Having a variety of voices in the Liberal leadership race will be good for the party, but whoever wins will have to borrow heavily from the others to win back voters

As most predicted, the Liberal leadership contest has turned into a packed race. The absence of an obvious front-runner has excited the aspirations, ambitions and, in some cases, the delusions of contenders who otherwise might have stayed in the starting gate.

Listening to their early declarations, it is apparent that the regional, gender and generational diversity of the candidates is going to be matched by the strategies they hope to employ — first to win the contest and presumably, thereafter, the country.

Michael Ignatieff has exhorted his party “to plant the Liberal standard firmly in the centre-left.” Maurizio Bevilacqua has cautioned the Liberals not to lose sight of the Martin legacy of sound fiscal management and is running as an “economic conservative and social liberal.” Bob Rae has attempted to turn his NDP credentials into an asset by declaring that the challenge is to “unite centre progressives” throughout the land. Joe Volpe will be stressing immigration. Carolyn Bennett is seized with the need for democratic reform. Stephane Dion will be running as champion of the environment and (more subtly) reminding delegates of the Liberals’ grand tradition of alternating between anglophone and francophone leaders. Scott Brison, in a clever attempt to underscore his youth, sexual orientation and Conservative credentials all at the same time, has declared he is a “child of the Charter” and implores Liberals to recall their unique status as defenders of both human and taxpayer rights. Gerard Kennedy undoubtedly will draw parallels to his presidential namesake, and stake out the importance of vision and a new generation of leadership. The last candidate to enter the race, Ken Dryden, presumably will wrap himself in a cloak of integrity and position himself as the most able to distance the party from its scandal-ridden past.

This dizzying array of interests and strategies will undoubtedly work to the benefit of the Liberal party and brand. The breadth and diversity of messages will wash away some of the stain of the sponsorship scandal, and give the party a multi-dimensionality that it currently lacks. Of equal importance, this kind of race also has a tendency to attract diverse groups of voters who hear their concerns being voiced by individual candidates.

All this should be good news for Liberals. But the fact remains: only one contender will prevail and the voices of the runner-ups will soon fade as the media spotlight focuses on the new leader of the official opposition and he or she is handed the Liberal party megaphone. When you analyse the Liberals’ current fortunes however, it is clear that in these early days, the messaging of any and all of the individual candidates, by themselves, is too narrow to appeal to the constituency they will need if they are to revive their fortunes as Canada’s natural governing party.

Following the oldest maxim in politics — “the best predictor of future voting behaviour is past voting behaviour” — the roadmap for this rebuilding strategy points directly toward the three blocks of voters who abandoned the Liberal party in greatest numbers in recent years — Quebec federalists, high-income earners and mid-size-city suburbanites.

The biggest prize — and the biggest hole in the Liberals’ historic constituency — is in Quebec. As long as the race in the province was only a two-party affair, between the Liberals and the Bloc, the Grits aimed their crosshairs squarely on “soft” federalists. These voters — estimated to comprise up to 25 per cent of the total electorate — typically express loyalty to Canada but not necessarily to the central government. Conventional wisdom suggests that taking a hard line with this group — reminding them, for example, that they would no longer hold a Canadian passport if the Yes side prevailed — is to be avoided, as this might be seen as a threat that forces an “us-or-them” choice and drives their sympathies into the separatist camp. The conclusion of this premise is to allow Quebec to opt out of national initiatives, run its own parallel programs and applaud the virtues of “asymmetrical federalism.”

As the last election demonstrated, this strategy was a miserable failure for the Liberals. Stephen Harper was able to outflank his federalist opponents and offer even more autonomy to the province, thereby capturing the soft federalists and leaving the hard federalists without a champion. While it might go against the instincts of most of the contenders (save Mr. Dion), this suggests that the Liberals’ best bet to rebuild their Quebec base is among unapologetic federalists, through an appeal for a strong central government and by getting tough on separatism.

No single group abandoned the Liberals with more alacrity in the 2006 election than high-income earners. The Liberals started the campaign with a 10-point lead over the Conservatives among voters earning over $100,000 a year and by the end were a stunning 27 points behind.

Many assume that because these voters are financial achievers their political decisions are driven exclusively by rational calculations of their economic best interests — more simply, that a good old-fashion tax cut will buy their favour in a heartbeat.

To the contrary, our research indicated that when the writs were issued, this group was most likely to believe that “the country was on the right track,” were the most satisfied voting cohort and ergo least likely to rail against the status quo. While hardly a monolith, these voters tend to gravitate toward leaders rather than policy and look for competence, vision and gravitas. This is why they originally were drawn to Paul Martin and as they increasingly found him wanting on these scores, this is why they eventually turned their backs on him. Therefore, experience, management capabilities and ideas will also become ingredients in a winning Liberal stew.

In many ways the toughest constituency to lure back into the Liberal fold may be the mid-size-city suburbanites. At the risk of painting an overly simplistic stereotype, these are the hockey moms and dads. Financially, they are decidedly middle-class but want more “things” and to improve their station in life. They worry about crime in the streets, even if they live in neighbourhoods without streets, let alone crime. They are far from rock-ribbed right-wingers but the thought of attending a gay marriage where all the guests are encouraged to smoke decriminalized pot is not their idea of a fun night. A little uptight, some of the men may even feel more comfortable shaking their sons’ hands than hugging them in public.

For good or ill, they are a lot like the Harpers and liked what Stephen Harper had to say about the GST, a tax break on sports equipment and that line about the best experts on child care being named “mom and dad.” On the other side of the ledger, they also feel the Liberal party may have become just a little too uptown for their tastes and may even have a tendency to look down its nose at the likes of them.

This is a big and deep row to hoe for the Liberal party. To re-knit its historic coalition it will have to be able to marshal a compelling case to Quebecers for strong central government, demonstrate to high-income earners that the Liberals are competent visionaries and, at the same time, that they can relate to suburbanites whose aspirations may include getting a bigger-screen television. For one individual to embody all of these attributes is even a taller order.

As unique and interesting as the Liberal leadership race is shaping up to be, at the end of day the main challenge facing the winner will be pretty much the same as it was for all those who won before — to reach out to the losers to tap into the qualities they possess that he or she may not.