In 2011, NDP voters in Saskatchewan came out on the wrong end of electoral math and riding geography.
Almost one Saskatchewan voter in three backed the NDP, but the morning after election day, the province was a solid rectangle of blue, varied only by a spot of red in Wascana, where Ralph Goodale, the apparently indestructible Prairie Liberal, had been re-elected still again.
Part of the issue was riding boundaries that diluted NDP support in Regina and Saskatoon with Conservative rural areas.
“There were lots of complaints that the system made the province less competitive than it actually was,” explains University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane. ”Because the Conservatives were so dominant in the rural areas, they would break even, or not do all that badly, in the urban areas, and win all these seats.”
“The percentage of actual votes was not that well-reflected in the percentage of the actual seats for each party.”
When ridings were redrawn after the 2011 election, Saskatchewan’s boundary commission tackled the issue head-on, getting rid of most of the province’s rural-urban ridings, except for one in Regina, and giving Saskatoon three more or less urban ridings, and Regina two.
“It was viciously debated, of course,” McGrane says. “It was one of the hottest debates in Saskatchewan in a long time.”
In southern Saskatchewan, the new boundaries create four ridings to watch:
“If you look at the 2011 results, the NDP wins two ridings in Saskatchewan: Saskatoon West and Regina-Lewvan. If the NDP is up in the polls nationally, it is going to be up in Saskatchewan, so that would mean a very favourable situation for the NDP. After Saskatoon West and Regina-Lewvan, ridings that become fights between the NDP and the Conservatives are Saskatoon-University and Saskatoon-Grasswood.”
Regina-Wascana will stay Liberal, McGrane predicts, for reasons that have nothing to do with the federal Liberal party and everything to do with Goodale.
“Everybody knows that you’re not voting Liberal in Wascana, you’re voting for Ralph.”
“That’s all Ralph – that has nothing to do with the Liberal party in Saskatchewan, or the Liberal brand in Saskatchewan. The Liberal brand in Saskatchewan is in shambles. The Liberal party has a long history in Saskatchewan, but the Liberal party federally in Saskatchewan hasn’t been all that much of a player since the 1960s or so.”
“If Ralph was to retire tomorrow, the seat would definitely be in play, and the Conservatives would be very interested in it. They would definitely have a good chance at it.”
Based on mathematical modelling Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist Barry Kay calls Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, a vast riding covering Saskatchewan’s sparsely populated north, for the NDP.
But McGrane calls it a “tossup”.
“It doesn’t go with national trends, it doesn’t go with provincial trends, it just goes on its own. It’s its own microclimate – it’s really hard to understand what’s going on up there. It goes a lot with personalities, and it doesn’t necessarily go with parties. I would never believe anybody to call that riding in any way – it’s an impossible riding to call.”
More generally, the Senate expense scandals will hurt the Conservatives in their core base in the Prairies, small-c conservatives who would once have backed the Reform Party.
“These are festering wounds,” McGrane says. “It definitely hurts them in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.”
“It’s been remarked in Saskatchewan that some of these old Reformers must have a bit of a bad taste in their mouths, because all the things that they were supposed to fix by sending the Reform Party to Ottawa – the Conservatives kind of become those things. An entrenched party with lots of senators – that’s exactly what Preston Manning was running against back in the 1990s.”
“They are vulnerable, in terms of that old Reform base. The question is where that old Reform base goes. They’re not likely to vote NDP, it’s anathema to them, they don’t like the Liberals for a variety of reasons, social conservatism among them. Where do they go?
It isn’t yet clear whether anybody-but-Harper votes on the Prairies will coalesce behind the Liberals or NDP, or split between the two, McGrane says.
“In some Saskatchewan ridings, there’s a three-way race. We’re just not clear on how strong the Liberals are in Western Canada at the moment. I see them as an x-factor, a wild card.”
“I’m more interested in what happens to the Liberal vote than to the Conservative or NDP vote, because what happens to the Liberal vote is going to determine the makeup of some of these seats in Western Canada.”
“If the anti-Conservative vote splits evenly, it’s going to be a very blue-looking map on October 20.”