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The startling NDP Quebec (and resultant national) numbers have set off a whole new set of discussions about the campaign and what happens on May third. While it is early days and not clear whether these numbers are real, will hold or spread elsewhere, they may represent what sometimes happens in election campaign: a sudden break out by one of the parties. After covering 44 federal and provincial election campaigns from the staid to the dramatic, allow me to offer some random and perhaps premature thoughts.
More often than not, these sorts of break outs cannot be reversed. They represent a collective decision making process that sometimes builds on mounting evidence or sometimes catches media by surprise after events or debates — although this would represent a very slow reaction to a debate. There are notable exceptions like the PC’s beating back the resurgent Liberals in 1988 but they are rare.
Often, the final results overshoot the initial wave. Momentum builds and begins to sweep into ridings that most think are not in play. I’ve been involved in dozens of CBC projection meetings where seasoned political reporters said that it was inconceivable that certain ridings and personalities were lost. And yet they were. Canada is littered with former cabinet ministers who never should have lost. Some examples: Roy Romanow fell to a gas station attendant in her 2os. In the same election, the CBC did not put a mobile in Grant Devine’s riding in order to save money because his Tories could not possibly win. Richard Hatfield was speechless the night he lost 58 -0 to Frank McKenna– there were ridings that turned for the first time ever. In some elections, there are ridings parties don’t think are winnable which elect people who are not entirely prepared to win (Chris Waddell’s point below). For instance, the Tory MP elected in 1984 who could speak neither English nor French. Or the two MP’s who first showed up for work at the National Assembly
The numbers don’t lie. On today’s numbers (if they hold), the NDP would be competitive in more than 20 ridings, not the two to four people speculate about.
Many say that without a ground game, it will be hard to take the ridings that are within reach. Ground game is important to identify and pull core and/or unmotivated voters. But voters know how to find polling stations and vote. In a wave where they are motivated, they manage to vote without being pulled by GOTV machines. The best example of this was the Rae Ontario win. At the time, the Ontario ballot did not even specify the party, so voters had to know who the candidates were. But NDP candidates won in ridings that had literally no ground game.
Results in one province can reverberate in others. For anti-Harper voters in Ontario, BC and elsewhere, NDP gains in Quebec might well be motivating. At a minimum, the Quebec polling and the national numbers make strategic voting extremely complex and make a potentially .powerful argument much harder for the Liberals.
In Ontario, it will take a very sizeable surge to win the NDP seats. Looking at the numbers from the 2008 election, there are 14 ridings where the Liberals lead Conservatives by ten points or less. Any combination of NDP and Conservative popular vote gains totaling 10 points will turn all those ridings to the Conservatives. A ten point gain by the NDP only wins it two seats – one from the Conservatives, one from the Liberals—because it is coming from so far back.
Between elections and initially in election campaigns, views about leadership are not always in synch with views about tentative party preference. You can like a leader and resist the party, or vice versa. Most voters who experience this sort of cognitive dissonance work to bring it into consonance, redefining their views of one or the other. Where they can’t, they tend not to vote. In the Ontario election that finally saw David Peterson take power, Frank Miller ran way behind his party until the Conservative party preference numbers finally dropped to match the leadership numbers. In this case in Quebec, Mr. Layton’s leadership numbers have been ahead of NDP party preference. What we’re seeing may be the act of aligning the two.
All of this might just be electoral anthropology if over the next ten days, polling reverts to what has been the general status quo. But it is hard to imagine that is likely once the dynamic has changed so dramatically.
Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary bureau chief.