Thursday, April 16, 2009

Poll Position: New Democrats

The New Democrats have been in trouble ever since the demise of the coalition and the arrival of Michael Ignatieff. Since Paul Martin drew up a budget with the help of Jack Layton before the 2006 election, the NDP has benefited from being a legitimate alternative to the Liberals for centre-left voters. The weaknesses of Stéphane Dion only prolonged this trend. Since Layton failed to keep the coalition together and the Liberals turfed Dion for Ignatieff, the place of the NDP in Canadian politics has dropped to its lowest point since the days of Alexa McDonough. The NDP is simply not making the headlines, and the current state of affairs in the House of Commons has left Layton and his 37 MPs by the wayside.

Polls weren't horrible for the NDP following Ignatieff's arrival, with national support levels swinging from 12% to 19%. Most of the polls put the NDP somewhere between 15% and 19%, which is within where they have been since 2004. Three polls put them at between 18% and 19%, near the strong 18.2% the party received in 2008. But things turned sour in February, and the NDP has been between 12% and 17% since then, and only one of those polls has had the NDP at 17%. Lately, 16% seems to be the NDP ceiling, and there have been too many polls under the 15.7% result of 2004. ThreeHundredEight is currently projecting NDP support at 15.3%, which would be the lowest electoral result under Layton.

The NDP seems to be losing ground everywhere. From 28.6% in 2006, the NDP dropped to 26.1% in British Columbia in 2008. Only one poll since December has put the NDP over that result, the majority of the polls being around the 20% mark. Polls since March have had the party at anywhere from 17% to 24%, which would be quite a drop. The two most recent polls are the strongest ones the NDP has had in British Columbia since January, but Layton certainly has to be concerned with NDP results here. I only project them to win two seats, a loss of seven from 2008, which would be disastrous.

One of the big surprises of the last election was an NDP win in Alberta. This the party managed with 12.7% of the vote, and until March this looked to be unrepeatable. The party was polling less than 10% in all but one poll, and were even marked as low as 4% in early February. But the last four polls have the party at between 10% and 13%. Because of the bad early results, I'm not projecting them to win any seats here but if things continue to improve the NDP should be projected to keep their seat. One positive out of many negatives, it would seem.

The Prairies gave birth to the NDP, and over the last three elections the NDP has maintained itself between 23.5% and 24.8%. It would seem NDP voters in Saskatchewan and Manitoba are committed, but recent polling results put that into question. Until the end of February the NDP was polling well here, with three consecutive polls placing the NDP at 26%. But since February, the NDP has dropped dramatically to between 15% and 22%. Something has changed in the Prairies, and it seems that the Liberals and even the Greens have benefited. They're still projected to win three seats (down from four in 2008), but that could change. From outpacing the Liberals in both 2006 and 2008, the NDP are on the brink of being projected to place third in the province.

Ontario has been reluctant to move over to the NDP over the last three elections, with support remaining virtually unchanged (18.1% to 19.4%). The 18.2% result in 2008 was actually a drop from the previous election, but it still netted the party 17 seats. Aside from a few isolated polling results (19% in late January and 20% in early February), the NDP have been well below the 18% mark. Six March polls and one April poll have put the party at between 12% and 15%. Clearly the NDP are losing a lot of ground to the Liberals, as are the Conservatives. They're projected to keep only 10 of their seats.

Thomas Mulcair's victory in Outremont in a by-election was seen as a rejection of Dion. His victory in the 2008 general election has been considered a breakthrough for the NDP in Quebec. No one doubts that, as the party moved from 4.6% in 2004 to 7.5% in 2006 and 12.2% in 2008. The NDP hasn't won a seat in Quebec in decades, so this win was certainly significant. Nevertheless, the party remains a distant fourth in the province. Polling results have been consistent for the NDP, and they have been consistently good - if that can be measured only by the likelihood of keeping Mulcair in Outremont. The party has polled anywhere from 17% to 7% in the province, but the vast majority are within the 10% to 14% range. There has been no discernible movement in voting trends, except a slight turn downwards since the beginning of March. The last six polls have three results under 10%, but two of them are also at 13%, so this is probably just the margin of error. I project them to keep Outremont, for now.

The Atlantic has historically been a strong region for the party, and this is demonstrated by their 26.6% result in 2008. Polling fluctuates wildly in this region for the NDP, with results being as low as 17% and as high as 32%. There is a worrying trend, however. Of the last eight polls in the region, stretching back to January 27, the NDP has been only twice over 20% (25% in February and 29% in March). The remaining six polls have had the party at between 17% and 19%. This would be a big drop for the party, and why they are projected to only win three seats.

Jack Layton has a difficult game to play. He is positioned on the Canadian left, but this area is straddled by the Liberals, the Bloc Quebecois and the Greens. While in 2004 and 2006 the NDP had the advantage of nipping away support from the Liberals, that no longer is the case. Ignatieff is firmly planted in the Liberal Party, and centre-left voters are moving back towards them. The Bloc is maintaining its strength as well. Layton now has to try to re-gain lost Liberal voters, as well as try to steal votes from the Bloc in Quebec and the left-leaning Green voters. The Greens are in no way all left-wingers, many seem to be centrist as well as right-wing on issues other than the environment. If he does it masterfully, Layton could only hope to improve his national score by 3-points at the expense of the Greens. Another 1% could perhaps be taken from the Bloc. But in order to get those Liberal votes back, Layton would have to move towards the centre, which has the risk of losing votes back to the Greens and the Bloc. If Layton moves to the left in order to go after socially-left-wing environmentalists and social democratic Quebecers, he risks losing more of his centre-left support to Ignatieff.

Layton has been strong over the last few years because has has been able to take advantage of the weakness of the Liberal Party. That is no longer a political factor, and while Layton was concentrating on the Liberals the Green Party has stepped in and nipped at his environmentalist heels. Layton has to re-orientate the party in order to retrieve those Green votes, since getting his Liberal votes back would seem to be impossible at the moment.

A more feasible strategy would be to turn his pan-Canadian vision of the party around. With the Liberals evaporating under Dion, Layton attempted to make the NDP the alternative Official Opposition. He did so by styling the NDP as a fundamentally national party, rather than the party of particular regions and social classes, which is what the NDP has historically been. Layton should consider going back to this version of the NDP. By doing so, he can keep many of his MPs in the House of Commons even if he loses 3-points nationally. The NDP is not one of the "big" Canadian parties - it is a special interest party. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the Bloc Quebecois has had tremendous success in this role. With strong Conservative and Liberal parties, something we haven't seen since the break-up of the Progressive Conservatives, there isn't any room for the NDP anymore. In order to survive in this new political environment, the New Democrats have to (re)-carve out a niche for themselves.