How Tories and New Democrats are dividing and conquering the 519

In southwestern Ontario, shifts in party preference are handing rural ridings to the PCs and urban ridings to the NDP — leaving little room for the Liberals
By Adam McDowell - Published on May 25, 2018
NDP candidate Catherine Fife
Catherine Fife took the former riding of Kitchener-Waterloo for the NDP in a 2012 byelection — and there have been other incremental gains for the party in southwestern Ontario since then. (Dave Chidley/CP)

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Four years ago, southwestern Ontario was unusual among the province’s regions for the balanced reception it afforded the three largest political parties. Since the election of Dalton McGuinty in 2003, the Progressive Conservatives have been able to depend on voters in the agricultural areas, while all three parties have vied for the cities. Several ridings incorporated both urban and rural voters. A competitive equilibrium was established.

During the last general election in 2014, many of the tightest three-way races took place in the southwest. Of the seven ridings with the smallest gap between first and third place — a basic measure of three-way competitiveness — five were located in the 519 area code. In Brant (renamed Brantford–Brant for the current election), Liberal Dave Levac beat the PCs’ Alex Gillies by seven percentage points and defeated third-place finisher Alex Felsky of the NDP by 10. Similarly close finishes between first, second, and third took place in Chatham-Kent–Essex, Kitchener–Waterloo, London North Centre, Kitchener–Conestoga … and beyond.

But that was then, and this is now. In the current election, with the Liberals flat-lining in the polls and the picture complicated by redistricting, a new normal is appearing: a sea of rural areas in PC blue, with orange islands of New Democrats in the urban portions of southwestern Ontario — in other words, ridings that touch Windsor, London, Waterloo Region and Cambridge, and possibly smaller urban pockets. (There may be scant Liberal red to be seen anywhere after June 7.)

The driving factor is the steady rise of the NDP in the cities of the 519. Over the past several years, it has been establishing itself as the default left-of-centre party for educated, young, urban voters in the southwest — a trend reflected in recent polls, the observations of political watchers in the region, and steadily improving results in general elections and byelections over the course of the last seven years.

The NDP didn’t win any seats in southwestern Ontario in the general elections of 2003 or 2007. In 2011, the party took one riding in Windsor and one in London. Over the next few years, it edged further into the region with a few byelection wins (Catherine Fife in Kitchener–Waterloo in 2012; Peggy Sattler in London West in 2013; Percy Hatfield in Windsor–Tecumseh in 2014). In the 2014 election, the NDP kept those seats and picked up another, Windsor West.

“For the NDP in 2014, they did unusually well in southwestern Ontario,” says Barry Kay, a  political scientist at Wilfrid Laurier University, adding that the phenomenon was visible across the 519 area code. Kay notes that 2014 was an unspectacular result for the NDP in Ontario as a whole — it was principally in the southwest that it made gains in the popular vote.

Why was 2014 so competitive in southwestern Ontario? One possible explanation: in many ridings, a sinking Liberal Party and a rising NDP matched up fairly evenly, and in turn they both contended with a healthy level of local PC support.

As for the current election, “The NDP has momentum,” says Kay, who publishes seat projections via the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy. “I wouldn’t be surprised if that continues.” His map for this election currently shows flecks of orange in the cities of southwestern Ontario, deeply blue rural districts, and only a couple of too-close-to-call greys. (Guelph is among the toss-up ridings; Green Party leader Mike Schreiner is running there, which complicates the picture.) 

In southwestern Ontario, a plurality of decided voters support the NDP, according to an Ipsos poll released Tuesday. Commissioned by Global News, it showed the NDP ahead of the PCs by eight percentage points among decided voters in southwestern Ontario — 43 to 35. The Liberals are in a distant third with 15. (The survey of 1,000 voters is considered accurate within 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, and the margin of error will be higher in a regional subset.) 

“The support for the NDP is primarily those under the age of 35, and those with more education,” says Sean Simpson, an Ipsos vice-president who lives in Waterloo. Simpson says that if you want to picture the growing constituency for the New Democrats in London and Waterloo Region, you should think of young people with degrees: the sort of people who have been moving to those cities in pursuit of good white-collar jobs for years — and who used to gravitate toward the Liberals.

In this election so far, Simpson says, Ipsos’ polling shows that “the Liberals are just in terrible, terrible shape in southwestern Ontario.”

Simpson says the other cohort planning to vote NDP in the 519 are people who will vote for whichever party they think has the best chance of preventing Ford from becoming premier. (If true, this suggests any orange ripple that does emerge in the region won’t necessarily indicate a pattern that will shape the landscape for many elections to come.)

Anna Esselment, chair of the University of Waterloo’s political science department, also notes that party loyalties aren’t what they used to be. “Parties do have bases,” she says — the NDP can still look to unionized workers as a reservoir of support, for example — “but they’re becoming increasingly smaller, which means parties are reaching out to different coalitions of voters every election.” 

In the meantime, southwestern Ontario will remain an interesting portion of the province to watch the night of June 7. Here are some ridings that could feature noteworthy results. 

London North Centre

Fifteen-year Liberal veteran Deb Matthews will retire from politics after she finishes chairing the current election campaign. That makes the riding a toss-up. In 2014, Matthews defeated her NDP challenger by five and a half percentage points and her PC rival by about nine. The highest-profile candidate this time around is Tory Susan Truppe, who represented the corresponding federal riding from 2011 to 2015.

Waterloo

When former PC cabinet minister Elizabeth Witmer retired from politics in 2012, her riding of Kitchener–Waterloo went to NDP candidate Catherine Fife. (Notwithstanding talk of the new urban NDP base being young and white-collar, the union movement — a real presence in southwestern Ontario — worked hard for Fife’s byelection victory.) Fife is running for a third term, in the new riding of Waterloo, which largely corresponds to the old Kitchener–Waterloo.

Kitchener Centre

Diaene Vernile, most recently minister of culture and sport, won this urban slice of Kitchener–Waterloo by a big margin in 2014 — 43 per cent to the PCs’ 27. If the Liberals are going to hold on to any urban seat in the 519, it may be this one. 

Kitchener–Conestoga

Like a few other southwestern ridings, this one combines urban, small-town and rural areas. Michael Harris is the outgoing PC MPP — he was turfed from the party caucus over communications with a former intern and replaced as Tory candidate by Mike Harris, Jr. (the former premier’s son; he’s not related to the other Michael Harris). This riding was a close one in 2014: about three percentage points separated the PC and Liberal candidates. The PCs are likely to win it again, given the Liberal Party’s struggles, but watch for the NDP to improve on their 21 per cent showing of 2014 and make a move for second place.

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