brand, too.

The NDP is a choice that Canadians haven't sampled at the national level. Both the other major parties have scar tissue. Lots of voters, especially younger voters, feel free to ascribe to it all kinds of virtues that they would like in a political party. Their hopes haven't been dashed.

So, there's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset Canada's political table. Victory is within sight. But it won't be easy. Here are the biggest challenges and obstacles facing the NDP between here and October 19th:

As popular as the NDP's Sherbrooke declaration might be in parts of Quebec, it will rankle voters elsewhere. A 50 per cent+1 exit from Confederation simply looks more like populism than the careful stewardship Canadians prefer. Mr. Mulcair bristles when criticized for his position, but bristling won't make this problem go away.

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Mr. Mulcair talks up his sustainability policy initiatives in Quebec and asserts that they were among the very best anywhere in the world. But as we get closer to Election Day, voters are going to wonder what these words mean. Most voters want a government that cares more about the environment, but not one that cares less about jobs.

Few Canadians fret about the tax loads facing corporations. But that's not the same as wanting corporate tax rates to rise. If the NDP sounds like it might make policy mistakes that could drive away investment, support levels will droop pretty quickly.

Finally, the NDP is popular when it is styled as a friendly, underdoggy, "little-engine-that-could" success story.

But on a handful of occasions since this campaign started, there were echoes of the kind of thing that other parties have done in the past, at their peril.

High-handedness about taking questions.

Fussiness about participation in debates.

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These are hallmarks of a party that sees itself as a frontrunner, and thinks what frontrunners do is sit on a lead and let the clock run out.

The top NDP strategists are smart people who know this won't work. I'm sure adjustments are underway. Because they know that to win this election, the NDP must get two things right:

They must anticipate and defuse anxiety about some NDP policy positions.

And they must give voters reasons to like the NDP, to want the party to win, to pull for it.

No party can afford to look arrogant, but the NDP can least afford this error. People like underdogs, and that's a big part of the NDP charm.

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