Three Strategic Lessons and Seven Kinds of Ridings from the Ontario Election
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As always, the real data story is found in the cross-tabs. The Ontario Liberals and Ontario NDP each gained a percentage point in popular support in Thursday's election, but they did not do so evenly, nor in the same places. Unfortunately for the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, they lost nearly everywhere.
The table below is a slightly updated version from the one I published on Twitter Saturday. Like Saturday's version it shows changes in turnout, raw vote counts, and vote shares from the 2011 to 2014 provincial general elections, broken down by sub-region of the province; but it also now shows seat changes at the side, and totals at the bottom, as well.
[Click on image to open full-sized version]
These vote shifts demonstrate that while the NDP lost votes in well-educated downtown ridings in Toronto and Ottawa, the Liberals tanked in working and middle class southwestern Ontario, including Windsor, Sarnia, Chatham, London and the Niagara region – more or less as could have been predicted from last year's Liberal leadership race that saw Toronto's Kathleen Wynne defeat Sandra Pupatello the doyenne of Windsor.
At the same time, the starkness of the commitments in Tim Hudak's Million Jobs Plan to cut 100,000 public sector jobs appears to have cost his party vote-share across the three 905 regions of Durham, York and Peel, and into Central Ontario – and even cost raw vote-counts in some of them – as primarily Liberal voters stampeded to the polls to stop him. Even the NDP reinforced and grew its claim to parts of Brampton in the 905 West, as the Liberal vote also grew, leaving the Ontario PCs trailing in third place across the northern half of Peel Region.
The Ontario Conservatives also tanked in southwestern Ontario, coming within 5 points of losing Sarnia-Lambton to the NDP, and only hanging on in Chatham-Kent–Essex and Elgin-Middlesex-London thanks to the splits in three-way races where "a vote for the Liberals was a vote for Hudak", contrary to the motto being peddled by the red team in downtown Toronto and Ottawa. A bit further north, the PCs' drop benefitted both the NDP and the Liberals, as the blue team lost ground in Brant, lost their seat in Cambridge, and fell to third place in their former seat of Kitchener-Waterloo.
Downtown pundits and university professors scoffed at the NDP's strategy of appealing to small-town and working class soft conservative voters, but they shouldn't have, as it worked in Oshawa and Brampton, across the southwest of the province from Sarnia to the Niagara, and in northern (but not northwestern) Ontario.
The bad news for the Conservatives is that they can be beaten by Liberals in wealthier areas and by New Democrats in less-well-off areas of the province. Meanwhile the Liberals will be emboldened to fight both the NDP and the Conservatives in the big cities and suburbs.
Three Strategic Lessons
- The Conservatives can be beaten. Their strategy of playing to a small but loyal core base vote can be cannot survive forever, especially with an unforgiving hard-right platform. It's possible to win over some Conservative votes to other parties, and to also outnumber them by bringing previous non-voters to the polls. Indeed a hard-right platform can demotivate non-ideological low-information conservative voters and motivate progressive ones.
- The assumptions behind the Ontario NDP's strategy – however well or poorly that strategy might have been executed – did prove accurate in the intended parts of the province. We political-science-trained observers may think of politics in a left-right spectrum, but voters don't. Conservatives have spent a lot of time thinking about how to get working class voters to vote against their economic interest, but there is a way to win those voters back with the right message (and ideally a far-better-funded campaign next time!).
- The assumptions behind so-called "Strategic Voting" did not prove accurate. "A vote for the NDP is a vote for Hudak" read Liberal leaflets dumped in NDP-Liberal ridings which had no chance of electing a Conservative, but did dump some of the most progressive NDP MPPs in return for a three blue Liberals. But it wasn't NDP-to-Liberal switching that defeated Conservatives, contrary to what some very good pre-election opinion research from Innovative Research suggested might be the case. Indeed in every region where the Ontario PCs lost seats, both the Liberal and NDP vote-counts increased. Perhaps the only seat where an explicit strategic voting campaign helped defeat a PC MPP was in Oshawa, where the Elementary Teachers went to bat for one of their members running for the NDP in concert with other groups, to persuade people that the strategic vote in that case was NOT for the Liberals.
Seven Kinds of Ontario Ridings
Another lesson we can learn from the Ontario election is that the province's electoral map – federally and provincially – is changing. Gone are the days of just blue seats, red seats, and red-blue swing seats. Today different parties are engaged in quite different contests with each other in different parts of the province, and the three traditional categories account for only half the seats in Ontario.
The next table shows the complete federal and provincial electoral history of Ontario's 107 ridings, from the 2004 federal general election through to the 2014 provincial election we just finished (with the 2000 federal transposition added in for context, although with the split between the PCs and Canadian Alliance, the Liberals show up as the winner in all but 2 seats). It then classifies then by historic contest, and whether safe, swing or changing, and shows which seats are now held by different parties at the federal and provincial levels.
[Click on image to open up 2-page PDF]
- There are 14 ridings which have returned a federal or provincial Conservative in every election from 2004 to 2014, four of them with the Liberals always in second place, and 10 with varying competitors over the years
- There are 11 ridings where a Liberal has always been elected, in six of which the Conservatives always came second, with the other 5 seeing various different competitors
- There are 3 ridings in which the NDP has always won from 2004 onwards, Toronto-Danforth where the Liberals were always number 2, and Hamilton Centre and Timmins-James Bay where they faced various competitors
- 17 ridings have mostly featured an NDP-Liberal contest over the years, but in four of which the Conservatives displaced the Liberals federally in 2008 and 2011, and in another seven where they did so in 2011. Eight of the 17 ridings elected a Liberal MPP last Thursday where a New Democrat MP won the last federal election. This will be troubling for the NDP federally.
- 45 ridings have mostly featured a Conservative-Liberal contest since 2004, but in 13 of them the NDP replaced the Liberals in second place federally in 2011. The Liberals won 6 of those 13 seats provincially last Thursday, and 30/32 of the straight-up blue-red swing seats. This has got to be very worrisome for the federal Conservatives.
- 1 riding has been a Conservative-NDP contest since 2004: Oshawa.
- Perhaps the 16 most interesting seats in the province not only defy categorization, but appear to be changing in their allegiances over time — perhaps due to changing demographics, solid candidate search and/or local organization, or some combination of all three. Half of them are held by the NDP provincially, while three-quarters are held by the Conservatives federally.
What's clear is that Conservatives now look beatable in the very parts of Ontario that granted the Prime Minister his majority government in 2011, and even in seats his party won before then. If the Liberals can knock the Conservatives back in the well-educated ridings around Toronto, and the NDP cut further into their seat count in the working class ridings southwest and north, that's the pincer action the Conservatives don't want to face. Not even the new riding boundaries would save them in that situation, so they'll have to run a much more adroit campaign than Tim Hudak did to forestall that possibility in 2015.
For full Ontario provincial election results, you can consult the Ontario Pundits' Guide database, located at on.punditsguide.ca. Unfortunately, a system "upgrade" at my web-host messed up the charting, but I'm working on a more permanent fix for that.