Measuring Failure in Measurable Terms

Analyzing the NDP's long-term potential might be the key to determining its leader's future.

“I can fit the NDP’s increase in vote share in the palm of my hand.”

On Twitter yesterday, after going on a long-ish tear about a piece Neil MacDonald wrote about rape culture for the CBC and my distaste for the intellectually crippling effects of nostalgia on baby boomers, I switched gears and starting talking about the NDP’s fortunes, or possible lack thereof.

The prevailing wisdom among journalists and columnists is that the NDP lost very badly. Not only did the (once and future) 3rd party, which held the balance of power in the 40th Parliament of Ontario, trigger an election by rejecting a bespoke budget, they also apparently pivoted to the right, bungled the campaign, alienated good chunks of their base and transformed themselves from power brokers to has-beens.

Some of these points are more debatable than others. Yes, the NDP did trigger an election the electorate didn’t (at the time) seem to want, and yes they rejected a budget that was essentially written on orange paper. But sparingly discussed is the cost to the NDP of being a power broker too long, when people may eventually only see them as kickstand, and kickstands don’t become governments.

As to the bungling of the campaign, I think all 3 parties ran pretty lacklustre, amateurish campaigns. Who thought “What Leadership Is” was a killer slogan? Who thought repeating “Makes Sense” a zillion times could make up for the absence of a platform, sensible or otherwise? And the Million Jobs fiasco? More that enough has been said about its cynical lunacy.

But what about the contention that the NDP lost a good chunk of their base and that the loss of those votes might banish the NDP to the hinterland? Does that prove out? I wondered about that…

My point here has more to do with Horwath’s future as the NDP’s leader than the party’s prospects. If she wants to further change the party’s tone, slant and direction, this election cleared out some of the older guard who might have stood in her way. It’s not what I want to see for the NDP, but this election might not have been all bad news, at least for the Horwathians.

A Toronto journalist contacted me via direct message on Twitter to challenge the idea that gains in newer areas might cancel out losses in the GTHA, long-term. He chose to contact me privately, so I won’t name him or quote him directly, but the gist of his point was that the NDP lost big in ridings where population is on the upswing (mainly in the GTHA) and won big in ridings where population is sure to decline (rust belt, Northern Ontario, etc). So, while they might feel good about their progress today, and while Horwath might have fewer people standing in the way of her transformation of the party, she’ll be the leader of a shrinking pool in 4, 8, 12 years and beyond.

Since I didn’t have data on hand to further my argument, I set out to find some.

I collected all the results for all 107 ridings for the Liberals (LIB), Progressive Conservatives (PC), New Democrats (NDP) and the Green Party (GRN) in the 2011 and 2014 elections, made a big spreadsheet and started looking at increases and decreases in vote count. In terms of raw numbers for the entire province, it looks like this:

Figure 1: Total votes cast for each party in 2011 (Top) and 2014 (Bottom) – (000)

Nothing too exciting here. Everyone went up in total votes cast, except the PC’s.

But this doesn’t tell us very much. We know that total votes cast province-wide isn’t terribly illustrative in a First Past the Post system and this simple chart can’t tell us how the parties did regionally or compared to changing demographics, nor does it reflect changes in voter turnout.

To figure that out, I turned to the Ontario Ministry of Finance’s data on provincial demographic trends and predictions. Specifically, I focused on this map:

Figure 2: Ontario demographic trends

In the above map we see areas where growth is likely, both in the intermediate and long term. Unsurprisingly, much of the province’s growth is centred around its major cities: Toronto, Hamilton, London, Kitchener and Ottawa. Major areas of decline can be found in the post-industrial Southwest, the Niagara region and areas of the North.

