"We can't allow things that are inaccurate to stand." — The Word of Our Dan, February 19, 2008.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Barbarians at the gates

On Tuesday, the Progressive Conservatives under Kathy Dunderdale won 37 seats on 56% of the vote. By any standards a smashing electoral success.

So why are there more than a few nervous Tory nellies walking around these days? The vote-share numbers provide a clue:
           PC     Lib    NDP
2007 69.6 21.7 8.5
2011 56.1 19.1 24.6

Change -13.5 -2.6 +16.1
The NDP gains in votes, and seats, came almost entirely at the expense of the Tories. The Liberals stubbornly refused to believe their own obituaries.

According to the script, this wasn't supposed to happen.

And it's not just a matter of raw vote- and seat-counts. Straits and White Bay North released itself from the Liberal clutches it fell into in the late by-election, but did so without rushing back to the Tory fold. Clyde Jackman saw his political career flash before his eyes, and the NDP was strong enough to be competitive in several of the St. John's area seats it didn't win. Apart from raw margins, another indicium of the potential winnability or convertability of a district is whether the second-place party is strong enough to win polls within the district. The NDP did so in at least four Tory-held St. John's seats Tuesday night, and enough of them that it was leading in suburban Cape St. Francis in the first hour of the count.

Whence the source of the nervous-nelliness.

In the nine elections the PCs have won since Confederation, they ran the St. John's-area board, or nearly done so, every time — until 2011. Bell Island in 1971 and 1972, and Conception Bay South in 1975 (shown in pale shades), were the only seats in the current St. John's metropolitan area ever carried by Liberals in a general election won by the PC's. Back in the 1970s, those districts were not nearly as demographically and economically integrated with St. John's as they are today, so we can only partially debit the Tories for those St. John's-area losses anyway.

In the Danny-Dunderdale era, the NDP stubbornly held on to its long-standing single St. John's beachead in the east end/downtown/Signal Hill area, with the NDP fending off the PC juggernaut in 2003, and PC star candidacies in the 2006 by-election and 2011 general election. During the D-D era, there were only ever even two local races in which the NDP topped 1000 votes — in Conception Bay East and Bell Island in 2003 and in the 2010 by-election.

This chart shows the distribution of PC seats in PC-won elections, along with non-PC seats won in the modern St. John's metropolitan area boundaries. Metro seats are to the left of the thick grey bar (the overpass?), while rural and small-town PC seats are shown to the right.

Even in opposition, the Tories have always had a battle-hardened political redoubt in the capital city. During the Smallwood years, before electoral map-drawing process was semi-professionalized, the PC party always at least split the difference with Smallwood's Liberals. Other than in 1949, the PC caucus was always weighted towards St. John's. (In 1949 the Tories also carried several of their traditional rural Avalon chateaux-forts.) In 1959, the St. John's vote was further split by the schismatic United Newfoundland faction (in green). As with the previous chart, the problem case of Bell Island, more integrated with St. John's now than it was then, is shown in a paler shade. Once again, the grey bar represents the metaphorical overpass:
The elections of 1989 and 1993 show just how unusual, historically-speaking, was the electoral coalition built by the Clyde Wells Liberals. They were very successful in the city and suburbs, while the Tories showed a remarkable resilience in rural areas even during Liberal-won elections. The two Tobin-era elections showed the Tories gaining ground in the city, while reverting to the historical pattern of having a caucus comprised half or more of urban and suburban MHAs, even though the electoral map favours non-metro areas almost three to one.

St. John's, in short, has always been the Progressive Conservative citadel. It is the core to which they retreat in bad elections, and the base from which they rebuild to have good ones.

So, for them, seeing the NDP surge to four seats in the city, take out a cabinet minister and two other incumbents, and fend of what ended up being a weak challenge by a "star" candidate, was bad enough.

Seeing the NDP surge to over 1000 votes in every metro district but one — Mount Pearl North, where Kurtis Coombs, of all candidates, still got 994 — is another.

Seeing the NDP come to within realistic striking distance in three more districts — Conception Bay East–Bell Island, Mount Pearl South, and St. John's West — now you're talking nervous tics.

Then to have the Dippers winning polls in suburban Cape St. Francis and elsewhere across Town?

Couple that with the surprising (to some people) Liberal resilience in rural areas, especially the further you get from St. John's, where the Liberal vote actually increased in eighteen districts, and you may just be gazing into something of a crystal ball that foretells the scenario by which the PC party will, eventually, fall from grace with voters.

A rural flank under pressure from the other "traditional" party. An urban core where some seats are won, and others "spoiled" by vote-splits from the NDP.

Sound vaguely familiar?

With the colours red and blue swapping positions, this is exactly the pincer move that has been pursued over the four federal elections of 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2011, by the federal Conservatives.

The rural party failed to die on cue, and actually ended up making gains. The governing party's urban fortress is under siege by an NDP that snuck in through the aqueducts.

A PC defeat wasn't in the cards in 2011.

But for anyone with a little imagination, regardless of political stripe, that eventual defeat isn't nearly as hard to imagine this week as it was seven days ago.

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