Regional strengths (and weaknesses) key to electoral success in Campaign 2015

  • National Newswatch

When the writ was dropped, Canada's forty-second general election was already being regarded as distinct in several respects.  At 77 days long, the writ period is the longest in the modern era; this campaign will also mark the first genuine three-way race the country has ever seen, the first to feature so many one-off debates organized by different media outlets and the first exercise in democracy since the federal electoral redistribution of 2013 that saw 30 new seats added to the House of Commons.But this election is also unusual in another key respect: it will be the most regionally-based the country has experienced in over a generation.  Indeed, this campaign might more aptly be described as a set of regional elections; in each region, vastly different dynamics -- that are bound to influence the parties' electoral strategies and communications approaches -- are at play.Atlantic CanadaAtlantic Canada has typically marched to its own drummer come election time, often bucking (or ignoring) national trends.  In 2011 –  as the Tories formed a majority government – Atlantic Canadians sent only 13 Conservative MPs to Ottawa.The region is also the only part of the country where Justin Trudeau's Liberals are comfortably ahead. Since Trudeau assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party, Liberals have enjoyed a double digit lead across Atlantic Canada, even as Grit support wavered in the rest of Canada.Provincially, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both turfed one-term incumbent governments in the past two years, electing Liberal majority governments. These wins suggest the federal party will be able to rely on a robust party infrastructure in the region, drawing upon a strong pool of party volunteers, donors and party operatives.In Newfoundland, the one province that continues to be governed by Tories provincially – yet holds no Conservative seats in Ottawa – the dynamics do not play to the federal Conservatives' strengths.  Rookie Tory Premier Paul Davis has refused to endorse the federal Conservatives, arguing he is not impressed by the refusal of the Harper government to honour the $400 million fishery fund the province says Ottawa promised in 2013.QuebecQuebec has long been a political enigma. Not since 1988, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives won their second majority mandate, has the province elected a majority of government MPs.  In 2011, the orange wave that swept Quebec elected 59 NDP MPs, all but wiping out the Bloc Quebecois.  However, Gilles Duceppe's recent return as BQ leader is now complicating realities on the ground for the NDP campaign.Despite the NDP's broad Quebec support base, they are a victim of their own success.  Holding seats in every region, the party is waging a three-front war against the Liberals, Tories and Bloc.Though the NDP's Quebec caucus has widely been credited with representing their province effectively over the past four years, one political task they have not excelled at is raising money.  As a result, limited party resources will need to be spread thinly throughout the province – and more thinly than their rivals' resources, which will be targeted only to specific regions.Until recently, the Liberals were optimistic about their Quebec prospects. But Trudeau's party has been unable, so far, to credibly challenge Mulcair's lock on the province.  Realistically, the party is focusing its resources in the Anglophone-dominated Outaouais and Montreal regions in an attempt to wrestle urban, federalist seats from the NDP.With only five seats, the Tories have not written off Quebec.  Interestingly, Conservative operatives are targeting a 'blue arrow' of 15 seats they have pinned their hopes on.  In much of the province, anxieties persist about immigration levels, Islamic radicalism and a general fear that Quebec's distinct identity has become overshadowed by North American multiculturalism.But the Tories are well positioned to assuage these reservations by stressing their unwavering support for the ISIS mission, Bill C-51 and government legislation that would require niqab-wearing Islamic women to show their face when taking the oath of citizenship.If Harper's team can successfully take advantage of these wedge issues in rural Quebec, watch for them to double or even triple their paltry seat count in la belle province.OntarioWith 121 of the now 338 House of Commons seats, the longstanding political truism 'So goes Ontario. So goes the country' is as fitting as ever.  Indeed, with half of the 30 new House of Commons seats being Ontario-based, the province's influence over the outcome of the campaign has only been strengthened.Ontario's new seats fall in suburban regions where Conservatives enjoy fluid support.  A Nanos poll released earlier this week surprised many observers by suggesting the Tories now hold a significant lead in seat-rich Ontario at 37 per cent support, followed by 29 per cent for the Liberals and 26 per cent for the NDP.  But, such polling numbers should not be mystifying, particularly given the sheer amount of political capital the prime minister has invested in Ontario over his last two mandates.Liberals and New Democrats are well aware that -- regardless of how well their respective parties fare in other regions -- when the results trickle in on election night, the party that forms government will have earned the trust of suburban Ontario voters.Further complicating the campaign is an unprecedented battle that continues to brew between the prime minister and Premier Kathleen Wynne over the province's plans to introduce an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. Acting as a proxy for Justin Trudeau, Wynne is waging a frontal assault on the prime minister and gambling that Ontario voters will trust her message over that of the prime minister.It remains to be seen whether the premier's strategy is helping or hindering Trudeau, or whether it could inadvertently help Mulcair or backfire and add credence to the prime minister's message. With Wynne's personal popularity languishing, it's not inconceivable that her strategy could lead to unintended consequences unhelpful to her federal Liberal cousins.The PrairiesWestern Canada may remain the only region in the country that is largely uncompetitive in this campaign.  