The growth map in Figure 2 is segmented by census divisions, which are different from Provincial ridings, so I had to do an overlay to determine which ridings fell into which growth zones. The result looked like this:

Figure 3: Census divisions vs. Provincial ridings

In ridings which cover 2 census divisions I decided to go with the lower growth category. As such, you can call the data slightly pessimistic, but only slightly because there wasn’t a scenario anywhere in the map where a riding contained an area of maximum growth and certain decline. In all cases, the difference was only one degree of growth or decline, plus or minus. You can see the colour scheme in the top of the picture; I didn’t bother colouring all of the GTHA in yellow (for maximum growth), because the GTHA is obviously the area of maximum growth in Ontario.

To be clear, there are 4 growth categories in this data:

  1. Negative in 2012-2013 and 2035-2036 (Pink)
    1. There are 18 pink zones
  2. Positive in 2012-2013, negative by 2025-2026 (Orange)
    1. There are 5 orange zones
  3. Positive in 2012-2013, negative by 2035-2036 (Blue)
    1. There are 12 blue zones
  4. Positive throughout 2012-2036 (Yellow)
    1. There are 72 yellow zones

Yellow is the best, pink is the worst. Orange is good only in the short-term, Blue is only good in the short and intermediate term.

Pink Zone

In the pink zones—areas most likely to see population decline—the parties fared thusly:

Figure 4: Percentage of vote change from 2011 to 2014 in “pink zones”

Based on these results, my anonymous journalist friend seems to have been correct. The NDP increased their vote share in declining ridings by 3.35%. The Liberals dipped in those areas, the PC’s got clobbered and the Greens got a bump. This also supports the contention that NDP increases came from disgruntled PC voters, rather than soft Liberals. Interestingly, this may also be true for the Greens.

In pink zones, the NDP increased their vote share in 14/18 ridings, and lost vote share in the remaining 4 ridings; PC’s lost vote share in 16/18 ridings and saw increases in 2; Liberals had increases in 10/18 ridings, but more significant loses in the remaining 8, and the Greens were up across the zone, 18/18.

Orange Zone

The smallest cohort are the orange zones. In those regions, where growth is only expected in the short-term, the results are pretty different for everyone but the PC’s.

Figure 5: Percentage of vote change from 2011 to 2014 in “orange zones”

3 of 5 orange zones are in the North, with two of those being Thunder Bay ridings (the others split between Central and Southern Ontario), so these results are very regional. The PC’s get hammered again, seeing a 7.97% dip in vote share from 2011; the Liberals see a bump, the NDP take a push, and the Greens get a tiny increase.

Blue Zone

Moving back into a larger, and better distributed category, the results in the blue zones—which expect population growth in the intermediate term, but should see declines in the long term—look like this:

Figure 6: Percentage of vote change from 2011 to 2014 in “blue zones”

Here, the NDP did well. They increased their vote share by 6.98% based on improved results in 9/12 ridings. The PC’s take their biggest lashing, while the Liberals and Greens trade off minor changes. The blue zone again reinforces the idea that the NDP’s gains came from PC losses.

While making only a small real gain in blue zones, the Greens did increase their vote share in all but 1 of 12 ridings.

Yellow Zone

Now for the main event. How did the parties do in the yellow zones, the big growth ridings, which includes all of the GTHA, Ottawa region, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and a big chunk (geographically-speaking) of the North?

Figure 7: Percentage of vote change from 2011 to 2014 in “yellow zones”

In areas of maximum projected population growth, the overall change in vote percentage is smaller than you might expect. Yes, the PC’s took a hit, but only 3.04%. And yes, the NDP share also dipped, but by a mere 0.15%, which is essentially a push. Liberals and Greens got a boost, but neither improvement breaks +2% from 2011 to 2014. Changes for the Liberals, NDP and Greens are so small, they could be eaten up by the increase in Ontario’s population from 2011 to 2014 (5.33%) or the increase in voter turnout.

A bit anti-climactic, but don’t despair. We need only dig in to find the meat.

