While the Outremont by-election race is only in its early stages, it's hard to see how the contest could have started off better for the NDP and Thomas Mulcair - with two mainstream media stories this weekend noting that Mulcair seems to have the early momentum on the ground. And the fact that Mulcair is appearing in the headlines as a favourite may be just as important as the internal strength the NDP is showing in the riding.
To see why, keep in mind that at the best of times, political perception tends to turn into reality awfully quickly. And the NDP's history in Outremont shows just how a wider media focus can make or break a party's chances of breaking through.
In 2004, NDP candidate Omar Aktouf apparently polled as high as 25% at one point (though I can't verify the number beyond one comment at Election Prediction)...but on election day, Aktouf dropped to 14% of the vote, seemingly in large part due to a spillover effect from the Lib/Bloc fight across the province. In 2006, Leo-Paul Lauzon was a higher-profile candidate than Aktouf and polled as high as 20% a week before the election. But even with the province-wide picture somewhat less clear - which I'd think played some role in his better vote retention - Lauzon's final total of 17% still left him a ways to go to catch up with the Libs and Bloc.
Of course, the Outremont by-election already figured to offer a bit of a different story, as riding-level news would inevitably be more prominent than would be the case under the usual general-election focus on national leaders and campaigns. But the NDP's strategy in Outremont still had to be to get Mulcair in the news early, and make sure to be included as one of the two main contenders for later "horse-race" coverage. And even Mulcair's name recognition may not have done the job in that regard if the he hadn't hit the ground running in the by-election.
Fortunately, though, all indications are that the press has placed Mulcair as at least one of the top two choices in the race (if not the outright favourite). Which means that if there's going to be a late-race polarization, the NDP figures to be on the right side of it for a change. And that can only further improve what already looked to be a strong chance for Mulcair to come away with the seat.