If the polls are right, we could be looking at an unprecedented shift in politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.
We could be looking at lots of things but it’s a useful exercise to put a bunch of ideas on the table. That’s about the only way you can tease out rends that others won’t see.
What can we say about these polls?
When governing parties changed
The Liberal lead is unprecedented for a party in Newfoundland and Labrador in an election where we are likely to see a change of party controlling government.
The polls point to about 49% of eligible voters backing the Liberals, at the low end. If the decideds and leaners get factored in, the number hits a tiny bit less than three quarters of all eligible voters.
To get a sense of what these sorts of numbers could mean, take a look at the election reports for previous change years. Each general election report from the Chief Electoral Officer includes a summary table at the back for all provincial general elections.
In 1972, The Conservatives took 48% of the eligible vote in the second election of the two elections it took to finally pry Joe Smallwood out of the Confederation Building. The Conservatives held 33 seats compared to the Liberals’ nine, out of a total of 42 seats.
In 1989, the Liberals formed a majority government with 38% of the eligible vote. The Liberals held 31 seats to the Conservatives’ 21 out of the 52 seats total in the House at the time.
In 2003, the Conservatives turfed the Liberals out with 42% of the eligible vote. There were 32 Conservatives, 12 Liberals and two New Democrats in a House of 48 seats.
The thing to watch: the and the Liberal vote as a percentage of the number of eligible voters.
Anything north of 42% is significant.
Second thing to watch: the number of folks who don;t vote. If the Liberals get a big vote share AND the turn-out goes up from 2011, we might have some kind of shift going on.
No seat is safe
Since Confederation, politics in Newfoundland and Labrador has been remarkably stable. There have been just three changes of governing party in 66 years. The Conservatives replaced the Liberals in 1972 after 23 years of unbroken majority governments after Confederation. The Liberals replaced the Conservatives in 1989, 17 years later and in 2003, the Conservatives replaced the Liberals.
Some seats remained safe for one party or the other, regardless of the shift. Bellevue, for example, stayed a Liberal stronghold throughout the 1980s. It went to the Conservatives in 2007 in one of the most lopsided elections in provincial history.
The only time we’ve seen a significant realignment of voting patterns before 2007 was in the 1989 general election. As Mark Graesser noted in a 1991 paper presented to the Canadian Political Science Association, The Liberals won eight of 13 seats in the metro regional six of the seven in St. John’s itself. “No Liberal party had achieved such a feat,” noted Graesser, “since the turn of the century.”
Graesser also noted a decided shift in voting patterns across the province. The NDP vote collapsed from its 1985 peak of 14% down to a mere four percent. Conservative strength grew in rural while the Liberals made significant in-roads in metro St. John’s as noted.
The Conservative near-sweep in 2007 is well known. Significantly, though, the Conservatives garnered precisely the same share f eligible vote as they did in 2003. The crucial factor in 2007 in the Conservative victory was the general collapse of the Liberal party.
The next significant realignment was in 2011. The Conservative share of eligible vote shrank to 32%. The Liberal party picked up seats in a band that ran from a traditional stronghold of Burgeo-LaPoile through Humber Valley and into Labrador through the coastal seat that formed another Liberal stronghold and on to Torngat Mountains in Labrador.
The New Democrats rebounded from their near-death in 2007 to win a majority of seats in metropolitan St. John’s. This was the first time since 1949 the Conservatives had won a majority government with such a small share of eligible vote and without a base in St. John’s. Generally, the Conservatives’ support shifted decidedly rural but unlike 1989, when the Liberals had been able to move into the void in St. John’s, this time, the New Democrats filled the space.
Yet, a mere four years later, the electorate seems primed for another shift. This time the shift would see the Liberals taking from both the NDP and the Conservatives. The most recent seat projection by Eric Grenier at threehundredeight.com puts the possible result at 38 Liberals with one seat each from the New Democrats and Conservatives.
The lone Conservative seat would be the bastion in Ferryland,within the metro area. But notice two important things about Grenier’s projection. First of all, his confidence level in the result is less than 60%. Second the projected margin between the Liberals and Conservatives would be a mere three percentage points.
One is hard-pressed not to see the sort of results people are anticipating in the current election as anything less than a shattering of voting patterns that go back more than half a century.
It’s important to note that this would not be the first such shift in voting but rather the latest in a series that have occurred with increasing frequency since 1989:
- 1989: the first dramatic realignment in nearly a century.
- 2007: a major shift in voting patterns across the province.
- 2011: a major realignment, with Conservatives moving to rural seats and losing the metro base
- 2015: a forecast sweep or near sweep with the Liberals gaining from both NDP and Conservative across the province.
As Drew Brown noted recently, the major difference among the province’s three main political parties has been on a single subject: Confederation. This is a point made here before. The Liberals grew out of the Confederate movement during the two referenda in 1948 that led to Confederation. The Conservatives, meanwhile, gathered up the remnants of those who had campaigned against Confederation.
The Conservatives gained power in the early 1970s in a combination that grafted on disaffected anti-Smallwood Liberals such as John Crosbie. The NDP, meanwhile, has traditionally been a rump party, tied to the province’s major unions but sharing with the Conservatives in having a strong “nationalist” element within it.
In many respects, it is the anti-Confederate or anti-Liberal dynamic that has enabled metro Conservative voters to move effortlessly from the blue party to the orange party first federally in 2008 and then provincially in 2011. This was very much the secret to Ryan Cleary’s appeal over the course of four years in federal politics, as much as many New Democratic Party activists seemed to be completely oblivious to this. In itself, that blindness is remarkable given that another prominent New Democrat – Greg Malone – shares the same anti-Confederate views of Conservatives dating back to the 1948 referenda.
Those same voters appear to have moved effortlessly to the Liberals both provincially and federally. Unless something dramatic happens in the next two weeks, the Liberals will all but sweep into power with the support of former Conservatives and New Democrats.
That looks very like the old party affiliations in Newfoundland and Labrador either are breaking down or have already gone. Where 25 years ago, we had a cadre of Liberals and Conservatives and a group of swing voters who’d move between the two, we now have much smaller cadres. Most voters swing effortlessly from party to party from election to election.
The possible shift
At this point, we are looking at a possible shift.
That’s why the language in this post has to be conditional.
We have to wait for election day and for some other developments to get a clearer picture.
One things is certain, though. We have been going through a rather dramatic change in local politics over the past decade. Where it is going and what it means definitely remain to be seen.