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Opinion

History may repeat itself in a tight race in Winnipeg South Centre

Winnipeg South Centre MP Joyce Bateman celebrates after her surprise win over Liberal Anita Neville in 2011.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg South Centre MP Joyce Bateman celebrates after her surprise win over Liberal Anita Neville in 2011.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/7/2015 (1718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Until a few weeks ago, most local Conservatives had written off Winnipeg South Centre. It was seen as the most vulnerable Conservative riding outside of Atlantic Canada, a Liberal stronghold the Tories miraculously stole 2011 and have no hope to keep.

Now, the Tory talk has been replaced by rumblings in Liberal and NDP circles that a vote split might deliver Conservative MP Joyce Bateman a squeaker victory this fall.

That's because the NDP has nominated a strong candidate, teacher Matt Henderson. Some are worried left-leaning voters eager to punt Bateman will be rethinking their support for Liberal Jim Carr, who for months has been Bateman's aggressive challenger.

There is probably no Manitoba riding more prone to the spectre of strategic voting, as mythical and overstated as it may be. There are also few ridings in Manitoba that will earn as much attention as Winnipeg South Centre.

Made up of River Heights, Riverview, Old Tuxedo, Linden Woods and north Fort Garry, the riding is home to very engaged, pugnacious voters and much of the city's opinion leaders. It's known for its powerful political legacies and nasty campaign trench warfare.

For political reporters, it's a ton of fun to cover, especially now that fears of a vote-split have surfaced again.

On one hand, the NDP has a little something going for it in South Centre. Henderson is an innovative, well-spoken young high school teacher, a dad, a fixture in local activism. He's got a young and energetic, if inexperienced, campaign team and the support of key New Democrats who know the area well, such as Education Minister James Allum. The NDP's national polling numbers are healthy, the party buoyed by a sweeping victory in Alberta's recent provincial election. To those who roll their eyes at talk of an NDP surge in Winnipeg South Centre, New Dems gleefully point to Alberta as proof anything can happen.

On the other hand, the NDP has never even come close to winning the riding, rarely cracking the 20 per cent of the popular vote. The closest the party came was in 2006, and it still fell 4,000 votes short of a second-place finish. And, the contempt Manitobans feel for Premier Greg Selinger's NDP has infected their view of the federal party. That was the upshot of a Probe Research poll earlier this month that placed the NDP in third place in Winnipeg.

Carr, the former head of the Business Council of Manitoba, has been door-knocking for a year. He's turned up at every local event. He's got experienced backers and the specific support of leader Justin Trudeau. He says he doesn't want people to hold their nose and vote for him as the best bet to defeat Bateman. He wants to win genuine support, door by door, fair and square.

But already, 95 days out, NDPers are pleading with each other, on social media and in social gatherings, to vote with their hearts, to avoid the dubious temptation to second-guess the outcome and vote strategically for Carr as the best chance to defeat the Tories.

Many have argued strategic voting amounts to an abdication of principles, a cynical move. I disagree. I think voting for a candidate you can live with to defeat a candidate you really hate is an entirely rational choice, the kind of compromise voters make all the time in our first-past-the-post system.

Another argument against strategic voting is it doesn't really work. It takes a significant number of people to actually do it in that private moment in the voting booth, and they all have to pick the right candidate.

It requires a level of accurate, detailed, riding-level intelligence that is almost non-existent in most elections, especially in a small market like Manitoba where public polling is relatively scarce. Predicting the local outcome of the delicate, mysterious interplay between national momentum and a riding's ground campaign is nearly impossible for even the most astute political nerds, let alone voters who have much better things to worry about.

All that is generally true. Trouble is, Winnipeg South Centre has already proven it can vote strategically with some skill.

Three days before the 2006 election, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a minority government, the Winnipeg Free Press published a front-page story suggesting then-Liberal MP Anita Neville could be about to lose her seat to the Tories. A Probe Poll, done only of voters in the hotly contested riding, showed Neville neck-and-neck with her Conservative rival, lawyer Michael Richards. Both had the support of 32 per cent of decided voters.

On election day, though, Neville won by 3,200 votes, mostly taken, if the poll numbers can be trusted, from the NDP. It was widely believed that front-page story convinced just enough New Democrats to vote Liberal as a strategic move to defeat the Tories.

Nearly a decade later, fears over vote-splitting and the spectre of strategic voting means all bets are off in predicting this race.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @mawwelch

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History

Updated on Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 6:37 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

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