“Presenting Tom Mulcair as a gentle moderate may be backfiring for the New Democrats” (The National Post)

Thomas Mulcair at the Sept. 28 Munk Debate (credit: CP press pool/Mark Blinch)

Richard Warnica (The National Post):

At the beginning of the Munk debate on foreign policy Monday, moderator Rudyard Griffiths welcomed the participants, then leaped in with one of the great moral questions of our age.

“Right now, the world is witnessing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War,” he said, speaking to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. If the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant doesn’t justify a military response, he continued, what exactly would?

What Mulcair said in response — he slipped around the question, basically, before returning to it later — was perhaps less interesting than how he said it.

Faced with a moral dilemma that has vexed and divided generations of human rights activists, he turned to the camera. He smiled. He spoke in warm tones. He gave the impression, in other words, of a man determined to appear even-keeled, no matter what the topic.

That moment represented nothing new. Long before this campaign, the New Democratic Party began positioning Mulcair as the calm, responsible, even moderate, option for change. By doing so, they hoped to counter the image of a hotheaded Mulcair (“Angry Tom”) while presenting a more mature alternative to the younger, notionally flighty Justin Trudeau.

But with less than three weeks to go until Election Day and with the party’s lead in the national polls — the public ones at least — definitively gone, some are wondering if that strategy has backfired. By running a cautious, front-runner campaign, the NDP has not only failed to find new converts, it may now be at risk of losing its base, too.

Nothing is over yet, of course. Nineteen days can be a lifetime in politics and, in the words of Ian Capstick, a former NDP strategist, “You’d have to be incredibly stupid to attempt to predict the election” right now.

“At this point in the last campaign, people had all but written Jack Layton off.”

Nonetheless, there are serious signs the New Democrats are in trouble, and the gentle, centrist Tom strategy may be partially to blame.

New polling numbers released by Abacus Data Tuesday suggest the Liberals are winning the battle for the “change” voter. Among those who told the company they want “ambitious change,” 44 per cent said they preferred Justin Trudeau, compared to 36 per cent for Mulcair.

Mario Canseco, vice-president of Insights West, a Vancouver-based polling firm, says voters in British Columbia fell in love with the Mulcair who aggressively held Prime Minister Stephen Harper to account in the House of Commons.

“The campaign has been a little bit more different,” he said. “He’s been smiling a bit more. He’s been a little bit more subdued.”

By pushing for the centre — with a focus on balanced budgets and a drama-free leader — the New Democrats have failed to secure their B.C. base, Canseco believes.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have relentlessly focused on theirs. Now, even undecided voters in the province, who often see-saw between the NDP and the Conservatives, are beginning to slide Harper’s way, Canseco said.

Bill Tieleman, a former NDP strategist in B.C., also thinks the federal party should have done more to secure its core voters.

“The NDP campaign, if anything, I would fault for playing it too safe,” he said. “I don’t know that they’ve been terribly aggressive to date.”

There are obviously other factors at play.

The Liberal Party made an aggressive bid for the progressive vote by vowing to run deficits for several years if elected. In Quebec,  the niqab issue and a rejuvenated Bloc Québécois have been eating into the NDP’s most important base of support, hurting its standing in national polls.

But this is not the first time an NDP campaign has been accused of losing voters by wandering to the middle.

That was the fate of the Ontario NDP in the 2014 provincial election, which saw its support in Toronto collapse after it appeared to run away from its own base and toward the middle.

“When the NDP pushes too far to the centre, they seem to lose some of their momentum in the process,” Kelcey said.

“Objectively, if they want to regain that momentum, they need to get back to speaking about how they’re different.”

For his part, Capstick doesn’t think it’s worth reading too much into publicly released national polls. The NDP campaign, he believes, is going just fine.

Still, he expects the central campaign to recalibrate somewhat in the next several weeks. The party has already stepped up its anti-Liberal ad war, targeting Trudeau in new radio spots and handing out anti-Liberal flyers in key Toronto battlegrounds.

Capstick thinks voters can also expect to see more high-profile faces at major NDP events soon.

“You may see more of Tom Mulcair’s team show up,” he said. “There’s some really impressive candidates out there.”

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See also: “Tasha Kheiriddin: Tom Mulcair is trying to be everything to everyone” (The National Post)

See also: “Jen Gerson: The Munk Debate was the moment the left began to eat itself” (The National Post)

See also: “NDP support plunges in Quebec, poll suggests, as survey puts them just six points ahead of Liberals” (The National Post)