Some numbers to consider

June 24, 2010 10:44 AM

Elections are about people, but they're also about numbers. That's why the premier's claim on the weekend that New Brunswick voters "rejected" the Bernard Lord government in 2006 caught our attention.

The popular vote four years ago was remarkably close: in fact, the PCs were slightly ahead, with 47.5 per cent. The Liberals were behind, with 47.1. That was enough to win in our British first-past-the-post system because those Liberal votes were in the right ridings, allowing the party to eke out enough wins to claim 29 seats. The less-efficient PC vote gave them 26 seats.

Some Tories grumbled for months (one might suggest support for proportional representation had never been as high in the PC party as it was the day after the election) but the Liberal win was legit: the party took power fair and square. But the outcome can't fairly be called a popular rejection of the PC Party.

There are other implications in that close popular vote from 2006: it was unusually high for both parties. (In 2003, the PCs had 45.4 per cent of the vote and the Liberals 44.4 per cent, with almost identical seat totals.) The Liberal-PC combined vote was 94.6 per cent. The difference was the NDP, which received 9.7 per cent of the vote in 2003 but dropped to 5.1 per cent in 2006.

That's why this year's election will likely see both parties lose popular vote, which means the winner will be the one that bleeds less support. With the NDP presumably rebounding from a rock-bottom result in 2006 and both the Greens and the People's Alliance added to the mix, the Liberals and the PCs won't be able to hold that combined 94.6 per cent. The goal, if you're a Grit or Tory strategist, is to make sure the other side drops more than you do.

Former premier Bernard Lord and other Tories, when they were looking for reasons for optimism before the NB Power fiasco, often noted a pattern going back decades: an incumbent party sees its popular vote drop when it's seeking its second mandate. It happened to Louis Robichaud, Richard Hatfield, Frank McKenna and Lord himself. And given the tight popular vote in 2006, the Graham Liberals couldn't afford to lose popular vote without losing power.

But that's where the five-party race comes into play. What Tory proponents of this pattern theory forget is that in 1991, when the McKenna Liberals went down in the popular vote compared to 1987, the Tories did too. That was one of the reasons McKenna was able to easily win again. The other was the presence of an upstart protest party, the Confederation of Regions Party - a scenario that repeats itself this year.

Who will lose more votes on Sept. 27, and where those votes go, will decide the election.

- Jacques Poitras

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