Outside specific ridings in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary, Conservatives maintain double digit leads throughout most of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.The Nanos poll released earlier this week puts the Tories at 56 per cent in the Prairies with the NDP and Liberals statistically tied in second place with 19 and 18 per cent support respectively. Unless these numbers change significantly over the coming weeks, expect the Liberals and NDP to be jostling for a narrow swath of urban seats in the Prairies with slim prospects outside major urban centres.There are several reasons why the opposition parties could have credibly expected Conservative fortunes to have waned over recent months.  A drop in oil prices this past spring put Alberta's economy in peril – a fact all parties have conceded.  And then there was the historic provincial election that saw Rachel Notley's NDP put an end to over 40 consecutive years of Conservative rule.  However, it seems that neither of these unexpected developments have put a major dent in Conservative support.It's worth recalling that just three months ago, some political observers were suggesting the NDP's timely breakthrough would lift federal NDP's prospects in Alberta.  But no such development has transpired and Premier Notley has been cautious not to align her party too closely with Thomas Mulcair.  But, as the partisan attacks intensify between the prime minister and Premier Notley, the Alberta race could yet become interesting.  The environmental risks posed by the province's oil sands have already become a campaign issue, with even the federal NDP attempting to sell itself as 'pro-industry.'In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the Tories are well positioned to hold a majority of seats. In Saskatchewan, the birthplace of the CCF, Harper's chief opponent will be the NDP who are anxious to regain a beachhead in the province, since losing their last seat there in 2004.  In Manitoba, the Liberals and NDP will wrestle over the lion's share of seats in Winnipeg while the Tories appear destined to dominate rural Manitoba.British ColumbiaLike in Quebec, the campaign in British Columbia promises to be fraught with several twists and turns. The strong presence of the Green Party in BC will further contribute to a divide on the centre-left of the political spectrum, potentially aiding Tory fortunes.But according to Nanos, the NDP hold a strong lead with 41 per cent support, followed by the Liberals at 29 per cent and the Tories at 26 per cent.  The Conservatives are especially vulnerable in BC's lower mainland and interior where the NDP are well placed to pick up several Tory seats.The Liberals are very competitive in Vancouver where they have pegged their hopes on several star candidates, including former Aboriginal regional chief and lawyer Jody Wilson-Raybould in the new riding of Vancouver Granville and businessman Jonathan Wilknison in nearby North Vancouver.Notably, Justin Trudeau has positioned himself as a leader especially attuned to BC's interests, citing his time spent teaching school in Vancouver.  He also buttressed this claim by formally launching his campaign in Vancouver, while Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair opted for the traditional Ottawa approach.On the issues, pipeline politics are ripe in British Columbia and have been for some time.  This has been fueled by the government's approval of the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway, sweeping pro-resource development changes at the National Energy Board and several changes to environmental laws in BC, including the Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. But it remains to be seen whether these contentious moves will hurt Prime Minister Harper's prospects in BC, as the population opposed to these projects are typically not Conservative voters to begin with. What is certain is that the PM's opponents are out to make environmental issues a key election theme in BC.Come voting day, the party that is awarded a mandate to govern will be the one that has most effectively built its campaign from a regional perspective.  In a country characterized by so many varying political cultures, the party that most shrewdly caters to regional nuances and adopts its messaging accordingly – while still reflecting a strong national vision – will be the one that ultimately emerges victorious on October 19.Andrew Perez is a freelance columnist covering politics and public policy. Andrew's work has appeared in the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, London Free Press, The Hill Times, iPolitics and the featured opinion section of National Newswatch.  Andrew has worked on Parliament Hill for government and opposition MPs through the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme, completed a fellowship on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and most recently worked in the Ontario Premier's Office. He has worked on numerous Ontario Liberal campaigns. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Toronto.