Jack Layton marked his eighth anniversary as Leader of the New Democratic Party this week. He has much to celebrate, having brought the party back to the glory days of Ed Broadbent and enjoyed a popularity rating that's outpaced that of the last two Liberal leaders. In 2008, the NDP made breakthroughs in Newfoundland, Alberta, and Quebec and was a prorogation away from forming part of a coalition government. But Mr. Layton's fourth campaign could be his toughest.
An analysis of the 308 ridings in Canada indicates the New Democrats will have to be on the defensive in the next election, as fully one-third of their current caucus of 36 MPs is at risk of being defeated.
This means the NDP will have to fall back on their strongest regions of support, where the party routinely pulls in about 40 per cent of the vote: the urban areas encompassing Windsor, Burnaby, Halifax, and Hamilton, and rural areas like Northern Ontario. These five parts of the country boast nearly half of all New Democratic MPs in the House of Commons.
The NDP is virtually guaranteed to win at least nine seats in the next election, the number of seats in which they beat out their closest rival by 25 points or more. These ridings elected such well-known or popular MPs as Jack Harris, Yvon Godin, Pat Martin, Libby Davies and Joe Comartin.
A further 15 ridings can be considered secure. These were all won in 2008 by margins of five points or more, but a few will nevertheless still feature hard-fought campaigns. Jim Maloway in Elmwood-Transcona, Jean Crowder in Nanaimo-Cowichan, and Fin Donnelly in New Westminster-Coquitlam, among others, could face long anxious nights when ballots are finally counted.
This gives the New Democrats a total of 24 seats in which they can be reasonably confident to win, but retaining only these two dozen ridings would mean the loss of another dozen.
The party's 12 vulnerable ridings can be found everywhere in the country, but half of them are in Ontario. Applying current polling trends indicates that two of these, Welland and Sudbury, would be lost to the Conservatives and Liberals, respectively. Vancouver Kingsway in British Columbia would also likely fall to the Grits. Sault Ste. Marie, Trinity-Spadina (Olivia Chow's riding), and the two ridings in Thunder Bay would also be at risk, with all but the first electing Liberal candidates.
Outside of Ontario, Megan Leslie's riding of Halifax is vulnerable due to the tanking NDP and soaring Liberal numbers in Atlantic Canada. Edmonton-Strathcona, one of the upsets on election night in 2008, will also be on the bubble, as will Dennis Bevington's riding of Western Arctic. With Bill Siksay not running for re-election in Burnaby-Douglas, won by the NDP by a margin of only 1.6 points, it too will be at play, as will Thomas Mulcair's Montreal riding of Outremont. The Liberals are putting former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon up against him, though listless polling numbers for the Grits in Quebec give Mr. Mulcair the inside edge.
If the New Democrats want to play a little offense in the next campaign, however, their options are limited. Only five ridings have a good chance of going orange, and four of them are in the West.
There are two seats in which the New Democrats could be considered favourites to oust Conservative incumbents: Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar and Surrey North in British Columbia.
The Saskatchewan riding has a New Democratic history - though their last victory there dates to a by-election in 1999 - and it has always been a close race. In 2008, Nettie Wiebe was only 262 votes behind Conservative Kelly Block, and the NDP candidate will be running again in the next election. Surrey North voted New Democratic as recently as 2006, and they came up only 3.2 points short in 2008. Jasbir Sandhu will be flying the orange banner in his bid to unseat Conservative MP Dona Cadman.
In the two other western ridings, Conservative MP John Duncan will duel with a new challenger, after former NDP MP Catherine Bell declined to run for the fourth time in Vancouver Island North, while the New Democrats will also want to overturn last fall's by-election result in Winnipeg North.
The last targeted riding is Gatineau, where former Liberal MP Françoise Boivin will be running for the second time as the NDP candidate. A close four-way race, Bloc MP Richard Nadeau will have a tough time holding on to his seat.
But if the New Democrats are to have an objective other than survival or the pick-up of a few seats, it would reasonably be to take over the third party status from the Bloc Québécois and put themselves in a strong position in a new minority parliament. About 50 seats would be necessary to reach this goal, but even if the NDP retains all of their seats and win the five targeted ridings, they would still be nine short.
There are 35 additional ridings in which the NDP have an outside chance of pulling off an upset, but it would require a real shift in voting intentions during the campaign. Of these, 12 are in Ontario and eight are in British Columbia, the two provinces in which much of the NDP's campaign fortunes will play out.
If Jack Layton wants to make any significant gains with the prospect of another minority government on the horizon, he will have the difficult task of convincing voters that he is the real alternative to Stephen Harper. On the other hand, given the NDP's standing in the polls, a defensive campaign focused on keeping 2008's gains and maintaining his party's influence in the House of Commons may be a more sensible strategy for the New Democratic Leader.
This is the third of a five-part series analyzing the electoral chances of each of the five federal parties. In the last two weeks, we looked at the Greens and the Bloc Québécois. Next week, we'll assess the Liberals.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com