Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Liberals' and NDP's Strategies of Mutual Destruction

Please note: the above graphic requires detail that isn't really visible when it's this small. Please click on it to make it larger.

Jack Layton is criticising Stephen Harper. Michael Ignatieff is criticising Stephen Harper. It's a strange country we live in where the main goal these two men have in attacking Stephen Harper is not to steal votes from Harper but to steal votes from each other.

But it's true. The sad fact is the the NDP sees its best chance for growth in siphoning from the Liberals, and the Liberals see their best chance for growth in siphoning from the NDP. Both parties seem to think that Harper's 35-or-so percent is more or less carved in stone, and as yet they haven't made much of an attempt to take votes from the two seemingly 'single-issue' parties.

As Harper himself seems eager to paint them as natural coalition partners dying for the chance to jump in to bed with each other, it may seem bizarre to see these two 'infighting' so much. It must seem, from the outside, counteractive as hell - and there are many who consider it the surest way to get Harper's Conservatives a majority.

Is it?

Well, what I've done here is looked at the results of the 2008 election. And then what I've done is determined what the composition of the house would look like if we shifted support only between these two parties. So that suggests a scenario where everyone who voted CPC, Green or BQ last time does again this time, and the only fluidity is between the Liberals and the NDP, in a completely consistent and predictable fashion across the country. For the sake of consistency, the graph I've generated looks only at increments of ten percentage points, even though a shift of merely 1% is enough to get seats changing colours. So when it says, for example, "LIB-10%", that imagines a scenario where one in ten Liberal supporters starts voting NDP - in each riding, one-tenth of the 2008 Liberal vote is shaved off the Liberal tally and added to the NDP tally. Obviously this is going to see Liberals lose seats and the NDP gain seats, but it can also effect the other parties too: a riding where the Liberals finished first, the Conservatives finished second and the NDP finished third is likely to turn Conservative sooner than turn NDP as in this scenario Liberal support bleeds to the NDP. To what extent is this a problem?

Well, the results are interesting. The centre column of the graph shows the Commons composition that actually resulted from the 2008 vote. When we start to move left from there, as Liberal support goes, ten percentage points by ten percentage points, to the NDP, we see that the Liberal seat count drops swiftly and the NDP seat count rises. Ten percent gone and the Liberals lose ten seats, another ten percent gone and they lose another seventeen seats. Yet where the Liberals have lost 27 seats, the NDP have picked up only ten. Where have the other seventeen seats gone?

Amazingly, to the Conservatives. With no other factors affecting voting preferences, the defection of one in five Liberals to the NDP gives the Conservatives a majority. That is to say that in my scenario the Conservatives get not a single voter more than they had in 2008, yet this movement on the 'opposition' side gives them their majority.

It continues from there - to a point. If the Liberals shed 30% of their vote to the NDP, then the NDP pick up eleven seats, passing both the Liberals (now down to a mere 33 seats) and the stable BQ to form the official opposition - but to a further strengthened Conservative majority. The NDP's success at the Liberals' expense in this scenario has handed the Conservatives a remarkable 22 seats, which is even more than the NDP themselves have been able to pick up. In these 22 ridings, the Liberal vote has dropped below the Conservatives, but the NDP vote hasn't risen enough to pass the Conservatives. Yet, I hasten to add, though while the model continues, past here I think it really stretches the boundary of 'possibility' into 'strictly theoretical'.

But let's carry on: an extra ten percent reduces the Liberals to an eight-party rump, and this time it's just the NDP who benefit: the Conservatives and the Bloc stay more or less the same, while the NDP seat count vaults from 58 to 83. When we reach the 50% mark, the point were one in two 2008 Liberals have left the party and are now voting NDP, the Liberals have disappeared from Commons altogether and the NDP have now hit the 100 mark. One hundred MPs and a turnaround where the Conservative numbers are now starting to drop again - but at this 50% point, even if the 100-person-strong NDP caucus unites with the essentially-unchanged 50-strong Bloc caucus, and even in the unlikely event that Bill Casey and André Arthur side with them, the opposition is still not enough to topple Harper. The Conservatives still have a majority.

As we preside over the final destruction of the Liberals here, as we watch 60%, 70%, 80%, 90% and finally every last Liberal vote cross over to the NDP, these numbers switch. At 60%, the Conservatives lose their majority. At 80%, the NDP passes the Conservatives and we finally see the spectacularly unlikely face of Prime Minister Layton (provided Harper doesn't form a coalition with Duceppe...). And at the terminus of 100%, we have the point at which the Liberals and NDP have entirely combined to form a new party - a different 'unite the left' scenario - we see the NDP/Liberal party with 152 seats to the Conservatives' 113 and the Bloc's 41, and Casey and Arthur still laughing. But still no majority.

Which raises and entirely different point: that for all the talk of a divided left, that neither the NDP nor the Liberals can sneak to a majority by reaching into each other's pockets. In more than half the ridings in Canada, the theoretical combined Liberal/NDP vote remains less than the actual vote given to the Conservatives or the Bloc - there is simply no way either the Liberals or the NDP can get a majority without stealing votes from the Conservatives or Bloc, and there's no way they can get a functioning coalition without working with either of them. Not based on 2008's numbers, anyway.

Excepting that I've completely ignored the Green vote here. The Green vote could serve as a spoiler in a number of ridings, I don't know. That might be another thing to look at on another day.

However, I've only looked at half of the above graph. As the current Liberal caucus is much larger than the current NDP one, obviously the game of dominoes I've set up tumbles more entertainingly when we watch the Liberal vote shift to the NDP vote. But looking in the other direction, we see a very different story indeed.

Superficially, much is the same: the NDP number drops quickly, to the point where it takes a 50% vote shift to kill of the NDP completely (meaning that if half of all 2008 NDP voters in every riding in the country cast their votes this time out for the Liberals, the NDP would not win a single seat). We have to go all the way to 70% to see the Liberals pass the Conservatives as the party with the largest number of seats - what Harper would like to call 'the winner' (it was 80% for the NDP, though the 70% number was pretty close). And of course the end point is the same - as it should be, since 100% NDP support going to the Liberals is much like 100% Liberal support going to the NDP. The Liberals are as unable to vault to a majority on NDP backs as the NDP are on Liberal backs.

Yet there is a huge difference between these two scenarios: bleeding support from the NDP to the Liberals never pushes the Conservatives into majority territory - in fact, it never results in anything greater than a single seat gain for the Tories. In fact, as an NDP-to-Liberal bleed starts peeling seats away from the Bloc much faster than the other way round (since the NDP were much less of an issue in Québec in 2008 than they're shaping up to be thins time round), NDP-to-Liberal transfer immediately improves the total combined Liberal/NDP seat count.

A million other factors muddy the issue to the extent that nothing here has any value outside of the strictly academic, I concede. Yet when viewed strictly on the basis of this information here, the outcome is tough to overlook: to the extent that 'vote splitting' between the Liberals and the NDP can be seen as a 'key to a Conservative victory', it's really only true whenever the NDP manage to take votes from the Liberals: the Liberals can fearless steal from the NDP as much as they want without risking a Conservative majority, while the NDP can make no such claim.

A surprising result, perhaps. But one with many repercussions for the campaigns over the next month.

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