As summer comes to a close, the Fall election season in Canada begins today, with a provincial by-election in Nova Scotia. Voters in the north-end Halifax riding of Halifax Needham are heading to the polls to elect a new member of the provincial legislature, to replace longtime NDP MLA Maureen MacDonald who resigned last Spring due to health issues. She had represented the riding since the 1998 election, when the NDP tied the Liberals for most seats, but had to settle for the opposition. She was re-elected in every subsequent election, even in 2013, when the party was decimated at the polls after an unpopular term in government.
Halifax Needham covers most of what is known as the “North End” of the Halifax Peninsula, as well as part of the West End. In the south, the riding begins at Citadel Hill on the north edge of the city's downtown, and from there, covers all of the northeast part of the peninsula. Its western border is Connaught Avenue and Bayers Road in the northwest and Robie Street in the southwest. The riding contains the site of Africville, an historically Black neighbourhood whose inhabitants were cruelly evicted by the city in the 1960s. The riding also includes CFB Halifax and the Halifax Shipyard and was the site of the famous Halifax Explosion in 1917. The riding is named for Fort Needham, a park which contains memorial bells recovered from a church destroyed in the explosion.
|Average income in Halifax Needham (2010)|
The north end of Halifax is historically the more working class part of the city, and is home to a large student population. This has made the riding one of the strongest NDP ridings in the province, and is likely why the party won the seat in 2013, one of only two seats the New Democrats won in the Halifax Metro area.
Despite the riding's working class history, the NDP only became competitive in the 1980s. Prior to MacDonald's win in 1998, the riding swung between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. After losing in the 1984 and 1988 elections, MacDonald finally defeated Liberal MLA Gerry O'Malley in the 1998 election, by a large margin. She handily won the next 5 elections, cementing the riding as one of the safest NDP seats in the province. However, the 2013 election was much closer, with MacDonald defeating her Liberal opponent by under 300 votes.
|List of MLAs since 1933|
When it comes to the riding's political geography, income is a pretty good indicator of how the area will vote. The northern part of the riding (Convoy Place) was the strongest neighbourhood for the Liberals in the 2013 provincial election, and is also the wealthiest neighbourhood in the riding. The southern part of the riding (North End) is least affluent neighbourhood in the riding and was the strongest NDP neighbourhood in 2013. This division was apparent in the 2015 federal election as well; the southern neighbourhoods of the riding voted NDP while the northern neighbourhoods voted Liberal.
|Results by neighbourhood in 2009 and 2013|
Something new that I have done for this by-election analysis (and something I hope to continue) is to calculate the partisan voting index (based on the Cook Partisan Voting Index used in the US) for each neighbourhood in the riding. This calculation compares how each neighbourhood voted to the province as a whole, using the average vote share in the last two elections. For Halifax Needham, I compared the Liberals and the NDP as those two parties were the strongest in both of the last two elections in the riding. The index calculation shows that every neighbourhood in the riding is more NDP-friendly than the province as a whole, compared to the Liberals. According to the index, the North End is the NDP's best neighbourhood (with an index score of +19), while the West End (which was in a different riding in the 2009 election) is the Liberal's best neighbourhood (NDP +7).
|NEW! Partisan Voting Index by neighbourhood|
Since winning the 2013 provincial election, the governing Liberals have enjoyed a considerable amount of popularity in public opinion polls, while both the NDP and the Tories are well behind. Most polls over the course of the year have had the Liberals hovering at around 60% of the vote, about 40 points ahead of the other two parties. The massive Liberal lead in the polls is fuelling speculation that Premier Stephen McNeil might call an early provincial election, even as early as this Fall, though such a move has often been disastrous in Canadian politics.
The lone electoral test the Liberals have had since the last general election was a series of by-elections held last summer, which paradoxically saw the Grits pick up two seats previously held by the NDP, while the NDP won a seat which was held by the Liberals. The two seats the NDP lost were in the industrial heartland of Cape Breton, while the NDP's win came in more suburban Dartmouth, signalling a potential demographic shift in support for the party. The NDP had been leaderless at the time (Maureen MacDonald served as interim leader), but have since elected a new leader in Gary Burrill, known as being a strong leftist. The move is a departure from the centrist policies of former leader and Premier Darrell Dexter, which many have criticized as having hurt the party while in government.
The only two parties that have a chance to win today's by-election is the Liberals and the NDP. The Tories have not been competitive here since they last won the seat in 1984, though they have subsequently finished in second in both 1999 and 2006. Federally, the Tories have not placed second in Halifax since 1997.
The Liberal candidate in the riding is Rod Wilson, a family doctor and executive director of the North End Community Health Centre. Hoping to keep the riding orange is Lisa Roberts, a former CBC journalist originally from Newfoundland. The PC candidate is businessman Andy Arsenault, while the Greens (who nearly de-registered as a party this summer) are running computer scientist Thomas Trappenberg, who was also the federal candidate in Halifax.
If the polls are to be believed, the Liberals should be able to win this seat, which they had only lost by a few hundred votes in 2013, as they are polling much better than in 2013, when they narrowly lost this seat. However, if the recent Dartmouth South by-election is any indication, the NDP could still hold on to this Metro seat, as it suggested that the NDP may still be strong in the region. In the federal election, the Liberals narrowly defeated the NDP in Halifax Needham (by about 300 votes) despite getting 62% of the vote province-wide, not too far off where the provincial Liberals are at in the polls right now. So my prediction is a narrow Liberal win (the Liberals could be helped by the fact that it's a summer by-election, and that means the high student population in the riding might not show up), but an NDP victory would not be a surprise. What would be a surprise to me would be either party winning by more than 1000 votes.
A loss for the NDP in one of its safest seats would be a minor disaster for the party, which has seen its caucus shrink from seven seats down to five since the last election. With a provincial general election around the corner, it will make it harder for the party to win more seats if it is only defending five of them. It is far more important for the NDP to win this seat than the Liberals, though it would still be a pretty big boost for the Grits if they win it. Polls close at 8pm Atlantic Time (7pm Eastern).