The NDP was down in vote share from 2011 to 2014 in 43/72 yellow ridings, their biggest single loss (11.35%) coming in Trinity-Spadina. They also suffered large drops in Hamilton Centre (9.28% – Won), Toronto Centre (9.40% – Lost to Liberals), Toronto-Danforth (9.45% – Won) and Ottawa Centre (8.67% – Lost to Liberals). In 15 of the ridings in which the NDP lost vote share, they lost more than 5% from 2011. But it’s not all bad news.

The NDP also saw the biggest single riding gains of any party in the yellow zones, posting big increases in Brampton-Springdale (16.65% – Lost to Liberals by 3367 votes), Oshawa (10.51% – Won), Kitchener-Waterloo (19.85% – Won) and London West (18.65% – Won). In 11 of the ridings in which the NDP increased vote share, they increased it by more than 5% over 2011.

The biggest regional gains in yellow zones came in the Southwest, specifically the 5 ridings in and around London, while their most significant regional losses (outside the GTHA) came in Eastern Ontario, where the party was down in 6/7 ridings.

In the GTHA specifically the NDP is down 1.47% overall and lost vote share in 30/45 ridings, 12 of which by 5% or more. By comparison, the Liberals increased their overall vote share in the GTHA by 1.39%. Perhaps ridiculing soft NDP voters wasn’t the winning strategy NDP staffers hoped it would be.

We could go on forever. What, if any conclusions can we draw from this?

First, the NDP has a real problem in the GTHA. Barring a zombie attack which kills 1/3 of all Torontonians while sparing Hamilton completely, the NDP will need to do something to win back voters in Ontario’s fastest growing region. In the short term, should the NDP choose to maintain its present course it has some hope of increasing vote shares and seats in the blue, orange and pink zones, presenting the party with its best shot (long as it may be) at winning government in 2018, after which demographics start working against them.

Remember that the NDP lost vote share in 43/72 growth ridings. Some of those losses might be made up in the blue zones—where growth is expected into the 2020’s—but continued erosion in the GTHA will inevitably negate gains in the rest of Ontario. Add in the prospect of redistricting, where the GTHA is sure to see an increase in ridings and Southern, Central and Northern Ontario are unlikely to be redrawn, and the skies become darker.

If we look back, past 2011, examining overall vote share, we see an NDP which made small gains under a new leader in 2011, found momentum in subsequent by-elections and then squandered that energy in 2014. Their low seat count relative to their share of the popular vote is, of course, a result of our antiquated First Past the Post voting system, but with a declining vote share in key areas, even electoral reform can’t necessarily help the NDP.

So, my anonymous journalist friend was mostly right: the NDP does have a problem with its share of the vote in many growth ridings. And while the NDP is down, but certainly not out in the entire yellow zone, their inability to connect with people in the GTHA will probably preclude the party from forming government.

But if opposition is the goal, the party’s prospects are better and my shadowy scribe is mostly wrong in downplaying the short to intermediate term value of Southern and Central ridings. Sure, in 20 years all of the orange, blue and pink ridings will have diminished populations, but a lot of elections can happen between now and 2036, or even 2026. Add in the prospect of a return to minority governments and the NDP might luck into power. I’m not sure I would take that action, but it’s possible.

Maybe the NDP really wants to be the Official Opposition, having seen how well it’s working out for Tom Mulcair and prospects of the federal NDP? (Um…) The Ontario NDP is stealing votes from the PC’s across the province, which may be alienating its base, but is creating a believable and seemingly achievable trajectory to opposition. Of course, that assumes the PC’s do nothing for the next 4 years, or worse, do more of the same; though neither of those scenarios seems very likely.

I imagine it’s difficult to get volunteers excited about running for second place, and even harder when you’re stuck running for 3rd. If the NDP can’t find a way to turn the tide in the GTHA, it’ll be a long time before they’re doing anything else.


Ontario Ministry of Finance Population Projections:

Elections Ontario 2014 results:

Elections Ontario 2011 results: 

My spreadsheet:

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