Politics·Analysis

NDP, PCs looking to northern Ontario for seat gains

The New Democrats need to pick up seats in northern Ontario, but their gains in support have been modest there compared to the rest of the province.

The New Democrats have won the region in two consecutive elections. Will they make it three?

From left: PC Leader Doug Ford, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath squared off in a debate about northern Ontario issues earlier in the campaign. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

For two elections in a row, the provincial New Democrats have won the most seats and the most support in northern Ontario. They could do so again in next week's provincial vote — and the region could even play a small but important role in the formation of an NDP government.

That's assuming, of course, that the NDP can stop Doug Ford from pulling some of those seats into the Progressive Conservative column.

In the 2014 provincial election, the New Democrats won six of northern Ontario's 11 seats and 39 per cent of the vote in the region — an improvement over the party's 38 per cent in 2011 and 34 per cent in 2007. The Liberals placed not too far behind at 34 per cent, while the PCs took just 21 per cent in the region and the Greens took five per cent.

Following that vote, two byelections saw the Liberals win Sudbury away from the New Democrats and Sault Ste. Marie swing to the PCs from the Liberals.

The map has changed also, with two new ridings being added to the far north of the region. In 2014, the New Democrats won the most votes in the territory occupied by these newly created seats.

But the June 7 election could see some changes.

As of the May 28 update of the CBC Poll Tracker — an aggregation of all publicly available polling data — the NDP is narrowly ahead in the region with 37 per cent of the vote, followed by the PCs at 35 per cent. The Liberals follow well back with just 19 per cent and the Greens with seven per cent.

(The Poll Tracker is updated with new data whenever they're made available — see the latest numbers here.)

About two per cent of northern Ontarians say they will vote for a party other than the four main ones. Both the Libertarians and the Northern Ontario Party are running candidates in most ridings in the north.

The sample sizes in northern Ontario are quite small, making it difficult to pinpoint exactly where voting intentions sit in the region. But the polls have been broadly consistent. Surveys conducted in the last week have put the NDP between 35 and 45 per cent support in the region, with the PCs between 29 and 39 per cent and the Liberals between 14 and 27 per cent.

That suggests the NDP is likely to finish first in the region and the Liberals third, while the PCs have a small chance of pulling in more support than the New Democrats.

NDP prospecting for gains in the north

In the aggregate, the NDP's vote in northern Ontario has remained relatively stable since 2014 — putting the region out of step with the rest of the province, where the party has made significant gains recently. The numbers also point to a roughly 29-point swing between the PCs and the Liberals in the region, with the PCs picking up 14 percentage points and the Liberals dropping 15.

That swing puts in play the northern ridings the Liberals hold now. Starting from such a low base of support, the PCs' potential for gains is relatively limited — except perhaps in Kenora–Rainy River, where former Conservative MP Greg Rickford has a chance to pull the seat away from the New Democrats (Sarah Campbell, the incumbent NDP MPP in the riding, is not running for re-election).

But while the New Democrats could lose that seat, the drop in Liberal support could put ridings like Sudbury (where former NDP MP Glenn Thibeault took the seat for the Liberals in a controversial byelection), Thunder Bay–Atikokan and Thunder Bay–Superior North in the NDP's grasp.

All three seats were occupied by Liberal cabinet ministers at dissolution: Thibeault, Bill Mauro in Thunder Bay–Atikokan and Michael Gravelle in Thunder Bay–Superior North.

The region could see some surprises, though. The Poll Tracker's seat projection model suggests that Thunder Bay–Atikokan could turn out to be a three-way race, with the Liberals and New Democrats in a close fight in Sudbury and Thunder Bay–Superior North and the PCs and NDP battling it out in Kenora–Rainy River and Timmins.

All of which means the New Democrats could win between six and 10 seats in northern Ontario, the PCs between three and six and the Liberals between zero and three.

Valuable seats

For the NDP, winning those three extra seats could turn out to be very important, as the party is unlikely to have a high vote efficiency in southern Ontario; the PCs could win many more southern seats than the NDP with only slightly more of the popular vote.

Conversely, preventing the NDP from picking up a few extra seats in a traditionally strong region for the party would be good news for Ford's PCs.

And the Liberals need to hold every seat they can to avoid a catastrophic result: Sudbury and the two Thunder Bay seats are going to be high on that must-save list.

The 13 ridings in northern Ontario might not prove to be decisive to the outcome of the June 7 vote. But in what could prove to be a close election — and a potentially disastrous one for the Liberals — every seat will count.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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