LET’S be frank: There’s a palpable enthusiasm gap in this leadership election. In some campaigns, you watch a runaway favourite chased by also-rans and no-hopers. Some leadership elections are ideological battles. Others are chances to ventilate grievances, dissect an electoral defeat, or for different factions to test their strength against one another.

Some races are engineered just to avoid a coronation, forcing a presumptive heir and successor to earn their place at the top. ­Other leadership elections become a ­free-for-all where, in their heart of hearts, the selectorate’s first preference is either “none of the above” or the outgoing ­leader who’s just stepped down.

Truss versus Sunak was a classic example of this last kind of leadership race. After the collapse in Johnson’s parliamentary ­support pried him out of Downing Street in July last year, there was a real sense that the Tory base’s nostalgia for the lost leader substantially outweighed their enthusiasm either for Truss or her successor. If Boris had been on the ballot, he’d probably have won –notwithstanding the string of ethics violations around his neck.

For all the synthetic energy being ­mobilised by supporters of the three ­contenders online, the SNP campaign looks to be shaping up into something ­really quite similar. It wasn’t surprising that “don’t know” seized an early lead in who should replace Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and first minister in the first days of the ­campaign.

After 16 years as FM or deputy FM, ­Sturgeon left behind her no natural ­successor. A political fixture was being ­replaced by a less well-known quantity. It was a disorientating moment, sprung ­unexpectedly on potential candidates as much as party members and the public.

But for this uncertainty to persist into the third week of the leadership campaign is a powerful testimony to the fact that none of the three candidates has set the heather alight so far, either inside the party or ­beyond it.

A RON candidacy used to be a staple of student elections. “Re-open nominations” was on the ballot to ensure that ­manifestly unfit candidates couldn’t win a job just ­because nobody else better suited ran for it.

Amongst SNP members who aren’t ­posting grip-and-grin endorsement selfies on Twitter – wishing there was a ­different and broader slate of candidates is a ­common sentiment.

In some circles, there’s even a sense that whoever wins, the party is now choosing a caretaker leader to be succeeded in due course by someone with either more grit, more unifying social views, or stronger communication skills – all the while ­hoping the next leadership doesn’t burn out the engine and smash both axles.

As the endorsements from elected ­members and activists pile up and the three campaign teams crisscross the country for hustings – it’s telling that the dial still doesn’t seem to have moved ­decisively in anyone’s favour. This fact must be particularly concerning for the candidate most hoping to ride the wave of these endorsements. Humza Yousaf just can’t seem to nail this race down and Kate Forbes’s support continues to show resilience.

The press has taken to describing the campaign so far as an “SNP civil war.” Certainly, some of the debating lines used so far have been more barbed and more personal than you usually hear in public. Nobody expected Forbes to ­foreground religious and moral issues so assertively at the start of the campaign, and this has generated a deeply felt ­reaction for some sections of the party and beyond it. ­Nobody anticipated Ash Regan would major with poli-sci gobbledegook about “voter empowerment mechanisms” and “readiness thermometers”, or that her campaign team would persist in ­generating headlines about jiggery-pokery real or imagined.

But if anything, the subdued ­enthusiasm for either of the two front runners in the race is much more significant – and ­fundamentally more concerning for the party – than the exchange of some hard words in front of the cameras.

It didn’t have to be this way. If John Swinney had thrown his hat in the ring, he’d have won by a landslide. While Humza’s leadership ambitions have long been anticipated within the party, nobody expected he’d have a free tilt at the role as the continuity candidate. But fate, folly and human factors made it so, shrinking the field.

When Derek Mackay blew up his ­political career in 2020, he took himself out of contention. Many expected former Westminster leader Angus Robertson to put in his nomination papers this time around – but family considerations won out and he took his name off the ballot.

Yousaf is undoubtedly the beneficiary of these departures and ghost ­candidacies. He benefits too from Forbes’s decision to go in hard and fast on the social teaching of her church, resulting in his attracting levels of support which – with the best will in the world – would not otherwise be available to him.

But with Humza, the fundamental ­question is always whether he has the ­gravitas, substance and political judgement to carry off the role. Some politicians grow on you. Others shrink. Some grow into the jobs they’re given. As their responsibilities mount, other people’s careers outgrow their competence. For a politician who receives an astonishing level of personal abuse – Yousaf’s deepest political need can sometimes seem to be that people should like him.

Being personable can be a virtue, but policy designed to please everyone often ends up pleasing nobody. If Forbes’s weakness is social ­policy, then Humza’s is anxieties about character and capacity.

If the SNP membership is currently less than ­overawed by any of the three ­prospective first ministers, it seems unlikely the wider electorate is going to be any more ­enthusiastic.

The SNP face a range of strategic challenges. Having taken over government 16 years ago, there’s the obvious problem of renewal, in terms both of policy and personnel. With long custodianship over public services comes ownership of all the problems you either haven’t fixed or which you helped create.

On independence, there’s the ­process question about what the candidates think can be done to progress the ­national ­question beyond its current procedural impasse. And beyond the process ­questions, there’s the strategic question about how to grow support for Scottish independence, and so turn the losing ­coalition of 2014 into a winning one.

These are big strategic issues which this campaign is now at least beginning to pry open. Is the priority keeping the existing team together, or is creative destruction the order of the day? Are the candidates content to alienate some of the existing pro-independence coalition if it means winning votes elsewhere, and are they prepared for the political consequences of that alienation in Holyrood and beyond? How does the generational divide inform this strategy?

It matters who the candidates imagine they’re reaching out to. A key demographic battle is a group which is often described in the Scottish press as “middle Scotland”. But what “middle Scotland” is supposedly in the middle of – can be surprisingly difficult to nail down.

Often as not, “middle Scotland” is just a way of saying “middle-class people” ­without using the triggering “c” word.

Modern discourse about class in ­Scotland continues to be clumsy and ­often defensive, partly because of tensions between people’s subjective feelings and their objective material circumstances. Are we talking about middle-class voters who earn significantly more than the average person, or the median full-time worker who takes home £31,672 in pay a year?

Are we talking about double-income semi-detached households in Scotland’s suburbs, or do you mean New Town ­financiers and private schoolers? If the latter, why prioritise persuading the ­people currently least inclined to back your cause? Many higher earning voters in Scotland work in the public sector, and lean left rather than right. How do they fit into the calculation?

All three candidates want to grow support for independence. In telling us how they plan to do this, they’re also telling us how they understand modern Scotland.