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Surprised by the NDP surge? Hey, so is the party itself

NDP Leader Jack Layton high-fives a young supporter in Kamloops, B.C. on Friday, April 29, 2011. The federal election will be held on May 2.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

The way Jack Layton will end his campaign - with a flight across country to Montreal, then a series of Sunday whistle stops through opponents' ridings in Ontario - is a symbol of how a gust of support has changed the playbook for his party.

The NDP's plan to capture "Layton Liberals" appears to have been executed successfully, as polls suggest the New Democrats have surpassed Michael Ignatieff's party and are threatening to take Liberal seats.

But the so-called orange surge did not originate with Liberal supporters who would help them win Grit and Tory seats that NDP officials were openly eyeing as potential conquests at the start of the campaign.

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It began with disaffected Bloc voters in Quebec who were looking for something new. It has carried over to places like Saskatchewan, and possibly, the B.C. Interior, where Liberals are a rare breed. And it appears to have bounced back east to Ontario, to come at Liberals and Tories anew.

The NDP began the campaign seeking to hold its 36 seats, and targeting about the same number for gains - but the surging support now has them harbouring realistic hopes in a number of ridings not on that opening list.

The New Democrats are as surprised as the rest of Canada at the magnitude of their apparent success.

Much of it can be attributed to the Conservatives' demonization of Mr. Ignatieff through years of attack ads. But a deliberately centrist platform from a party that has its roots in socialism, and a message that was tailored three different ways to speak to three different regions of the country, have contributed much to Mr. Layton's rise.

The NDP Leader has told western Reformers that Stephen Harper has changed since he became Prime Minister five years ago. "We drew the connection between how he promised to clean up scandals, but he didn't - he just made scandals of his own," Brad Lavigne, the NDP campaign chairman, said Friday.

The Bloc voters were targeted with a message that said their values, their opposition to Canada's participation to the war in Afghanistan and their support of environmental measures, were not being reflected in government action. The NDP, which finished the 2008 election with one seat and less than 13 per cent of the vote in Quebec, had risen higher in recent months - and the party polled as the top second choice for the Bloc's francophone voters.

"It was a very respectful approach," said Mr. Lavigne. "We didn't focus on an anti-Bloc message, rather we said that the status quo was ineffective at getting what you want out of Ottawa."

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Polls now put the NDP far ahead in the province, and surveys done by CROP Research in several ridings show the New Democrats ahead in bastions where they never expected even to challenge, including those of Conservative incumbents in Quebec City. A shift in non-francophone voters followed the initial Quebec surge, giving the NDP new chances to win seats in Montreal and in its South Shore suburbs from both the Liberals and the Bloc.

As for those Layton Liberals, they were told that Ottawa is broken and the Liberal Party has been part of the problem. "We needed to unhinge traditional voters from Mr. Ignatieff," said Mr. Lavigne. "One of the commonalities between our base and those Liberals was that they didn't like Mr. Ignatieff and they did like Mr. Layton."

Personality has not been the only factor. The NDP also has a platform that was crafted from the centre. Ian Capstick, former NDP spokesman, said the first thing Mr. Layton did when he became leader eight years ago was abandon the party's previous opposition to NATO and NORAD and insist the NDP commit to balanced budgets.

"No one would take Jack Layton seriously if he were advocating perpetual deficit spending, and nobody would take him seriously if he actually thought that NORAD or NATO were irrelevant," said Mr. Capstick.

Despite the surge, in large swaths of the country between Vancouver and Toronto's outskirts, the NDP campaign has continued to look like the playbook the party wrote from the outset, if a little more optimistic - targeting an extra seat or two in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, not fighting for vast chunks of the Prairies.

This week, Mr. Layton has bopped through all those places, before hitting B.C. ridings Friday and heading to Vancouver, where the party hopes to pick up a parcel of seats, for a Saturday rally.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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