Go ahead, start being disappointed in the NDP now

Okey-doke. Let’s think this NDP polling surge through. Tell you what: go ahead and pick some riding where the New Democrat is said to have a chance of knocking off a high-profile incumbent. We’ll take Justin Trudeau’s Papineau, which is thought to be in some danger from Laytonmania as its MP flits about stumping for Liberals elsewhere in the country. Visit the La Presse 2008 election map with me, select “Papineau” on the pulldown menu, and let’s see what the Little Prince’s victory there actually looked like…

In the constituency as a whole, remember, Trudeau got 41% of the vote. But try clicking on the dots that represent single-institution polls, mostly long-term care facilities. Trudeau ran at much, much better than 41% inside those buildings. At the Hôpital Jean-Talon, he got 45 of the 69 valid votes cast. At the Centre d’hébergement de soins de longue durée-Les Havres, he also got 45 of 69. He swept the Résidence St-Michel and the Résidence d’Iberville like a meth-crazed janitor.

Do you figure this pattern emerges because old folks love Justin Trudeau? I mean, I’m sure they do; he has a name they recognize. But vote totals like this also reflect the local knowledge of political professionals and their ability to devote resources to particular vote clusters—in short, “ground game” or “GOTV”. Seniors’ residences just happen to be where the effect of having a partisan machine—a network of operators who can pack buses, speak a second language, arrange targeted messaging, or, let’s face it, get a case of whisky to the right guy—is most visible. At every election, the same thing happens in workplaces, ethnic neighbourhoods, various kinds of drop-in and hang-out centre, condominiums and shopping malls. Votes come in bunches; it’s hard to gather them that way from a distance.

You’ll see the same telltale, heavily-weighted dots anywhere you look; Laurie Hawn hoovered them up in my Edmonton Centre riding in ’08. It’s awfully easy, you see, to conflate two distinct kinds of micro-scale analysis of the political landscape. The one that has received some attention is the regional scale: the NDP vote surge measured by the polls will be relatively efficient, voter for voter, in a place like B.C.’s Lower Mainland where the party is already strong, and will be relatively inefficient—at electing NDP candidates, that is—in Quebec ridings where the NDP might normally run below 2%. But at the even smaller scale, the building-by-building, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood scale, the question is whether absentee, casual, or unfamiliar candidates will be able to deliver the level of vote share recorded by pollsters at all. This is Electoral Politics 101, but for a civilian observer outside a war room, looking at the La Presse maps impresses the truth upon one in a way that abstract knowledge doesn’t.

The NDP seems obviously poised to suffer a 2004-Democratic-Party-style letdown in which the bona fides of “youth” and “protest” and “internet” voters are questioned by those who overestimated their power, or pretended to, in the first place. Despite the last six days’ worth of polling, I am not, at this moment, convinced that the NDP is going to beat the Liberals either in seat total or national vote share. Wells’s First Rule still holds. And Lord knows the soul-searching I expect to see after the election qualifies as the “least exciting outcome”.

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