Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What to expect in the Liberal leadership marathon

The best way to think about the Liberal leadership race is like those velodrome cycling races you see at the Olympics. The gun sounds and two cyclists crawl around the track, quietly jockeying for position and looking over their shoulder to see where the field sits. Then, out of the blue, one racer starts sprinting and everyone is forced to join in on the mad dash to the finish line.

With the decision to put off the naming of a new leader for up to two years, the Liberal Party is now in to the "phony war" part of the cycling race. The starting gun has sounded, and the prospective candidates are quietly pushing and shoving for position as they slowly cycle the track, not wanting to break free. Sometime towards the end of 2012, one of them will start sprinting, and then the race will be on in full swing. When the candidates break remains to be seen, but keep in mind that anyone purchasing a membership form after October 1st, 2012 will be eligible to vote. My guess is most serious candidates will therefore spend next summer laying the groundwork for a Fall 2012 launch.

Then again, this sort of leadership timeline is unprecedented, so it's hard to know what to expect. But here are a few leadership rules that I believe will apply to this contest:

Rule 1: Don't look like you're running. The prevalent attitude among Liberals is that the party must rebuild before turning its attention to leadership. As such, potential candidates will need to be quiet when assembling their campaign teams. When asked if they might run, answers will range from "I don't think the party should be focusing on leadership now" (translation: "of course") to "I would sooner be beaten to death with live sea otters" (translation: "I'm thinking about it").

Rule 2: The early battles will be fought in cyberspace. In the end, it comes down to memberships sold on the ground. But until the floodgates open October 1st, 2012, the phony war will be fought online.

That's where trial candidacies will be floated, "draft Hellyer" websites will be launched, and "buzz" will be generated. A time will come when the media and LPC members decide who's a serious candidate and who isn't - that call is going to be mostly based on who seems to have the most momentum online.

Rule 3: Play nice. There was a time when Liberals could savagely tear themselves apart on everything from leadership to PEI Young Liberal Policy Chair elections. As a third place party, that luxury is gone. This is going to be a long leadership, and it might very well come down to members' second and third place choices. Any candidate seen to be playing dirty or taking cheap shots at the rest of the field is going to suffer for it.

Rule 3 Corollary: Candidates are responsible for their supporters. I know it sounds petty and it is, but many Liberals will base their vote on whose supporters have pissed them off the least. Candidates will need to keep their more overzealous supporters in check. And that includes "anonymous Senior Liberals" who are obviously spinning for a candidate.

Rule 4: The "establishment" matters less than ever before. The new leadership rules have stripped ex-officios of their power, and the end of delegated conventions means you don't have to find fanatics willing to put down $1000 to go vote at the convention. Sure, party stalwarts are still useful because they'll put in the time and influence others, but their impact will be muted compared to conventions past.

Moreover, I feel like there's a strong anti-establishment mood with the grassroots right now, to the point where having a lot of public "old guard" support might do candidates more harm than good.

Rule 5: Rural ridings rule. In this leadership race, each riding gets 100 points. And as mentioned above, you don't even have to find live bodies from the riding to fly to the convention. What that means is that signing up 10 Liberals in Crowfoot might very well be as good as signing up 400 Liberals in Toronto Centre.

Sure, you need Toronto Liberals for fundraising, but if I were running a leadership campaign, I'd have my candidate spend the bulk of his or her time barnstorming rural ridings. That's where this thing is going to be won.

Rule 6: Ignore the polls. As Prime Minister Ken Dryden will tell you, leadership race polls should be ignored 19 times out of 20.

Rule 7: The media may be off-base, but they can't be ignored. Media perceptions of the race may not always match membership sales, but these perceptions will still help shape the race.

Rule 8: You can't win by endorsing. If I were a candidate for leadership and I dropped out, I wouldn't endorse anyone else. Quite simply, it's a Kobayashi Maru.

In 2006, people blamed Gerard Kennedy for everything Stephane Dion said, even though Rae's decision to not back his old roommate was just as important in Dion's victory. I know supporters of Dominic Leblanc's aborted 2008 run still bitter about his decision to support the Iggy coronation.

By supporting another candidate, you inevitably alienate someone - better to just thank your supporters and tell them to follow their hearts.



Post a Comment

<< Home