The NDP's 7% problem
Nov 24, 2014

The NDP's 7% problem

The NDP's biggest problem electorally isn't a question of policy or values or leadership or connecting with voters or just about anything else perennially brought up to explain their difficulties in the polls both federally and provincially across Canada. Their big problem comes down to one stat: only 7% of Canadians think they will win the next federal election, less than a fifth the number the Liberals get. If nobody thinks they can win, there are going to be hordes of theoretical supporters who will vote instead for the person they think might win, typically a Liberal.

Of all the questions you can poll people on, this is the number the NDP polls worst on. Large numbers of people generally like the NDP, generally like Mulcair, and generally like values and policies that the NDP prioritizes. If that was all that mattered, they would be competitive. However, if large numbers of people don't bother actually voting for them because basically nobody thinks they can actually win, none of this matters.

This basic dynamic has long plagued the NDP, but never before have they had as much of an opportunity to reverse it. In 2011 they went to record highs, become the Official Opposition while reducing the Liberals to a seat count in the thirties, and staking the claim as heir apparent to the federal throne. They elected a competent - although not particularly likeable - leader who has received mainly plaudits by the press and had little negative press. And they rightward shift of the NDP puts their policies and values firmly within acceptable territory of the Canadian public when polled.

If there was ever a moment in time where the NDP could reverse the "but they won't win, so why vote for them?" dynamic, this was it. What do they get? Seven percent. Seven heart-sinking, demoralizing percent that cements the dynamic as being as alive as it ever was. The Liberals, by the way, get 39% and the Tories 25%.

Abacus ran the numbers in more depth in Quebec recently comparing the Liberals and NDP and they paint a similar, if less extreme picture. Quebecors would prefer (60%) Mulcair over Trudeau and think his values are closer to their own (55%). But they think Trudeau is more likely to win (67%). The key though is in how they are actually going to vote. 56% of people will vote for whoever they think is most likely to beat Harper.

There are always going to be loyalists who will vote for their party even if they are going to lose. Indeed, while I am not a loyalist, I have written in past many reasons why one might want to vote for third parties beyond them actually going to win. However, a majority of people are not going to do this. They are going to pick and choose between the Liberals and the NDP to find the party they think will win.

The silver lining for the NDP is that latent support for them is likely much higher than election results and polls indicate. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in the so called Orange Wave in Quebec in the 2011 election. When it suddenly became clear that the NDP had a real shot, a huge portion of the country very quickly moved camp to the NDP and there became something of a self fulfilling prophesy where appearing like a possible winner was the key to giving their first huge win in the province. The NDP can only hope something similar happens outside of Quebec in the future, that the base of support for their party is really much larger than sometimes appears, it just doesn't manifest in elections since nobody thinks they can actually win. Gain enough momentum to convince people they might win, and it may become a tipping point that propels them to actually do so.

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