Tuesday, August 6, 2013

By-Election Breakdown: Future Targets for Ontario's Parties

On August 1st Ontarians in five ridings cast ballots for new MPPs to sit in Queen’s Park. Five Liberal cabinet ministers resigned, many prominent faces in the McGuinty years, including the Premier himself. The results are well-documented; the Liberals held onto two ridings, the NDP picked up two and the Progressive Conservatives won one. Watching the results and the lead up to the by-elections I couldn’t help think about some of the potential trends and what these by-elections could teach us.

A moment of caution, by-elections are, more often than not, total flukes. A few short months ago in a federal by-election in Calgary Centre the Green Party candidate received 25% of the vote. I sincerely doubt that such a thing will be replicated in the next general election, but the Liberal strength in an urban Western seat might be an indication of future events and strategies. I am going to try to point to some of the trends that I saw last week that we may see again in a future general provincial election.

The Ontario New Democratic Party

Given my own partisan alignment my natural inclination was to see potential gains for the NDP and the by-elections offered many. Since the last general election polling in Ontario has been showing significant strength for the ONDP in Southwestern Ontario. It appears that when voters who previously supported the Liberals abandon them in SW Ontario they prefer to drift to the NDP. This was definitely the case in London West and Windsor-Tecumseh which elected Peggy Sattler and Percy Hatfield of the NDP. The trend was on display in Kitchener-Waterloo last year with the election of Catherine Fife.

Targets for the NDP in Southwestern and Midwestern Ontario will include Windsor West (which they hold federally), and perhaps a stiffer challenge in London North Centre so they can take all three London seats. I also expect the ONDP to make a play for Brant. Taras Natyshak (ONDP – Essex) won Essex in an upset in the last election. With strong candidates it may be possible for the ONDP to flip some of the rural seats as well, like Sarnia-Lambton where their numbers are not horrendous to start.

Scarborough-Guildwood also offers hope for the ONDP. Star candidate Adam Giambrone placed a strong third, with 28%, in a riding where last time the ONDP received less than 19%. The NDP federally won two seats in Scarborough in 2011: Scarborough-Rouge River and Scarborough Southwest. The party made a strong showing in Scarborough Centre and Scarborough-Guildwood, though they came in third in both instances. Next time Ontarians vote I would expect the ONDP to make big plays for Scarborough-Rouge River, where they last received 35% of the vote, and Scarborough Southwest. Depending on NDP fortunes (i.e. provincial wide polling) these could be beachheads to take the rest of Scarborough or where they make big breakthroughs.

The Ontario Liberal Party

It is hard not to look at the by-election results as a sign of trouble for the governing Liberals and Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West). Many of the ridings where by-elections were held were won by double-digit margins in the last election. No doubt incumbency and cabinet status protected these seats previously, but the tremendous routs in London West and Windsor-Tecumseh must offer a chilling effect. The Liberals won in Ottawa South and Scarborough-Guildwood and did well in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. This indicates to me that the critical suburban/urban vote is not abandoning the Liberal Party. While not as strong as they once were the Ontario Liberals needn’t fear the Michael Ignatieff-style defeat, yet. Ottawa South is not so different from the outer 905 suburbs, and Scarbough-Guildwood was vulnerable to both the NDP and PCs, yet the Liberals managed to hold onto enough of their base.

The results in the by-elections may suggest that the Liberals can basically hold on to the urban and suburban seats they have. Places like North York, Mississauga, and Ottawa may be safe from opposition incursions. The public is mad at the government, but not furious, or at least they didn’t demonstrate that. While this vote decline for the Liberals would mean tighter races in Ottawa and the 905, and losing seats like Oak Ridges-Markham, many are still safe which means they can work on rebuilding and not just holding on.

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario

While the narrative suggests that the PCs had the worst night of the three parties they should not totally despair. To begin, the PCs came in second or first in all five contests. That might not sound like much but when measures against the NDP it puts them in a far better place to make a push for government. The NDP did abysmally bad in Etobicoke-Lakeshore and Ottawa South while the PCs put up respectful numbers everywhere. The PCs also grew their vote and made an inroad into Toronto with Doug Holyday (PCPO – Etobicoke-Lakeshore).

Sadly for the PCs the victory in Etobicoke-Lakeshore is more a product of Mr. Holyday and less his party. His win does not mean the PCs have an easy handful seats to grab from Fortress Toronto. However, Etobicoke Centre may be a viable grab for the PCs, especially if Holyday switches to that, his home riding, in a general election. Their strong performance in Scarborough-Guildwood means they will make a play there, as well as Scarborough-Agincourt, I assume. A riding that the PCs will likely make a fight for is Mississauga South. MS used to be a strong riding for the PCs and it borders Etobicoke-Lakeshore. The Liberal finance minister Charles Sousa comes from that riding, but given the location of the gas plants he would make a great symbolic cabinet minister to topple. A win in Etobicoke-Lakeshore may signal a greater openness in the GTA in the affluent urban/suburban regions to vote PC. If the Ontario Conservatives can do as their federal counterparts and win over visible minority voters, or even grab some of the original “Ford Nation” voters they could do well in Mississauga, Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York.

This post is not about what will happen in the next election, merely it is an idea where the strategic thinking of the three main parties might be as a result of the by-elections. Each gives a reason to despair but also hope for future growth.

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