During every campaign for the past couple of decades, the "905 belt" that surrounds Toronto has been billed as the country's most important battleground – a magical land so bursting with swing seats that conquering it is a party's biggest imperative.
Now, Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats are trying to prove it's possible to win power while barely even competing there.
It's a dynamic seemingly at odds with long-term electoral success, especially since immigration-fuelled population growth has caused five additional federal seats to be added to the suburban sprawl, giving it about 30 in total. And it might also help explain why, despite the NDP's current strength in the polls, the governing Conservatives still focus much of their attention on the third-place Liberals, since Justin Trudeau's party appears to pose more of a threat in the region.
In recent conversations, New Democrats nevertheless outlined a path to victory that draws almost entirely from elsewhere.
By the estimate of one of Mr. Mulcair's campaign officials, to have a good chance of forming government, the NDP likely needs to net about 40 new seats. By this account, that would likely mean more or less holding what it has in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, while piecing together major gains in British Columbia and other parts of Ontario, along with smaller ones in urban Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Another senior member of Mr. Mulcair's campaign team said the party believes it has a good shot in at least 40 ridings in Ontario, where it now holds 19 seats. The NDP is particularly optimistic about the province's economically hard-hit southwest, where the vast majority of federal seats are currently Conservative-held, but the provincial New Democrats have recently had electoral success. It also believes a few in downtown Toronto and several more in Northern Ontario are within its reach. (A new Nanos poll suggests that the NDP is running substantially behind the Tories provincewide, although it is difficult to know how that breaks down regionally.)
As for the 905, those and other NDP sources suggested their party will target Brampton and Oshawa, where their provincial cousins hold their lone pair of seats (and which respectively have potentially supportive Indo-Canadian communities and strong organized-labour roots). But they conceded their hopes are faint through most of the rest of the belt – places such as Whitby, Ajax, Markham, Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Oakville. By all appearances, the NDP would be very happy to win a couple of the 905's seats, and thrilled with any more than that.
The available information suggests this is not just a matter of managing expectations. Unlike in places where it has higher hopes, the NDP has recruited few candidates with local profile, and in many of the region's ridings its ground organization is minimal at best. The provincial NDP was a complete non-entity in all but a couple of pockets there in last year's Ontario election, and even when the Liberal vote collapsed in the 2011 federal election, the NDP finished third in the vast majority of the 905's ridings.
It is not unprecedented for parties to win national elections without doing particularly well in Toronto-area suburbia, even after the population boom of recent decades. Stephen Harper's Conservatives only had four or five seats there (depending whether one counts Burlington, which is nestled between Oakville and Hamilton) when they first formed minority government in 2006. But they had already loosened the grip the Liberals had on the region through the Jean Chrétien/Paul Martin era.
Continuing to pry it away was seen as essential to strengthening the Conservatives' grip on power, which is largely why Jason Kenney's work with immigrant communities would come to define his party's outreach efforts. The Tories more than doubled their 905 seat count in 2008, and then those efforts really paid off in 2011, when they powered their way to majority government by winning all but one seat there.
After all that, Mr. Harper's party clearly sees keeping the 905 as one of its most important fights this election, if not the most important. And that fight appears to be much more with the Liberals than the New Democrats. If you're wondering why the Tories have been slow to go hard on the attack against Mr. Mulcair, it helps to consider that over the past couple of years they've quietly been cheering for the NDP's suburban numbers to go up, to pull votes away from the Liberals.
Based on the way recent elections have gone, it's possible the New Democrats will catch a wave of support that causes them to win ridings they're barely thinking about at the moment. If not, perhaps the Tories have underestimated the ability of Mr. Mulcair's party to steal seats from them elsewhere.
Maybe, by the time the votes have been counted, the legend of the 905 will be diminished a little. For now, it remains strong enough that it can be tough to imagine a party winning without it.