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 ThreeHundredEight.com. 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:
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.