One of the biggest stories of the 2017 election has been the rise of the Green Party, which broke through to capture three seats, and pull in about 17 per cent of the popular vote across the province.
In the run up to the vote, many observers – and the New Democrats themselves – suggested that a surge in Green votes would come at the expense of the NDP, potentially handing the election to the Liberals.
Polls during the campaign suggested that Green voters preferred the NDP by a margin of about two to one.
But as the cliché goes, the only poll that matters is the one on election day, and now that we’re able to have a look at it, the numbers tell a surprisingly different story.
In the campaign narrative, the Greens would cost the NDP tight races. It appears they didn’t, and the Liberals underperformed in virtually all of the battlegrounds where the Greens grew their vote share.
It questions the idea that Green voters are just potential NDP supporters. They could be people looking for a third alternative.
Crunching the numbers
In order to see if the NDP truly were splitting the vote and costing the NDP seats, CKNW looked at B.C.’s closest swing ridings, and compared the vote share of each of the three major parties in 2013 and 2017.
In all of these battlegrounds, save for Surrey-Guildford, Coquitlam Maillardville, and Vancouver Fairview, the total number of Green votes was enough to swing the race to either the NDP or the Liberals if every one of them were translated into the other party’s column.
In this analysis, it must also be noted that Courtenay-Comox and Surrey Guildford are new ridings, largely built out of single, previously existing districts.
UPDATE: This story does not account for the fact that these are provisional totals, and do not include absentee ballots. We’ll re-run the numbers and bring you the result when the final total is certified.
Surprisingly, the numbers show that in all but two races where the Greens grew their vote, Burnaby-Deer Lake and Burnaby North, the NDP also grew its vote.
In both cases where the NDP vote contracted, BC Liberal losses far exceeded those of the NDP.
On the other side, the trend among BC Liberal swing ridings appears clear, losses in virtually every riding where the Greens grew.
In just one of the cases, Fraser Nicola, did the BC Liberals expand their vote.
UBC Political Scientist Max Cameron says it appears to be a case of the Greens poaching disaffected Liberals.
“It seems like a reasonable story, and it makes a lot of sense. There is alot of animus against the NDP in the Liberal Party, it would be very hard for any of them to vote NDP, and perhaps the Greens provided them with a more palatable alternative, particularly since the Greens did go out of their way to support a couple of Liberal budgets.”
Looking at seats the NDP picked up where the Green vote — if it went entirely Liberal — could have turned the race, the NDP gained in all but two, Burnaby North and Courtenay-Comox. In every case, the BC Liberals suffered significant losses, in some cases thousands of votes.
“In Courtenay-Comox, the Greens made big gains and the NDP Lost, and yet the NDP winds up there in a virtual tie with the Liberals who really collapsed in that riding,” Cameron says.
While the NDP saw gains in virtually every swing riding, Cameron says it is certainly possible the Greens cut into their momentum, limiting the size of that growth.
“There is a counterfactual claim you could make which is if we assume that most Green supporters are more comfortable with the NDP than the Liberals, or at least more than half of them are, then if that vote were redistributed back to the two parties the NDP in that case might have benefited.” he says, pointing to Fraser-Nicola as one such possibility.
Cameron points to Fraser-Nicola, a seat the NDP had hoped to flip but failed to, as one such possibility. The Greens added more than 1,000 votes there.
But he says even if that’s true, it’s difficult to argue a Green vote split cost the NDP.
“It doesn’t seem to me looking at this that there are a lot of seats that the NDP didn’t pick up because of the Greens,” he says.
“If you can make the counterfactual argument that the Greens are closer to the New Democrats [and] a few extra votes would have made a difference, there aren’t too many places where you could make that.”
Cameron says in some cases where the NDP lost and the Green vote could filled the gap, like Columbia River-Revelstoke, the story isn’t really the Greens.
In that riding, the candidate made headlines when he appeared to run afoul of the party’s diversity policy.
“Then he got into some sort of libel dispute with somebody in his riding,” says Cameron. “That to me looks like a self inflicted wound, not the Green party stealing votes from the NDP.”
In that case, the Green vote stayed exactly the same from 2013, while the NDP lost virtually the same number of votes the Liberals gained.
Taking the same data and looking at every single riding in B.C. where the total number of Green votes would have swung a race between the NDP and BC Liberals shows a similar trend.
Across the province, the NDP grew its vote in 16 of these ridings, despite growth among the Greens.
It lost votes in 11, but in more than half of those, the Liberals lost them by a higher margin.
New party in the centre?
“I am surprised at the clarity of the picture that seems to be emerging,” says Cameron.
“But I have to say that a lot of us were wondering before the election if the story about splitting the vote was likely to hold here, given the fact that Andrew Weaver seemed to be positioning himself in the middle.”
Cameron says while B.C. has long had a strong left-right split, Liberal Democracies often see the emergence of a centrist party that’s able to appeal from the middle, as the federal Liberals have done for generations.
“When you have a distribution of voters where most people are in the centre, parties should converge to that position. And yet in BC we see this tend to polarize and really they’re different blocs. And those blocs seem to be fairly stable. This could be the beginning of the unravelling of that. And in a way, that wouldn’t be bad.”
He says whether that’s true remains to be seen, and could depend largely on how well Weaver is able to occupy that centrist territory and build on it with a vision of economics, the environment, and the politics.
“I think there is the potential that this could be a transformative election, in terms of our party system.”