Monday, January 02, 2012

Anyone But

As promised, let's take a closer look at the dynamics of "anyone but" movements in leadership campaigns - with a particular focus on whether one looks likely to develop in the NDP's current race.

The most obvious prerequisite for an "anyone but" movement is the perception that a particular candidate is within striking distance of being able to win at current support levels if nothing changes in a race - but not such a prohibitive favourite that it's futile to try to organize an alternative. From that starting point, the incentives that result in a two-camp race are obvious for both eventual sides of the divide: the front-runner ends up working on holding (and at most narrowly expanding) a base of support within the leadership campaign, while the competitors see a need to band together to have any hope of emerging victorious and thus end up developing deeper links between campaign organizations.

But what ultimately leads to a true "anyone but" movement is a common sense of lingering dissatisfaction with the leading candidate - in effect, a base of negative opinion that can serve as the main unifying force among multiple candidates' supporters once the outcome of a campaign hangs in the balance. (And the base needs to be stronger in a one-member, one-vote campaign rather than a delegated one - especially if a substantial number of votes are locked in prior to voting day.)

Ultimately, for an "anyone but" movement to succeed, the competitors' campaigns and supporters need to be willing to sacrifice any of the messages and values they've pushed throughout the campaign in the interest of stopping the front-runner. And that broad focus on a negative perception within a party doesn't come about as the result of a single factor; instead, it needs to find some roots in a combination of fundamental policy disagreements, personality conflicts, and perceived self-interest among other candidates' campaign teams in preventing the front-runner's organizers from ascending within the party.

Meanwhile, the front-runner can exacerbate the problem with both a commitment to a tightly-controlled inner circle, and a campaign strategy designed to limit opponents' growth which develops exactly the common sense of grievance that feeds into the countermovement. Think of the Republicans' current Iowa caucus campaign, where Mitt Romney's main plan has been to play attack-ad whack-a-mole with half a dozen "anyone but" competitors who can each be driven down to single-digit support within a week - only to find that a new leading opponent emerges within days of the last one being beaten down.

So how likely is that type of dynamic to develop within the NDP?

Well, we don't yet have any particularly compelling information as to any of the candidates' positioning in the race. And largely as a result of the NDP having just emerged as Canada's Official Opposition thanks to its surge in Quebec, it's difficult for any candidate to take any base of support for granted.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that Thomas Mulcair's support is somewhere in the range where an "anyone but" campaign might make strategic sense. The next vital ingredients for an "anyone but" campaign are then a front-runner campaign that feeds into the dynamic by failing to reach out beyond the initial support base, and a widespread sense of dissatisfaction among the rest of the party.

And those don't seem to fit particularly well with what I've seen so far. Instead, all indications are that the campaign has seen plenty of interest in developing links in both directions - both in the form of Mulcair reaching out to actual and potential members alike, and in members of all kinds of stripes showing a genuine interest in what Mulcair and the rest of the candidates have to offer. (Indeed, I've been struck by how many of my personal connections with strong left-wing backgrounds have Mulcair on a three- or four-candidate shortlist at this stage of the campaign.)

Of course, not all of those interactions necessarily lead to positive impressions. And there are a few members who have relegated Mulcair to the bottom of their lists as a result. But the number looks to be far too small to serve as a breeding ground for an all-out anti-Mulcair movement (though we may want to add any negative impressions to the list of key indicators for Mulcair).

What's more, the makeup of the rest of the field may make it difficult to assemble a united "anti" campaign even if there were a perceived reason to try. In particular, while Brian Topp has been the candidate most eager to challenge Mulcair, he's also been a fairly polarizing figure himself - creating an added obstacle on the path that leads to the non-Mulcair camps joining forces to the extent necessary to direct members' votes in a particular direction.

Naturally, it remains to be seen how the rest of the campaign will play out, and it may be that something in the next few months will create the conditions for a true "anyone but" dynamic. But for the moment, those conditions don't look to be in place - and it's hard to see much benefit for anybody in pushing to create them.

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