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Éric Grenier headshot

Much has been made of the importance – and supposed fragility – of the gains made by the New Democrats in Quebec. But if the NDP wants to form government in 2015, there is another province that will be integral to their hopes: British Columbia.

Only in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador (and there by a 10th of a percentage point) did the New Democrats in the 2011 federal election capture a higher share of the vote than the 32.5 per cent taken by the party in British Columbia. The NDP won one-third of the 36 seats on offer in the province, a higher proportion than anywhere else in Canada, with the exception of Quebec.

But the gains made in British Columbia were not nearly as historic as those in Quebec. In the three prior elections under Jack Layton, the party captured between 26 and 29 per cent of the vote in B.C. Though that was an improvement over the 11 to 18 per cent captured in the three elections between 1993 and 2000, it was still lower than the historical performance of the New Democrats in the province. The NDP won more of the vote than any other party three times (in 1965, 1972, and 1988) and routinely registered in the low-to-mid 30s.

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British Columbia, then, has a history of supporting the New Democrats. But in 2011, Mr. Layton reconnected with these voters by putting up the party's best performance in the province since 1988, when under Ed Broadbent the NDP won 19 seats and 37 per cent of the vote in B.C.

For a time, it appeared that Thomas Mulcair might have been able to improve even upon those numbers. Shortly after his leadership victory, from April to August 2012, the New Democrats were polling at 39 to 40 per cent in British Columbia and were in first place in the province. For most of 2013, British Columbia ranked as the region of the country where NDP support was highest.

The current state of affairs

The party has taken a bit of a step backwards since then, however, though B.C. is still the best province for the NDP outside of Quebec. Since the beginning of 2014, the New Democrats have averaged 26 per cent support in British Columbia, putting them third in a close race. The Liberals narrowly lead with an average of 32 per cent in B.C. so far in 2014, while the Conservatives stand at 30 per cent. The Greens have averaged 11 per cent support in the province.

The race is close enough, and the samples in British Columbia small enough, that it cannot be definitively said that the NDP is truly in third in the province. The party has even led in five of the last 19 polls in B.C. Nevertheless, the NDP is not where it was only a year ago – let alone at its height of B.C. popularity in the 1980s.

British Columbians appear to have mixed views of Mr. Mulcair. According to a recent poll by Forum Research, his approval rating stands at 45 per cent with just 28 per cent disapproval on the west coast. But according to Abacus Data, and when given the option of being neutral about the NDP leader, his positive numbers drop to 25 per cent against 26 per cent who say they have a negative impression of him. One-half of British Columbians were either neutral or did not know what they thought of Mr. Mulcair. By comparison, only 25 and 35 per cent were neutral or undecided about Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, respectively.

On the question of who would make the best Prime Minister, Mr. Mulcair is at a severe disadvantage. Recent surveys by Forum and Angus Reid Global put Mr. Harper at between 28 and 29 per cent in B.C., with Mr. Trudeau at 21 per cent. Mr. Mulcair lagged in third with between 15 and 17 per cent support on this question.

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Because of the regionalized nature of the province (polls generally show NDP strength on Vancouver Island, a three-way race in the Vancouver metropolitan region, and a Conservative advantage in the Interior), the New Democrats can still have decent hopes for a strong result in B.C. in terms of seats. On current trends, the party would likely be able to capture 12 seats, equalling their current tally but in a province that will be increasing from 36 to 42 seats in 2015. If the New Democrats obtain the levels of support they have managed in some of their better recent polls, however, the party could take as many as 15 seats or more. With the kind of numbers put up during Mr. Mulcair's honeymoon in 2012, more than 20 seats were well within reach.

It makes British Columbia an important province for the New Democrats – proportionally speaking it is the second-most after Quebec, and it has the potential to be the site of a major breakthrough for the party. The Conservatives will be looking to retain what they have, while the Liberals will hope for a breakthrough of their own. Even the Greens will be eyeing a second seat in the province. The New Democrats will be under-siege from all sides, but have the history and the support to hold their own.

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

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