I keep having conversations where people ask me who’s going to win the Liberal leadership. And I keep telling people the same thing: I have no idea, and neither does anybody else. I can come up with plausible paths to victory for any one of the five candidates.
That bears repeating: There is a conceivable scenario where any one of the five Liberal leadership contenders could win. Seriously. And if you don’t see it that way, then with all due respect, I don’t think you fully appreciate how much of a crapshoot the Liberal leadership is.
First of all, a quick refresher on the rules of the game:
1. Each Liberal member or supporter votes on a ranked ballot, picking their favourite candidate, second favourite, third and so on.
2. Each electoral district in the province gets 100 electoral votes. So if Dwight Ball gets 40 per cent of the vote in Kilbride district, he gets 40 points. If Paul Antle gets 35 per cent, he gets 35 points and so on.
3. Whoever has the fewest number of points after the first ballot gets dropped off, and the votes cast for that candidate get divvied up by the other contenders. (If, say, Cathy Bennett gets dropped off, then her voters’ second-ranked votes get distributed.)
4. People keep getting dropped off until somebody comes up with the magic number of 2401 electoral points or more — that being 50 per cent plus one.
(If you’re confused, you can look up a more detailed breakdown of how this all works here.)
Earlier this week, the Liberal Party announced that 37,367 people are eligible to vote in the contest, either as party members or “supporters” who were signed up by the candidates. The party didn’t provide it officially, but somebody leaked me a spreadsheet of the number of eligible voters in each electoral district. I could probably write a blog post about this all by itself, but I’ll let you politics ultra-nerds poke through it and draw your own conclusions.
Each candidate claims to have signed up a whole whack of supporters, and without passing judgment on the dubious claims, if you add ‘em all up, the total comes to more than 37,000 — so somebody is lying. Politics, eh?
The generally agreed-upon sense of the race is that Dwight Ball is the frontrunner, and Cathy Bennett and Paul Antle are his biggest competitors. Jim Bennett and Danny Dumaresque are generally held to be further back in the race. To be clear, there has been zero credible polling that I’ve seen on any of this, so we’re trading in rumours, horse sense and conventional wisdom right now. And each of the candidates, with the possible exception of Ball, insists that they’re actually doing far better than the chattering classes give ‘em credit for, so maybe Danny Dumaresque is really the frontrunner or Paul Antle will get dropped off on the first ballot. Politics, eh?
With all of that, let’s run through a few scenarios.
Dwight Ball wins:
He claims to have signed up more supporters than anybody else, and he’s generally acknowledged to have done at least a decent job of leading the party on an interim basis. So even if he doesn’t win on the first ballot (that’s fairly unlikely) once one or two other candidates drop off, there’s a decent chance that Ball picks up a lot of second-choice votes. Ball is a pretty difficult guy to hate, he’s already got a seat in the House of Assembly, and he’s already proved that he won’t burn the party to the ground if he’s given a chance at the leader’s job, so a lot of people who pick Antle, Bennett, other Bennett or Dumaresque as their first choice probably shrug and say, “Yeah, if the one I really like doesn’t get it, we could do worse than Dwight.”
Cathy Bennett wins:
Bennett is well organized here in town, and she’s been spending a lot of time touring the province. Her much-hashtagged 48in48 tour — where, you guessed it, she visits all 48 districts in 48 days — could mean a lot of face time with voters right across the province. So say she wins overwhelmingly, 60 per cent in the districts on the Avalon, and an average of maybe 15 or 20 per cent in rural districts. Then, she picks up second- or third- place votes of people who just don’t think Ball has what it takes to win a general election. Even if Danny Dumaresque is your first choice and Paul Antle is your second choice and Jim Bennett is your third choice, if they all drop off first, then maybe Cathy picks up votes from people who just want a change from Ball.
Paul Antle wins:
Antle also benefits heavily from the Best Alternative to Ball theory. Assuming Jim and Danny drop off first, and their votes scatter, then what really matters is where Cathy’s votes go. Antle has been robocalling the province into oblivion, and he claims to have signed up more than 10,000 supporters, which should give him a solid base to work from. If Antle is widely believed to be the best alternative to Ball, and he picks up lots of second- and third-choice votes, suddenly he’s the leader.
Jim Bennett wins:
Privately, I’m told that even if Jim doesn’t have the big numbers that the other three are throwing around, his supporters were signed up personally, and they’re dependable. Voter turnout will be a big, big challenge for Paul, Cathy and Dwight. Say I’m sitting home on a Wednesday evening in the summer, sipping on a glass of Five Alive and watching the Blue Jays embarrass themselves yet again. The phone rings, and it’s a robocall from Cathy Bennett’s campaign asking me to sign up as a supporter. “Screw it, why not? Yeah, I’ll sign up to be a Liberal supporter. It doesn’t cost anything, and I’ll get to cast a vote. Here’s my e-mail address and contact info…” There’s a really, really solid chance that Five Alive-drinking Jays fan never bothers to vote. Life is busy, and now the Leafs are playing and not doing half bad, and he’s got other things on his mind.
On the other hand, if Jim’s supporters know him well, and are solidly committed, that could give him a more stable foundation to work from. Bennett also benefits from the fact that he’s got a seat in the House of Assembly, so voters could pick him as a safe second- or third-choice because even if their favourite candidate doesn’t win it, the party won’t be scrambling to get the leader into the House.
Danny Dumaresque wins:
He’s been around politics longer than any of the other candidates, and within the party he’s seen to be a loyal soldier at the very least. He’s run in more electoral districts than I can count, and people have voted for him — just not enough people for him to win, most of the time. But because every electoral district counts for an equal amount, solid support across all 48 districts is worth a whole lot more than big voting numbers in a few regions of the province. If Dumaresque wins overwhelmingly in some of the districts with really small vote totals, and racks up a lot of points there, he could suddenly be in a solid position.
Dumaresque has also distinguished himself by getting a lot of attention for his “tunnel to Labrador” idea. That’s the sort of thing that could earn you a bunch of third-choice votes from people who don’t firmly support you, but like what they’re hearing from you.
Like I said right at the start of this post, I really don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody will know until Nov. 17, or thereabouts. In the next four weeks, expect all five candidates to be talking about how they’re really in a solid position to win. None of them are lying, as such. But they really don’t know the lay of the land any better than you do. To borrow a line from the Princess Bride, politics is unpredictable; anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something.