How many shocking results does it take to make a real trend?
Across the country, this is the question being asked about prospects for the New Democratic Party in the upcoming federal election, in particular following the NDP's surprising victory in the Alberta provincial election, a result beyond comprehension before Rachel Notley made it so.
For federal New Democrats, the Alberta result is part of a continuum, the next step in the improbable surge of Canada's perennial third-place federal party. The first step was the remarkable performance of the NDP in Quebec in the 2011 federal election, where it captured 59 seats. Before that election, the NDP had never won more than two seats in Quebec.
This hypothesis — the NDP is finally ready to form federal government — argues that the Quebec results and those in Alberta are more than anomalies. Along with poll results showing a close three-way race between the Liberals, Tories and NDP, they are evidence a page is getting ready to turn in Canadian political history.
It is always dangerous to put too much emphasis on pre-election polls. Or to draw too many parallels between provincial electoral results; provincial chapters of the same party often have dramatic regional variations. Thus, an NDP victory in Alberta, where it has never governed, has very little impact on prospects for the NDP in Manitoba, which has governed for 15 years.
Similarly, it's not always possible to look at a federal electoral result and draw a line from it to some result in a provincial election, or vice versa.
Yet it's hard to avoid the sense something is happening out in the electorate. And whatever is happening, it seems the NDP is going to be the main beneficiary.
Federally, the stars do seem to be aligning. After its huge breakthrough in the 2011 federal election, the federal NDP has worked hard to solidify its political network in Quebec and shore up all those unexpected MPs. As well, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has done a remarkable job of raising his national profile and his approval ratings. In most leadership markers, Mulcair outpaces Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. In seats where there is a potential NDP-Liberal vote split, leadership preferences can make a big difference come election time.
And yet, even with all these stars in alignment, it's still a long shot for the NDP to form government.
Until the Alberta provincial election, conventional wisdom had it that the NDP had little to gain in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, or west of Manitoba. Mulcair would need an echo of the Alberta election to put a charge in voters on the Prairies and the West Coast. And if history is any indication, voters in B.C. or Saskatchewan are not likely to be moved much by a result in Alberta.
Still, it's hard to discourage New Democrats from the idea their time has come. Two main factors are creating that optimism. First, more than two-thirds of voters now intensely dislike the Conservatives; and second, Canada has got to know Trudeau, and they don't like what they see.
Trudeau's appeal has waned and, as a result, his party's stock has fallen. The NDP has, in fact, picked up much of that support.
That factor alone makes a province such as Manitoba, where all three main parties are competitive, a key battleground in the next election.
If there is room to grow in Manitoba for the federal New Democrats, it will come in Winnipeg. Outside the city, Tory support is significant and solid. Of the six rural seats in Manitoba, Conservatives enjoyed massive pluralities in five; the only exception is Churchill, where NDP MP Niki Ashton won comfortably in 2011 and seems a good bet to retain her seat. Anything short of a complete collapse in Tory support will mean very little change come this fall.
In Winnipeg, however, poll results with the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP in a three-way race speak to a more volatile battleground where pluralities are much tighter. The Liberals have only one seat in Winnipeg right now. However, the Grits believe they have a good chance of taking Winnipeg South Centre, Winnipeg South and Saint Boniface, three seats with deep Liberal roots that were lost to the Conservatives. NDPers, meanwhile, believe they have a good shot at holding Winnipeg Centre, which now belongs to MP Pat Martin, and Kildonan-St. Paul. However, should Liberal support crumble, the NDP believes it could also make waves in Winnipeg South Centre and Saint Boniface.
Consider that the NDP is very close to nominating Matt Henderson, a popular and high-profile teacher at St. John's Ravenscourt School. If Henderson is nominated, it's a clear sign the NDP will not go quietly in that riding, which will create some sleepless nights for Jim Carr and the Grits.
The Alberta election is not evidence of an impending Orange Wave. It is, however, a very important reminder not to take voters for granted. Conventional wisdom, tradition and history are all important tools for predicting future outcomes. But they cannot predict all outcomes. Voters, on occasion, will remind politicians of their propensity for volatility without warning.
And that is just what the NDP is counting on right now.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.