Nathan Cullen was the third candidate to join the NDP's leadership race. And initially, he figured to be a strong contender to win over soft support within the party as the campaign progressed.
After all, Cullen's bio includes experience as a successful critic or committee chair on issues ranging from the environment to resources to ethics. In his home riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley, he's perfected a strategy of uniting the interest in protecting nature shared by hunters, fishers, First Nations citizens and environmentalists - offering a distinctive and potentially-effective template to build the NDP in rural areas. And he's a charismatic, tri-lingual speaker with a fairly strong profile developed over seven years as an MP.
But then there's the elephant in the room. Cullen chose to launch his leadership campaign with a call for pre-election cooperation with the Liberals. And the downside of that strategy has been obvious ever since, as plenty of NDP members who are fans of Cullen's other traits have moved him to the bottom of their rankings as a result.
So how can we tell whether Cullen can overcome that alienation of NDP members who don't see Liberal MPs as an acceptable substitute for building the party in 308 ridings?
Well, there are a couple of constituencies who would seemingly offer some counterbalance to that effect, consisting of both some segment of the NDP's membership, and the nominally non-partisan groups who have launched "strategic" voting efforts in the past few election cycles. And their support is a must for Cullen.
But I'd think the clearest indicator for Cullen will involve his reaching one step further: in order to assemble the early-ballot support he needs to have a chance of emerging victorious, he'll need some organizational strength from other parties working in support of his cooperation strategy. With the possible exception of Elizabeth May, I wouldn't expect that to consist of public expressions of support - but if Cullen can't get some Lib MPs concerned about their seats to at least tacitly approve of their supporters joining the NDP to give Cullen a boost, then he doesn't seem to have much chance of positioning himself where he needs to in order to win the leadership.
And that positioning will make for an awfully high hurdle, as the competing candidate whose supporters might most plausibly rally around Cullen is Thomas Mulcair - the presumptive favourite and former provincial Liberal cabinet minister (albeit in Quebec's radically different political dynamic) who's made his own appeal to look far beyond current party affiliations in building the NDP for the future. Based on that campaign strategy and his relatively centrist positioning, Mulcair's supporters look to be easily the most likely to consider choosing Cullen as a second choice. But it'll be a major surprise if Cullen can position himself to force them to move off their primary option.
Best-case: Late-ballot win based on unifying a nonpartisan "unite-the-left" movement
Worst-case: Middle- to bottom-tier finish as NDP activists reject pre-election deals