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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair holds a news in Ottawa on June 21, 2012, before Parliament breaks for its summer recess. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair holds a news in Ottawa on June 21, 2012, before Parliament breaks for its summer recess. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

Newfoundland NDP surges to first place in polls in historic shift Add to ...

Could the Rock be undergoing a political realignment of historic proportions? A new poll suggests that could be the case, as the New Democrats have made major gains at both the federal and provincial levels in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The telephone survey by Environics Research Group released late last week, which polled 1,000 residents of the province between June 19 and 29, indicates that the NDP is the voters’ party of choice -- particularly in and around St. John’s, the provincial capital.

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Federally, the New Democrats under Thomas Mulcair have picked up 16 points since the May 2011 election to lead with 49 per cent, well ahead of the Liberals. They have slipped four points to 34 per cent support, while the Conservatives are down 11 points to only 17 per cent in the province.

While the drop in support for the Tories puts the party in range of their low mark of 16.5 per cent from the 2008 federal election, when the Conservatives were hampered by then-Premier Danny Williams’ campaign against them, the New Democrats are well above their best-ever result of 34 per cent from that same year.

The NDP is absolutely dominant in the St. John’s area, where they have 65 per cent support (up five points since the election). They are trailed at length by the Liberals with 20 per cent (a gain of three points) and the Tories with 15 per cent, a decrease in support of seven points.

Outside of the northeastern part of the Avalon Peninsula, the race is far closer: the Liberals have 41 per cent to the NDP’s 40 per cent. This represents a remarkable shift outside of the capital, as the New Democrats have gained 24 points.

But with their popular incumbents, the Liberals would likely still be able to hold on to three of the four seats they currently have in the province, with a riding like Avalon or Random – Burin – St. George’s most likely to swing over to the NDP. The lone Conservative seat in the province – Labrador – would be very difficult for the Tories to hold at these levels of support.

Though the New Democrats have a history of being able to pull in about one-third of the vote in Newfoundland and Labrador at the federal level, the situation is far different provincially. There voters tend to swing back and forth between the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties, both being the only ones to have formed government and never with less than 45 per cent of the vote. In fact, in a comfortable majority of the province’s elections the winning party received a majority of ballots cast. Only once was anything other than an outright majority given to a single party in the legislature, and in that case in 1971 the result was a hung parliament.

But with the surge in support for the New Democrats in the province, Newfoundland and Labrador would likely be faced with its first truly minority government if an election were held today.

The Environics survey gives Lorraine Michael’s NDP a three point edge over the governing Progressive Conservatives, with 38 per cent to 35 per cent support. That represents a 13-point gain for the NDP since the Oct. 2011 election and a 21-point loss for the Tories. The Liberals, at 26 per cent, are up seven points.

Only twice has the provincial NDP ever hit double-digits in popular support in a general election. The party took a little more than 14 per cent of the vote in 1985 and just under 25 per cent last year. Never before have the New Democrats led in a public opinion poll in the province’s history.

These results are different from a survey conducted from May 10 to June 4 by Corporate Research Associates, a Halifax-based polling firm. That poll found the Tories holding a 16-point edge over the NDP, but CRA’s numbers did suggest a narrowing gap between the two parties and a steep decline in satisfaction with Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s government.

According to Environics, the NDP lead is built mostly in and around St. John’s, where the party is up 10 points to 49 per cent support. The Tories are down 24 points to 31 per cent, while the Liberals are up 13 points to 19 per cent support. Outside of the city, voters are split: 38 per cent are behind the PCs (down 19 points since the election), 32 per cent opt for the NDP (a gain of 15 points), and 30 per cent support the Liberals (up four points).

With these regional numbers, the Tories would likely be able to squeak out a plurality of seats with 20, 17 of them being won on the island but outside St. John’s. The New Democrats would likely win 18 seats, the majority of them in the capital, with the Liberals claiming another 10 – all but one of them west of Avalon.

Newfoundland and Labrador was never on the top of the Conservative list for potential gains in the 2015 federal election, but their provincial counterparts should be thankful that voters will not be headed to the polls for another three years. Though the Premier has plenty of time to turn things around, if Newfoundland and Labrador is truly turning away from the traditional governing parties she may not be able to turn back the forces of history.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com

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