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Voting numbers tell tales

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BRANDON -- They are numbers that should concern each of Canada's major political parties.

A total of 27,743 votes were cast in last week's Brandon-Souris byelection. Of that total, 12,205 votes were cast for Conservative candidate Larry Maguire, 11,816 for Liberal Rolf Dinsdale, 1,996 for New Democrat Cory Szczepanski, 1,349 for Green David Neufeld, and 271 for Libertarian Frank Godon.

In the 2011 election, 35,125 votes were cast, with Conservative Merv Tweed receiving 22,386 votes, the NDP candidate 8,845, the Green 2,012 and the Liberal 1,882.

Though the massive shift in Liberal support and decline in NDP support between the two elections is readily apparent, so is the fact the total number of votes cast fell by 7,382 votes. The number of votes for non-Conservative candidates increased by just 2,799 but support for the Conservative candidate plummeted by 10,181 votes.

Also significant was the emergence of a pronounced rural-urban split for the first time. In the past four elections, Tweed won the majority of polls in Brandon. In last week's byelection, however, Dinsdale won almost every poll inside Brandon, while Maguire won almost every poll outside Brandon.

While it might be tempting for some to dismiss the Brandon-Souris results as being of little relevance to the rest of the country, and even less helpful as a predictor of the 2015 general election, it would be a mistake to do so.

The riding resembles dozens of other ridings throughout Canada, both in its demographics and rural-urban makeup. In the absence of a compelling local issue, the campaign conducted here was dominated by national issues that are likely to also be top of mind during the 2015 national campaign.

Viewed from that perspective, Brandon-Souris may be a barometer for the national mood and voter intention. If that is the case, it has implications for all four parties going forward.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May must be concerned at the sharp decline in support in a riding where the party's candidate had finished third in the past two general elections. When a tangible opportunity to defeat the Conservative candidate emerged, one-third of Green support shifted to the Liberals.

The concern must be even greater for the New Democrats. The NDP's complete collapse in both Brandon-Souris and Provencher is cause to wonder if leader Thomas Mulcair is capable of selling his message on the Prairies. If not, he isn't leading a national alternative to the Tories.

For the Liberals, the huge growth in voter support from five per cent to almost 43 per cent is remarkable. Any excitement should be tempered, however, by concern about the rural-urban split and the fact the total number of votes cast for non-Conservative candidates did not increase significantly. Rather than voting for the Liberals, thousands of Conservative voters simply stayed home.

It is that last fact that should concern Conservatives most. Even though it was widely known Maguire was in danger of losing to Dinsdale, and despite a desperate "get out the vote" effort by the Tories in the final days of the campaign, thousands of Conservative voters could not be motivated to save their preferred party from what would have been an embarrassing defeat. That sends a message Tory strategists were apparently oblivious to throughout the campaign.

The key issues in Brandon-Souris weren't the Canada-Europe trade agreement, nor the Conservatives' management of the national economy. Rather, the campaign was a referendum on the ethics and integrity of the Harper government.

It started with what many regarded as a rigged nomination process and was exacerbated by the Senate scandal, the disclosure of the RCMP investigation of the actions of the PMO and, finally, inflammatory and misleading advertising that bombarded voters in the final week of the campaign. It turned off thousands of voters and almost cost the Conservatives a traditional stronghold.

The Brandon-Souris byelection was an opportunity for the four major parties to test their messaging and strategies in advance of the coming general election. There are lessons to be discerned by each party from last week's results. It would be a mistake for those lessons to be ignored.

Deveryn Ross is a political commentator living in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2013 A9

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