Edmonton lawyer Greg Wool is a gun owner who spent some of his formative high school years in the B.C. Interior and Lower Mainland. He travels to Fort McMurray, Alta., a few days a month and desperately wants to see the Senate reformed. On the surface, he sounds like a typical Conservative supporter, and at 42 years old, he has voted that way his whole life, describing himself as leaning more to the Reform side of the federal Conservatives. But come Oct. 19, Wool is looking seriously at casting a ballot for Tom Mulcair’s NDP.
“I don’t see it as much that I’ve changed so much as the NDP has moved a lot closer to the centre,” Wool told Maclean’s. And while it might seem odd to skip over the traditionally middle-ground Liberals, there are blocks of voters in Canada who do just that.
In urban centres, Canadians are more likely to swing from Liberal red to NDP orange, or from red to Conservative blue, and back again. But for some, particularly populists in the industrial and rural parts of southwestern Ontario and the west, voting Liberal is not an option. And in a tight three-way race, those voters could make the difference between forming the opposition and forming the government.
The typical populist might be a rural Canadian or blue-collar worker who is tired of politicians feeling entitled, or who sees the Liberals as a party of urban elites. “The traditional blue-orange switcher is someone who backs up their convictions with action, somebody who has a strong sense of where they want to go or where they want to lead the country,” said Brad Lavigne, the NDP’s senior campaign adviser. Such voters, he maintains, “are suspicious of the Liberal party’s ability to deliver what they say because they’ve been watching them for decades say one thing during an election campaign and do precisely another thing once in office.”
The NDP says the numbers back up the idea that they can draw from both red and blue voters. An Abacus poll released last week shows the NDP with a slight lead over the Conservatives, at 31 per cent to 30 per cent, and the Liberals a few percentage points behind at 28 per cent. The same poll suggests the NDP’s potential voter pool is the largest, at 62 per cent, with the Liberals at 55 per cent and the Conservatives at 42 per cent—giving the NDP more room for growth. (Attempts to contact the Conservative party for comment were not returned.)
Ethan Rabidoux, the NDP candidate in Perth–Wellington—which includes the city of Stratford, Ont.—grew up in a conservative-minded family, took part in the campus Ontario Progressive Conservative club when he was at Queen’s University, and volunteered several times for then-Progressive Conservative MP Gary Schellenberger. (Schellenberger was re-elected as a Conservative MP every election since the PCs and Canadian Alliance merged in 2003, and isn’t running in 2015.) Rabidoux liked the Conservatives’ economic policy, as well as the message about ending corruption in the capital. This was, after all, the era of the sponsorship scandal, when the Liberal government was tied to lucrative contracts with ad agencies that didn’t seem to produce any work for their fees. “Stephen Harper came to power on two things that sounded good: boosting the economy and cleaning up Ottawa,” Rabidoux said. “He’s completely failed at both.”
That frustration, says the 32-year-old former soldier, drove him to the NDP. Rabidoux calls the Liberals vacuous, a “party that stands for nothing and everything at the same time.” For voters predisposed to feel that way about Liberal policy, it seems leader Justin Trudeau’s tendency to misspeak doesn’t help.
Among blue-orange switchers, some just don’t like Trudeau. They cite his relative youth—he’s 43, four years younger than Stephen Harper was when he won his first government; his inexperience—Trudeau was a teacher before running for office; or a general suspicion that he’s not smart enough, a sense the Conservatives encourage in their advertising.
Mulcair himself is another big factor pulling them to the NDP, say Rabidoux and Wool. “He’s not an ideologue and neither am I,” says Rabidoux. “We’re interested in bringing good governance to Canada, progressive policies to Canada, and whatever works, we’ll do it,” including cutting taxes.
That’s something not generally associated with a party whose bread and butter has been fighting for social programs. But the NDP’s more moderate fiscal stance is now letting it chase other voting blocks who may have gone with the Conservatives in 2011, including the sought-after suburban couple living just outside of Vancouver or Toronto.
There’s also a push factor for some voters, particularly those on the libertarian side of Harper’s party. The Conservatives’ controversial C-51, which became law in June, gave police powers to Canada’s spy agency, lowered the threshold for arrest and raised a whack of privacy concerns. The NDP and the Greens were the only national parties to vote against the bill.
With all that going for the NDP, it is still having trouble in its traditional heartland: prairie farmers. Trudeau has spent more time in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba than Mulcair has. The NDP has more hope of picking up some of the newly redrawn urban ridings in Saskatchewan and Alberta than any in the suburbs or outside city boundaries.
That may be some small comfort to the Liberals, who were leading in the polls until just a few months ago. And with six weeks left in the campaign, says Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president at the Angus Reid Institute, there is a “massive swath” of voters who admit they haven’t made up their minds, “and their second choice all sits and parks with the Liberals.” In other words, Kurl says, “they’re like the best friend you keep in reserve if it’s not working out with the guy you’re dating.”
Wool says he started looking at the federal NDP well before the success of its Alberta cousins, under Premier Rachel Notley, last spring. He likes the NDP’s environmental policy and notes that living in Alberta doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about having clean water. He also says Mulcair doesn’t seem rabidly anti-gun, unlike the NDP in the past. Wool sounds doubtful the federal NDP will achieve the kind of results in Alberta that the provincial party saw. But he does sense a change coming to the federal seat count, with the Conservatives holding all but one when Parliament was dissolved. “There are a lot of people who are wondering why we should return the Harper government to power.”