The British play Blue/Orange features a psychiatric patient who confounds his attending physician by insisting that he sees blue oranges.
A hallucination? In political terms, it can be hard to see why someone would narrow his or her choice in the voting booth to either blue Tories or orange New Democrats, given the perceived ideological alignment of the three main parties – NDP on the left, Liberals in the centre, Tories on the right.
While the Liberals have risen in some recent polls, the blue/orange phenomenon persists (and it may help explain some recent Tory weakness). Here are four reasons why:
Desire for change: After eight years in office, most voters' impressions of Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberals are settled – or more settled than with the other two parties, who each offer new leaders.
Incumbent parties (except those in absolute free-fall, as with the outgoing NDP governments in Ontario in 1995 and B.C. in 2001) have a natural floor and ceiling in their vote count. The Tories and NDP are the parties fighting over the "change" vote.
Compatibility of platforms: Despite their claims to have lightened the load for "working families" – with policies such as free immunizations and income tax cuts – the Liberals have relatively little credibility on pocketbook issues. Those feeling the pinch are more likely to respond to the appeals of the opposition parties.
The Tories forswear it (and Tory leader Tim Hudak will spend lots of time in the next 24 hours telling voters of the dangers of an NDP-backed Liberal minority), but a natural minority scenario, if unsustainable in the long-term, would feature the Tories and NDP working together to cut the HST on hydro and home heating – a prominent commitment in both platforms.
Historic similarities: Despite their modern strength in the cities, the Liberals' roots as a provincial party are in the province's agricultural southwest. They were the party of rugged individualism, while the Tories and the NDP put forward a more collectivist vision.
In the 42 years of post-War rule, the Tories built up most of the welfare state that Ontarians experience today, from fully-funded public schools and a large post-secondary education system to universal health coverage. That impression may remain with older voters – if it doesn't (and if Mr. Hudak alienates them with too individualistic a vision), they may be tempted to skip over to the NDP, whose collectivist credentials and focus on seniors issues has been similarly strong.
Region-specific trends: A generation ago, several ridings in the City of Toronto featured competitive Tory/NDP races, with a blue-voting Protestant old guard competing with more recent immigrants from Europe who leaned orange.
The Tories vacated that territory in the last decade, but new battlegrounds have popped up – first in union towns such as Oshawa and Cambridge where increasingly well-heeled auto workers started flipping from orange to blue (and may flip back), and now ridings in Northern Ontario, where frustration over the Liberal job creation record could have the Liberals running third in some ridings.
These similarities between the Tories and the NDP won't explain the whole election. But on the margins, with seniors, lower-income Ontarians, voters driven by their anger with Dalton McGuinty, and in a few tight races, they could explain a great deal.