Friday, April 22, 2011

The NDP's Ontario Problem

Not many people of my generation remember the 1988 election, mostly because most people of my generation weren't even born by then, or at the very least, didn't know their toes from their fingers.

But as 2011 starts shaping up to be something of an interesting fight, what with the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois and the rise of the NDP, 1988 may start to loom large in the minds of many pundits and politicos as the closest example of what exactly we may end up with come May 2nd.

For a quick primer, 1988's election results featured the largest NDP presence in the House of Commons, with 43 seats, winning the popular vote in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and had good showings in the rest of the country, including Quebec, where they managed 14.4% of the vote, their highest share - though they won no seats until a by-election later in the 34th Parliament.

1988 was also the election whereby everyone thought the Liberals were going to be put into third place. Early campaign polls, and later ones as well, had the Liberals in a solid third place behind the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives and Ed Broadbent's NDP. This changed later on, but from what I can derive from some sources, the NDP sat somewhere close to 30% in pre-election polls, roughly three months before election day, often ahead of the Liberals, or at least in close contention.

The main difference you'll find between 1988 and 2011 is the huge NDP rise in Quebec, which masks over their relative weakness in other areas, specifically Ontario. After all, this election has been the first whereby the NDP have come out on top in la belle province, and have scored between 20-30% in an average of recent polls, minus a couple of blips from Harris-Decima and Innovative Research, which put the NDP low in Quebec with 15% and 16% respectively.

The relative weakness I speak about is that despite the NDP's strength, they can't seem to make things work out in Ontario to the extent they need to. The highest they've gone in Ontario is 23%, with their closest race so far being a low Liberal score of 27% to 22% for the NDP, though it makes it almost pointless, given the 41% the Conservatives are sitting at in the same poll. I call this a relative weakness because it shows that despite the huge rise in Quebec, which has been going on for a week now and has shown up in almost all major pollsters, it has so far failed to translate well over in Ontario. Indeed, the vast majority of polls shows Ontario to be a continuing Conservative-Liberal fight, about 40-35, with the NDP at a respectable but still stuck 20ish%.

Because of this, the NDP have to be careful, because it makes the difference between being the third party and Official Opposition. Here's a chart to demonstrate why:

This is just a basic comparison between the results of the 1988 federal election, and the current projections we have for the results of the 2011 elections, as noted by There are a few key things to note:

1. The NDP lag behind in Western Canada in 2011, as compared to 1988; whereas they had 32 seats in 1988, they're projected to have 13 in 2011

2. The NDP are behind in Ontario, sitting at only 16.8% compared to 20.1% in 1988; even though in 2011, they have 16 seats, 6 more than 1988, both Conservatives and Liberals have (or nearly have, in the latter's case) more seats in Ontario alone than the NDP have nationally

3. Despite being up in Atlantic Canada and Quebec from 1988, so far, their rise is only good for 6 seats extra that they didn't have in 1988, offsetting Western Canadian losses, but not by nearly enough

And therein lies the NDP's difficulty this election, regardless of their surge. If we assume that 1988's totals are their goals, then they're falling short in both the areas where they made those gains two decades ago (the West and to a lesser extent, being crowded out in Ontario), and their gains this election (Quebec, mainly), at least so far, aren't proving to be enough to put them over the top. Hence, they're stuck at 36 seats, instead of over 43.

Let's make this slightly more interesting, however, and look at the possible results if the NDP managed to come out ahead of the Liberals, as was noted in this Forum Research poll, their most favourable to date:

As you can see with Forum, the  NDP become the Official Opposition with 75 seats to the Liberal's 68 - but only on the backs of that Quebec result, and only because of Liberal weakness in Ontario.

But to become the OffOpp they have to actually win that 30%+ support in Quebec before they can make those kinds of gains. They have nowhere else to rely on for those gains, as even at 20%, with the Liberals as weak as they are in Ontario, they can't get more than 17 seats. I'd actually put their cap at 20 seats in the province.

So how is this related to 1988? Well, like 1988, the NDP in 2011 are facing a continuous trend upward in a specific region where they're likely to make a lot of gains, this being Quebec. In 1988, it was Western Canada. The issue was, they never hit other sweet spots that would give them a larger boost elsewhere - specifically Ontario. This was the cause of the NDP's shortcoming in 1988; this time around, they could face the same issue, which if they're unable to solidify those gains in Quebec, it becomes a huge liability. Here's what happens when that possibility becomes a reality:

And we're back to this again - 140 Cons, 78 Libs, 49 Bloc, and 41 NDP. Without winning more in Ontario, the NDP are absolutely stuck if they cannot get above the Bloc in Quebec. I think these numbers were pretty favourable as well, considering the polling we've seen.

So like 1988, the NDP may end up being squeezed out because they cannot make a breakthrough in Ontario. If they can do it in Quebec, they're good - but given the level of ferocity I expect Gilles Duceppe to lay upon Jack, we can expect to see a drop in their support. And if that happens, they may not be heading for the surge they think they are, not without Ontario's backing anyways.


