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NDP leader Thomas Mulcair speaks a press conference at the National Press Theatre on Wednesday, Aug 27, 2014.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

New electoral boundaries in Saskatchewan will heighten the competition between the Conservatives and New Democrats in the next election. But can the NDP make the most of this opportunity for a Prairie breakthrough?

The Prairies, and in particular Saskatchewan, are the ancestral home of the New Democrats. Tommy Douglas, the party's first leader, was a long-time premier for the province. But the area has not returned many NDP MPs to Ottawa over the last few elections: four in 2004, three in 2006, four in 2008, and just two in 2011. All of them were from Manitoba.

The last time the NDP has won a seat in Saskatchewan was in 2000, when the party captured two. It was a far cry from the 10 seats the party won in the province in 1988. From 1979 to 1997, the party could be counted upon to win at least four of the 14 seats in the province, and usually between nine and 14 of the 28 seats in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Scoring 30 per cent or more of the popular vote in one or both provinces was routine, but that feat was not repeated between 2000 and 2008.

There was a bit of a comeback for the NDP in 2011, with 32 per cent of the vote in Saskatchewan and 26 per cent in Manitoba. But that still only gave the party just two seats.

With the new boundaries in Saskatchewan, however, that could change. The 'pie-shaped' ridings that combined urban and rural parts of the province have disappeared, and in their places are some urban ridings in the cities of Saskatoon and Regina. Two of these are ridings that, according to Elections Canada, the NDP would have been able to win in 2011. Can the party manage at least that next year?

The polls

After Thomas Mulcair took over the party, the New Democrats surged in national support. Throughout 2012, the NDP was averaging 34 per cent in the Prairies, putting them on track to match their records of the Ed Broadbent years. But with the arrival of Justin Trudeau at the helm of the Liberal Party, the NDP has suffered.

In polls conducted so far in 2014, the NDP has averaged just 23 per cent support in the Prairies, roughly where it stood in the doldrums of 1993. That has put them eight points behind the Liberals, who are putting up their best results since the days of Paul Martin, and well behind the Conservatives. They lead in the region with 40 per cent, though that is down 15 points from where they were on election night.

Polling done over the last three months has given the Conservatives anywhere between 33 and 45 per cent support, with that range dropping to between 33 and 41 per cent when the highest and lowest polls are discarded. That is a relatively tight band, whereas the Liberals have registered between 23 and 47 per cent (25 to 39 per cent when dropping the highest and lowest results).

The New Democrats have been between 18 and 33 per cent (or between 18 and 28 per cent).

The seats

With these high and low ranges, the New Democrats could find themselves with a historical worst or their best result in almost 30 years. Polling support would deliver between one and 10 seats in an election, with as many as seven of those coming from Saskatchewan. That would indeed be the kind of Prairie breakthrough that has seemed possible with the new boundaries.

But with the longer term trends, the New Democrats are only on track to win three seats in the region, with one of them being in Regina and the other in Saskatoon (in addition to one in Winnipeg). While it would deliver the urban Saskatchewan seats the party has long been coveting, it would be an increase of only one seat over the party's current standing in the wider region.

With the latest polls, the Conservatives could win between 13 and 20 seats, or 18 on current trends. The Liberals, meanwhile, could win between five and 11, or more likely seven. A breakthrough for them into Saskatchewan is not in the cards – all of the new gains would come in Manitoba.

Unless Mr. Mulcair can put a dent in Mr. Trudeau's popularity – which is still relatively modest in the Prairies, at least compared to his polling support elsewhere – new conquests in the Prairies do not seem to be on the horizon. NDP MPs from Saskatchewan may make a return to Ottawa by the end of next year, but without any shift in public opinion they are unlikely to be part of a larger Prairie contingent.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.