If Premier Stephen McNeil was still thinking about sending Nova Scotians to the polls this fall, Tuesday's results in the Halifax Needham byelection should give him pause.
On the face of it, the New Democrats' win in a riding they have held since 1998 might come as no surprise. After all, Halifax Needham is a riding that elected Maureen MacDonald six times. In four of those occasions, MacDonald won with a majority of ballots cast.
But it was a close contest in 2013. In that election, MacDonald took 44 per cent of the vote. The Liberals' Chris Poole came up 277 votes short with 40.4 per cent.
Liberals had a good chance of winning
Simple math suggested that the Liberals should have had a very good chance of winning the riding. They pulled off a few upsets in supposed NDP fortresses in Halifax during the last election three years ago.
The Liberals also currently have a wide lead ahead of the province's other parties, according to the most recent polls — McNeil's party is 44 points ahead of the second-place PC party. Back when the Liberals narrowly lost Halifax Needham in 2013, they won 46 per cent of the vote across Nova Scotia.
So that riding should be one the Liberals would comfortably win when the party stands at about 62 per cent support in the polls today.
Liberal share of vote shrank
No polls were published for the byelection campaign in Halifax Needham. But applying that kind of province-wide swing to the riding would have given it to the Liberals by about 20 points.
Turnout was just 32.5 per cent, but the Liberals lost almost twice as many individual votes as the New Democrats did
Instead, Lisa Roberts of the NDP took 51 per cent of the vote, beating out the Liberals' Rod Wilson, who took 33.6 per cent. The Progressive Conservatives' Andy Arsenault captured 12.1 per cent, while Thomas Trappenberg of the Greens took 3.3 per cent.
Compared to 2013, the NDP's share of the vote increased by seven points. The Liberal share dropped by 6.8 points.
Turnout was just 32.5 per cent, but the Liberals lost almost twice as many individual votes as the New Democrats did: 1,453 to 873.
Good news for the NDP
Roberts' share of the vote doesn't compare to what MacDonald managed in 2006 and 2009, when she received more than 60 per cent support. But Roberts' performance was on par with where the NDP stood in Halifax Needham in 2003.
Relatively speaking, that's good news for the New Democrats. In 2003, the party captured 31 per cent of the vote provincewide and formed the Official Opposition. Those are far better prospects than what the polls are suggesting if a snap election was called today.
But the numbers do not suggest the PCs and Greens are poised to do any better than they did in 2013.
What it means for the next election
Though byelection results should be treated with caution — particularly when turnout is so low — the results do suggest that the Liberals can't take a landslide victory for granted in the next general election. Halifax Needham indicates pockets of support for the opposition still exist, and there are enough voters in these pockets to elect opposition MLAs.
With such a wide lead in the polls, a Liberal sweep in the next election is not out of the question. But the New Democrats over-achieved in Halifax Needham and the Liberals came up well short of where they should have been. So Stephen McNeil would be wise to dampen any thoughts of an early election call.
The Liberals don't need a riding like Halifax Needham to secure another majority government. They do, however, need to have confidence that their strong numbers in the opinion polls will turn into real votes at the ballot box.