  1. The NDP was only ahead of the Liberals in mid-1987. In the months preceding the election it was mostly the Liberals that led in the polls, and the Progressive Conservatives only regained the lead at around the time the election was called. The Liberals jumped ahead again following the leader debates during the 1988 campaign.

    What was similar to now is that Liberal leader John Turner polled worse than the other leaders and Ed Broadbent of the NDP was the most popular of the leaders. Mulroney of the Progressive Conservatives was seen as competent but widely hated, even then. His administration was seen as scandal-plagued and he was seen as arrogant and contemptuous of the people.

    One thing that helped him is that Quebec nationalists voted for him over the constitutional question, many of whom would not have otherwise voted for a right wing party. In fact, Bernard Landry of the Parti Quebecois openly said that free trade with the U.S., the issue on which Mulroney was running, would help Quebec to separate by weakening the links within Canada as compared with those with the United States.

  2. Mr. R,

    Thank you for the primer - you're right on all counts, I suspect. It makes me wonder whether despite Iggy's low popularity, he can survive this fight as John Turner did?

  3. John Turner was highly praised for his debate performaces in 1988, and it showed in the polls. This has since been forgotten as we are only reminded of 1984 and "You had a choice" with the finger-wagging Mulroney. Turner resigned soon after the election despite the performance - it was his second time and he was still seen as a liability.

    Some idiot reporter took credit by the way for tripping up Turner near the end, the same one who pulled that sleazy stunt on Dion near the end of the last campaign... I don't remember what that was with Turner really. People liked to blame some campaign ads near the end for crystallising Mulroney's new lead, before there was talk of a minority government...

    Turner had been a Finance Minister in the '70s and left for private life for a while and came back in for 1984 leadership race to succeed Trudeau, defeating Jean Chretien who was the candidate of the Trudeau wing of the party.. Turner ran in 1968 for the leadership and he there told some joke about taking over the leadership in 1984 as he had no shot really in '68... one thing that apparently people didn't like was that he used old-fashioned expressions like "make work projects" and I think he also groped some woman or something...

    The real problem with how he responded to Mulroney in 1984 was that he looked weak. Also that he brought up the subject of the so-called patronage appointments, said that Mulroney had plans for such nefarious acts, Muloney then turned the table on him and said that he was doing likewise, it was implied he was doing it on Trudeau's orders and Turner said "I had no choice". Really in the end, if you're the prime minister and there are open slots you're supposed to fill them, aren't you.

  4. Mr. R's memory is correct: the NDP had fallen back into the high teens before the 1988 campaign even began. This is nothing like 1988.

    But if you're looking for an historical analysis here it is: the NDP's vote total in Ontario has always followed the NDP's national total FAR more closely than in any other province.

    These seat projections are also completely ridiculous. Why should we trust these numbers from a website with no credentials? You also can't trust regional sub samples wgen there's no independent polling being done in those same regions.

    The four Quebec polls putting the NDP ahead of the Bloc only came out yesterday. Support for the NDP has been ticking up outside Quebec for awhile, but we won't see the true affect of the NDP surge in Quebec for another few days at least.

    Let's all take a breathe.

  5. uses a complex system to weight every poll based on timing, size and 'pollster accuracy'. It is not set up to deal with sudden surges in support, such as the NDP explosion in Quebec. As of two days ago, party support in Quebec was based on 19% from pre-election polls, 45% from pre-debate polls and 36% from post-debate polls. This makes their numbers irrelevant.

    Check out the poll trends at Nanos. My bet is that the NDP will pass the Liberals nationally by Monday, and in Ontario by the end of the week. Michael Ignatieff has run a good campaign - better than most expected - but unfortunately he has not been able to connect with voters the way that Layton has (see the Nanos Leadership Index). The Liberal push for strategic voting is going to boomerang BIG TIME unless something dramatic happens in the final days.

  6. There is a lot of fear and dismay at the prospect of a Conservative majority, and I don't think the usual appeals against the so-called evils of socialism can convince people to change their minds on this.

    I think people see that the people who caused the financial crisis have been lavishly rewarded, that policies of essentially giving no strings attached giveaways to the extremely wealthy in return for the prospect that they create jobs have failed over the past 30 years, many are looking for some people who can hold the line against this ideological onslaught caused by those attacking the standard of living of the vast majority.

    Right now the NDP is increasingly looking like the best bet for that, not the Liberals. The Liberals are closer to the elite and establishment and are more likely to compromise on the ideological advancement of these malign forces. I just have to mention the example of Obama and the Democrats in the USA...

    Right now the pendulum has swung so far right and with the far right so emboldened that a real stand should be taken and right now this is an opportunity to do this. Now we may get a nasty surprise like New Zealand had when they voted a left wing party and got a neoliberal right wing revolution in 1984, the so-called Rogernomics, but nothing from Layton and his people suggests this.