Rest of Canada, not Quebec, the key to NDP putting 2015 behind it

As polls suggest support for the NDP has dropped since its showing in the Oct. 19 election, its performance outside of Quebec reveals a long-standing issue for the party.

New Democrats find themselves at their lowest standing in the polls in more than a decade

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has to reconnect with the party's own base outside of Quebec before the NDP can hope to challenge for government again. (Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz)

After a year that held so much promise until an election campaign collapse, New Democrats may be hoping the new year brings better fortunes.

The numbers suggest a need to appeal to the rest of Canada, more than expanding its beachhead in Quebec, if the party is to put its annus horribilis behind it.

Swept aside in Justin Trudeau's post-election honeymoon, the NDP is smarting in the polls. Surveys conducted since the election peg the party to have between 12 and 16 per cent support. That puts the NDP back about a decade. Jack Layton's worst electoral performance was 15.7 per cent of the vote — in 2004.

And after leading both Trudeau and Stephen Harper, who held the job at the time, Tom Mulcair is now the choice as the best person to be prime minister of just 12 to 13 per cent of Canadians, the lowest the NDP leader has scored in Nanos Research's leadership polling since taking over the party in early 2012.

Support for the New Democrats has fallen in every part of the country, including Quebec. The polls put the New Democrats at between 11 and 19 per cent in that province, and only in British Columbia has any poll put the NDP above 20 per cent support. Some polls have even put the party in single digits in some parts of the country.

Of course, the NDP has a lot of time to turn things around. But it is not a given, as the party suffered greatly when Jean Chrétien's Liberals cornered the centre and centre-left vote for a decade. The weakness of the NDP at the time had arguably as much to do with the Liberals' success as did the split to the right of the party.

Quebec is not enough 

After the 2011 federal election, the New Democrats had identified Quebec as the most important building block in a future NDP government. Mulcair's leadership victory in 2012 was largely driven by the promise that the former Quebec environment minister could deliver the province for the NDP.

The New Democrats did not do as well as they had hoped in Quebec, but nevertheless Mulcair did give the NDP its second-best performance with 25 per cent of the vote and 16 seats — a respectable result for a party that, before 2011, had never won more than a single seat in the province.

But if Mulcair did manage to retain over half of the NDP's support in Quebec, he failed to hold on to the NDP's pre-2011 support in the rest of the country. In fact, on election night in October the NDP took less of the vote outside of Quebec than it ever did under Jack Layton.

Vote shares and seat wins for the major parties outside of Quebec since 1997.

The NDP captured 17.9 per cent of the vote outside of Quebec in this year's election, its lowest result since 2000 when Alexa McDonough took 11 per cent of the vote. Before his breakthrough into Quebec in 2011, Layton had still managed to take between 19.4 and 20.8 per cent of the vote in the rest of Canada. He also won more seats outside of Quebec than Mulcair did in every election except his first — and this in a smaller House of Commons.

But Layton, too, struggled to make significant gains in English Canada. Even his stellar performance in 2011 netted him, proportionately speaking, fewer seats outside of Quebec than Ed Broadbent did in the 1988 election. Only 44 of his 103 seats in that election were won outside of Quebec, the smallest number of non-Quebec seats won by the Official Opposition since 1993, when the Bloc Québécois fulfilled that role.

The New Democrats under Mulcair did make fleeting inroads outside of Quebec during the peak periods of his leadership in mid-2012 and in the first third of the long election campaign. His party had enough support in these parts of the country to form a government. But as in the past, when the New Democrats were leading in opinion polls under Broadbent, the party failed to turn that support into votes and seats.

That the NDP dropped in Quebec in the 2015 federal election only contributed to the party's long-standing inability to win significant support in English Canada.

But after two elections — and a moribund Bloc Québécois, from which the NDP garnered most of its new support in the province in 2011 — it might be argued the New Democrats have laid some roots in Quebec that may endure for some time. However, until the New Democrats move beyond their traditional base in the rest of the country, as well as lure back those voters they lost to the Liberals during the campaign and since, they are unlikely to budge from the back corner of the House of Commons.

Quebec might be a big part of the NDP's future, but it alone will never be enough.


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.