Tough sledding: a look at the ridings on Ignatieff's winter tour [updated]

What will it take for the Liberals to win seats?

Political chatter in Canada usually swirls around national polling numbers, but the conversation has shifted lately to clusters of ridings thought to be in play. This narrowing of the frame of reference is prompted partly by Prime Minister Stephen Harper casting his hungry eye on Toronto-area Liberal seats, and also by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff hitting the road to visit only ridings the Liberals don’t now hold.

For the purposes of figuring out what sorts of local races might be most interesting to watch in the next election, Ignatieff’s road trip offers the advantage of an actual list of targeted constituencies. It’s a decidedly mixed bag. These are not by any means all seats that would make any strategist’s realistic list of the constituencies most likely to go Liberal.

What they do represent is a range of tactical situations that helps bring into sharper relief the enormous challenge Ignatieff faces. Keep in mind: the Conservatives now have 143 MPs, a dozen shy of a majority in the 308-seat House, while the Liberals have just 77, perhaps four dozen short of what they’d need to even form a minority.

Based on Ignatieff’s 11-day itinerary, I’ve grouped the 20 ridings he’s visiting (plus a few nearby seats included in his scheduled events) into six loose categories.

1.    There are five ridings where the Liberals came second in 2008 and were within five percentage points of the Conservative winner: Kitchener-Waterloo and Kitchener Centre, Oak Ridges-Markham, London West, and Miramichi. In these seats, even if the Tory vote held up, a swing in NDP vote to the Liberals could push Ignatieff’s candidate into first place.

2.    There are four seats where a Conservative beat a Liberal by 10-20 per cent of the popular vote: in B.C., West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country and Richmond, and in Manitoba, Winnipeg South, and Saint Boniface. To take these seats, the Liberals have to hope for a serious NDP drop plus a very bad Tory campaign.

3.    Two of the Quebec seats Ignatieff is hitting are held by Bloc Québécois MPs who won a narrow victories over Liberal second-place finishers—Ahuntsic and Jeanne-Le Ber—so a modest swing of the NDP vote in those ridings to the Liberals might be enough to push the Grits into the win column.

4.    Two Toronto-areas seats Ignatieff includes on his tour were won by about 10 points by the Tory last time out, and therefore look very tough to steal, unless NDP and Green support plummets in tandem and then flows mainly to the Liberals. These seats are Oakville and Thornhill, where the incumbent, MP Peter Kent, recently got a boost by being made environment minister.

5.    Along with seats held by the Conservatives and Bloc, Ignatieff will touch down in a few NDP ridings. Two of these—Ottawa Centre and Acadie-Bathurst—the NDP won handily by double-digit popular vote margins over second-place Liberals. Two others—Vancouver Kingsway and Trinity-Spadina—were closer races. To varying degrees, all would take a weak Jack Layton showing and a mighty Ignatieff campaign to swing them to the Liberals.

6.    Finally, there are seven seats in which the Liberals came third or ran a distant second in 2008: Hamilton Mountain, Prince Edward-Hastings, London-Fanshawe, Louis-Hebert, Beauport-Limoilou, Charlebourg-Haut-Saint-Charles, and Quebec. Concocting scenarios in which these seats go Liberal taxes the political imagination, but then watershed elections sometimes happen and campaigns always matter.

There will be no shortage of quibbles with these groupings. In some cases, the local reputation of a particular candidate could make the difference (although that’s not usually a definitive factor). In others, the historically unsuccessful campaign Stéphane Dion led for the Liberals last time out arguably sank the party’s vote below its normal range.

As well, I’ve assumed a backdrop of solid Tory support. Polls since the 2008 election don’t show Harper making any consistent progress toward majority territory, but they also indicate that his base is extraordinarily firm. That level of loyalty among Conservative voters leaves the Liberals having to target NDP support and, to a lesser degree, the Bloc and Green votes.

In other words, for Ignatieff to win the next election, it looks like he needs a wholesale change in attitude on the left side of the political spectrum. A lot of Canadians who are inclined to vote NDP, or even Green, would need to start taking his Big Red Tent line seriously.

UPDATE: Along with all the interesting comments below, I’ve had a few emails. Some rightly draw my attention to particular local candidates (whose occasional importance in determining election outcomes I do tip my hat to above).

A local star was, after all, the defining factor in the Winnipeg North by-election that, we’re told, partly inspired this tour: the Liberal had finished a poor third there in 2008, and so the riding would have fit in my sixth category, but a well-known former provincial politician stepped forward to run for the party in last fall’s by-election, changing everything. That’s a rough analogy for what Liberals hope will happen, for instance, in Hamilton Mountain.

These are the variables that keep politics interesting. Still, only national leaders and the campaigns they run can change outcomes in big swaths of seats.

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