Saturday, February 04, 2012

On uncertain measurements

Patrick has assembled an interesting response to Eric Grenier's work in quantifying the effect of endorsements in the NDP leadership race. But while I can understand the instinct to try to put together a measurement system for endorsements as a whole, I'd think it's worth being careful about simply adding up numbers, rather than looking at them in context to see which might most plausibly have the greatest effect on the course of the campaign.

Let's start with the seemingly noncontroversial statement that any candidate will have natural constituencies of supporters.

Of course, endorsements from within those anticipated support groups are certainly better than a lack thereof. But it isn't particularly news that Thomas Mulcair has a leg up among Quebec MPs, Peggy Nash within the labour movement, Paul Dewar within the current Manitoba NDP and Brian Topp among Saskatchewan's recent NDP legislators.

As a result, endorsements fitting the expected pattern don't figure to do much to change our baseline expectations for a campaign. And that goes doubly when they essentially duplicate existing endorsements of a particular type. (No offence to Lorne Calvert, but the cachet involved in Topp's claiming the support of a past Saskatchewan premier was substantially reduced when Roy Romanow had already provided exactly that.)

Coversely, a few endorsements loom as particularly significant in shaping the outcome of the NDP's leadership race in ways which may be missed by efforts to categorize by number without considering how they've challenged existing perceptions of candidates.

Most obviously, Brian Topp's ability to point to endorsements from Ed Broadbent and Francoise Boivin gave his campaign instant credibility from the start of the leadership race. And he's combined that initial endorsement from two high-profile political veterans who might not have been expected to support an outsider with an effective media strategy to get himself labeled as a top contender in a contest where his lack of history as an elected official might otherwise have been seen far more of an obstacle.

As for other endorsements with potentially massive impacts on the trajectory of the campaign which might not be captured in any metric, I'd point to:
- Pierre Ducasse's support for Peggy Nash, allowing a candidate who started the campaign without an obvious Quebec base to benefit from Ducasse's role in getting the NDP's progress started in the province that delivered its electoral breakthrough. For those eager to develop metrics, that might signal a need to account for "authoring major party documents" (or perhaps "name drops" based on Nash's frequent references to Ducasse in debates), but I'd consider Ducasse more an example of the difficulty developing meaningful objective criteria in the first place.
- Libby Davies' endorsement of Topp, which may have substantially affected the composition of the race to the extent it split urban B.C. support which Peter Julian may have needed to see a viable path to the leadership.
- Linda Duncan's support for Dewar and Don Davies' for Mulcair, both of which added regional balance from highly-respected members of the NDP's existing caucus to campaigns which otherwise lacked a great deal of visible support west of Manitoba and Ontario respectively.
- And most recently, the UFCW's recent nod to Thomas Mulcair - which signals that the front-runner is moving beyond the endorsements of individual union leaders to bring substantial parts of the labour movement onside.

Once a candidate has locked in a few endorsements of a particular type, though, I'd expect additions to the list to result in diminishing returns - meaning that I'd be skeptical of assigning equal weight to later examples. About the only exception to the greater potential impact of early endorsements is then to be found in rare cases which again arise only based on a candidate's particular circumstances: for example, a campaign that's facing a scandal or otherwise perceived to be on the downswing may be able to generate a new sense of momentum with a major endorsement or two regardless of whether it involves a new category of supporter.

All of which is to say that while it's great to see some effort to measure the state of the NDP's race through endorsement counts, they (like fund-raising totals and polling based on non-members' preferences) figure to show only a small part of the picture. And so we shouldn't be too quick to use them as a proxy for the state of the campaign.

1 comment:

  1. Ethan Cox9:58 p.m.

    Hi Greg,

    Interesting article as usual. I just wanted to mention something I learned only this week, which I found really interesting. Apparently, Lorne Calvert was the left candidate to replace Roy and was seen as a serious departure from him. Therefore, rather than being a duplication, having the endorsement of both Romanow and Calvert satisfies both wings of the Saskatchewan NDP.