NDP looking to turn Jagmeet Singh's positive reviews into momentum — and votes

OTTAWA — As the federal party leaders prepare for their final debate and the last week of the election campaign, many eyes are on NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose strong performances have many pundits and voters declaring him an unexpected winner.

Singh has gained wide applause for the way he has handled other thorny moments, including his response to Justin Trudeau's blackface photos and his encounter with a man in Quebec who confronted him with a suggestion to cut his turban off to "look like a Canadian." Singh politely said Canadians "look like all sorts of people" — an exchange that went viral.

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He also lit up social media this week after international music stars Rihanna and Drake followed him on Twitter, and when he revealed he'd exchanged private messages with Rihanna.

But can these positive moments help Singh and the NDP gain momentum that will translate into actual votes?

A new poll from Leger for The Canadian Press suggests the NDP has gained four points in the last week, getting support from 18 per cent of decided voters. The poll also suggested Singh is the most common second choice among all the federal leaders and was identified as the winner of the English debate by a plurality of voters. Polls at the beginning of the campaign indicated the Greens were nipping at the New Democrats' heels; now the NDP is consistently ahead of them.

However, both Singh and his party remain in third place behind the Liberals and Conservatives, who are locked in a dead heat at 31 per cent, according to the Leger poll.

Despite this, Singh says he remains optimistic.

"I've gone through a lot of frustrations in my life. I work hard for everything and I don't take anything for granted," he told reporters Tuesday.

"I'm not really worried about myself. I'm actually really frustrated that Canadians are being told they should settle for less."

The New Democratic leader is hoping to take the positive attention he has been receiving and focus it on his political message that Canadians shouldn't have to feel limited in their voting options.

"I really want to send that message to Canadians — you're free to choose. Don't feel trapped between these two options that are not going to make your lives better, that don't have the courage to make your lives better. I'm going to work every single day of this campaign to show that there is a real choice out there."

But while positive reviews in the press and on social media can help build momentum in a campaign, that momentum can be "grey" when it comes to parties that are too far behind to have a real shot at forming government, says Stephanie Plante, a politics scholar at the University of Ottawa.

This is particularly true in Quebec, where issues unique to that province have become major preoccupations of all party leaders during the campaign, as the they fight for gains in the seat-rich Belle Province.

The NDP is defending 14 seats in Quebec, more than a third of the 39 New Democrats held when Parliament was dissolved.

The province's controversial law banning civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, known as Bill 21, has been a particular minefield for Singh — a practising Sikh who wears a turban. A majority of Quebec residents support Bill 21, making it political suicide in Quebec to come out against it.

Singh said Tuesday he will not interfere with an ongoing legal challenge of this law, and hopes instead to win over the hearts and minds of Quebec voters and convince them his policies are far more in line with their own when it comes to a strong desire in Quebec for a separation of church and state, despite his Sikh headgear.

But Plante says she believes Singh will be "up against some headwinds" in Quebec.

"He's kind of giving this populist vibe, which always plays well in Quebec, but the problem he's running into, and a lot of politicians are finding this in Quebec, is the resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois."

The Bloc has indeed been gaining ground in Quebec, with several polls suggesting the party is in second place behind the Liberals in that province.

But while the NDP may be locked in a multi-party battle to hold onto its seats in Quebec and win new ones, local races in other parts of the country, especially where the party has had a presence in the past, may be more positive for the New Democrats.

The party appears to be gaining momentum in Manitoba, for example. A poll for the Winnipeg Free Press released last week suggested the NDP is well ahead of the Liberals in Winnipeg Centre. Liberal candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette is running for re-election against NDP challenger Leah Gazan, which was previously an NDP stronghold: firebrand Pat Martin held it for 18 years.

Former NDP MPs running again this election, including Jack Harris in St. John's East, Svend Robinson in Burnaby North-Seymour and Andrew Cash in the Toronto riding of Davenport are also seen as strong standard-bearers.

The party is also hoping candidate Christine Saulnier will take back the riding of Halifax. It had been NDP territory since 1997, until Andy Fillmore's victory over Megan Leslie in the last election.

Plante noted a recent push as well in Ottawa Centre, the riding formerly held by the late Paul Dewar, who lost the seat in 2015 to the Liberals' Catherine McKenna.

"I don't think it's a coincidence that you saw Ed Broadbent campaigning with Emilie Taman in Ottawa Centre," Plante said of a campaign event last weekend involving the former NDP leader and the local NDP candidate.

"They're kind of pulling out all the stops for her, so I would say something's in the air there where they think there's an opportunity there."

Singh has also spent much of the campaign in British Columbia, where the party hopes to flip seats in their favour in a number of tight races on the Lower Mainland.

But despite pushes in local races, Amanda Bittner, a political science professor at Memorial University, says she believes many voters look to the race among national leaders.

"This election, in many ways, is a referendum on (Justin) Trudeau's leadership and record, just as 2015 saw voters think seriously about the record of the previous (Conservative) government," she said.

However, local votes will be important on election day, Bittner added, especially in areas where voters may be considering voting strategically.

"I think that if (the NDP) can mobilize their base they will be in decent shape. They aren't doing as well as one would expect in the national polls, but I think this is because a lot of progressive voters are worried that (Andrew) Scheer will win and are considering support for Trudeau to prevent a win on the right," Bittner said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 9, 2019.

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