Friday, December 30, 2011

Leadership 2012 Candidate Profile - Niki Ashton

The final candidate to enter the NDP's leadership race was Niki Ashton. And initially, far too many observers seem to have been eager to write off her candidacy. But while there's little doubt that Ashton faces some hurdles in her candidacy, she's done plenty to establish herself as a strong contender since joining the race.

Strengths

While youth and expanded appeal are obvious priorities for all of the NDP's leadership candidate, Ashton is the embodiment of both within the leadership campaign: a young MP from rural Manitoba, thoroughly at ease in both official languages, and sufficiently media-savvy to have won the likes of Michael Moore over to her local causes. And her experience in a political family (as the daughter of a Manitoba cabinet minister who ran an effective leadership campaign of his own just last year) may answer a lot of questions about how she can expect to hold up as a national leader at this stage of her career.

So far, the result has been a deep base of support on the prairies along with scattered endorsements elsewhere. And Ashton's effective first debate performance looks to have caught plenty of pundits by surprise - though the reason for that surprise is itself a problem for Ashton.

Weaknesses

Naturally, Ashton's concerns start with the oft-heard line "if only she were a few years older". And at 29, with a few years of experience in Parliament but not a lot in particularly glamorous critic roles, there's no doubt that Ashton's resume isn't as well-developed as those of some of her competitors.

But the bigger issue for Ashton may be less her past resume than her present policy strength. While she's done well in highlighting specific issues for media consumption, she hasn't dealt with much on more than a bullet-point level either in the leadership race or in the parts of her parliamentary work that have been noticed by the media.

As a result, Ashton may have more to lose than anybody if the leadership race comes down to a soundbite war which doesn't allow her to show enough depth to win over members skeptical based on her age. And to avoid that fate, she may need to take one of her priorities such as foreign ownership and work on developing an intellectual presentation capable of winning over skeptical audiences, rather than limiting herself to introductions to the party base.

Key Indicator

So how will we know if she's succeeded? I'm not sure how many pollsters will be asking questions along the lines of "best prime minister" or competence as compared to their usual first-choice support and favourability numbers. But I'd consider those to be the most important factors for Ashton: if she can compare credibly to the perceived top tier of candidates on those numbers, then she'll have a serious chance to emerge on top.

Key Opponent

Much like most of the middle-tier candidates, Ashton's main hurdle looks to be a more prominent candidate with an overlapping supporter profile: in her case Peggy Nash who looks to have the early lead as both the candidate most effectively pushing for a female leader, and the favourite of the activist left. If Ashton can outlast Nash, then adding those groups to her rural and youth bases would put her in the thick of the race - but that doesn't figure to be an easy task.

Plausible Outcomes

Best-case: Narrow win based on a combination of strong early activist support and significant later-ballot growth
Worst-case: Early exit as a top-four-based narrative leaves insufficient room for growth

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