The rise of the NDP could be a fundamental shift – or a temporary experiment by voters.
In a word, wow!
After 20-plus days of sluggish polls for all the major parties, the NDP has taken off like a rocket. The latest EKOS poll has the New Democrats overtaking the Liberals and sitting pretty at 28 per cent support – six points behind the Conservatives, who are still in the lead with a modest 34 per cent. The Liberals languish at 24 per cent.
In the New Democrats’ wake, the deflating Bloc Québécois and Liberals are scrambling to shore up their core constituencies. The alarmed Tories have launched an attack ad against NDP Leader Jack Layton so outlandish that I honestly thought it had sprung from the delightfully warped mind of Rick Mercer. The Liberals’ rather desperate new ad paints Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Jack Layton as two sides of the same coin – not a particularly intuitive idea.
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NDP surges are quite normal: They typically happen halfway through the election period, and then the whole thing collapses when the Liberals who are flirting with the NDP get over their mid-election crisis and go back to their sedate old party.
This time, things could be very different. For one thing, the timing bodes well for the NDP: Naturally, a late surge is what every politician wants. More good news for Layton comes in a regional breakdown. According to EKOS, the NDP is now No. 1 in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, though Nanos is showing a distinct decline in the NDP’s fortunes in the Maritimes.
This, of course, is a healthy reminder that the polls are hardly Delphic Oracles. As I discussed in an earlier column, the falling percentage of telephone landlines skews the type of Canadian that pollsters actually speak with towards a higher age group, and regional polls, drawing on smaller sample groups, have a much higher degree of uncertainty. Ira Basen at the CBC wrote a terrific piece about this the other day, clearly showing the growing methodological problems pollsters face, and how varied the findings of different polling firms are.
Still, even if the numbers differ, Ipsos, Environics, EKOS, and Nanos all show the same trends: the Tories holding, the NDP rising, and the Liberals and Bloc taking a downward glide that just can’t end well.
Even if the NDP’s surge continues through until election day, one can’t help but wonder if it is a fundamental realignment, or just a temporary experiment by the Canadian electorate? While it is impossible to give a definitive answer, one indication is EKOS’s remarkable finding that the NDP has become the second choice of nearly one-quarter of Canadian voters. Adding up the number of people who say the New Democrats are their first or second choice shows that 52 per cent of Canadians are either ready to vote, or are seriously considering voting, for the NDP. Being the second choice of other parties’ supporters is a position the Liberals have traditionally held, since they are generally perceived as forming the party of the centre. Nevertheless, Ipsos shows a similar trend, with half of Liberal and Bloc supporters saying the NDP is their second choice, and a remarkable 32 per cent of Conservative supporters agreeing.
In Quebec, the NDP gains have clearly been at the expense of the Bloc Québécois and Liberals. While the Liberal brand in Quebec has been in poor shape for some time, the party could always count on a few Montreal-area seats. Now, the lukewarm performance of Michael Ignatieff seems to be draining off what little support the Liberals have enjoyed there in the past. And, since its formation in 1991, the Bloc has been on a generally downward trend, culminating in a rather paltry 38 per cent of voter support in the 2008 election. As Chantal Hébert wrote in the Toronto Star on Tuesday, Duceppe has simply been in the driver’s seat of the ever-shrinking BQ for too long, and has done nothing to encourage the next generation of Bloquiste leadership.
In Quebec, the chance of any shift to Tory support is nil: The Conservative Party of Canada is the very comfortable home of numerous hardliners against abortion – people who believe they are there to help enact God’s laws. This is common knowledge in Quebec, where Radio-Canada has been regularly broadcasting credible news stories of evangelical influence in the Harper government (in stark contrast to the reports of the English-language news media in the rest of Canada). The female-friendly New Democrats are the default beneficiaries of this wave of partisan dissatisfaction and societal secularism.
I think even most critics of the NDP would agree that Jack Layton has performed well in this campaign, showing great energy and optimism despite personal health problems and the perennial third-party status. But there is more to it than that; if you look to its ads, you will see that the NDP has taken a page out of Barack Obama’s 2008 playbook. Obama was always saying the movement was not about him, but rather about the change ordinary citizens can make, echoed by the slogan “Yes we can.” Layton’s “Together we can do this” slogan is emphasizing a similar point: It’s not the leader, but rather the citizens, who can change politics/democracy/the country. It would seem that an invitation to participate, rather than just to follow, produces results.
Whatever your political outlook, this is still a valuable idea. On May 2, please vote – and bring a friend to the polls as well.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.