The 2010 Election was the first for two parties in New Brunswick politics: The Green Party and the People’s Alliance. Their introduction onto the NB political scene represented more options for the New Brunswick voter to consider and opened up the political landscape to a more grassroots, a more under-the-radar approach, and more options away from the Big 2 Parties in the province: the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives.
The Liberals and the PCs have dominated New Brunswick’s provincial political landscape. Both parties have won every election in New Brunswick’s history and have rarely, if ever, been challenged by a third party in most ridings. Third parties typically have difficulty even getting elected members into the Legislature – David Coon’s election in Fredericton South as a member of a third party in 2014 was the first election victory for a candidate not in the main two parties since Elizabeth Weir won Saint John Harbour for the NDP in 2003.
However, third party presence in provincial politics is about more than simply winning seats. Third parties can split votes in many different ways and lead to many unusual and different circumstances which would not normally occur with only two parties running candidates. Indeed, with more third parties running candidates, New Brunswick elections have become much closer and far more volatile.
With the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance, NB elections saw five official parties entering candidates, three of whom (PCs, Lib, NDP) running full slates of candidates while the Greens ran a near-full slate with PANB running a very abbreviated slate of 14 candidates in 55 ridings.
Although none of the third parties won seats in the 2010 Election their results provided a sort of warning shot across the bows of the Big 2 parties. The NDP amassed 10.41% of total votes, the Greens 4.56%, and the PANB a small 1.17%. Altogether, third parties in NB combined for 16.75% of the total provincial vote, or 62,267 total votes. These totals were the highest for third parties since 1991 when the confederation of Regions made a breakthrough winning eight seats after the splitting of the PCs following 1987’s election.
16.75% for third parties was an 11.5% increase over the 2006 election in which the NDP were the only third party option. In 2010 NDP leader Roger Duguay scored 32% in Tracadie-Sheila, good for 2nd place. The Greens scored eight 3rd-place finishes, mostly centered around Moncton and southest New Brunswick. PANB scored two 3rd-place finishes, with leader Kris Austin acheiving 20% of the vote in Grand Lake-Gagetown.
The 2014 election would continue the trend of increased third party votes. In this election the Greens increased their vote share to 6.61% (and won a seat), the NDP increased to 12.98%, and the PANB increased to 2.14% with a still abbreviated slate of candidates.
In total, 84,096 New Brunswickers voted for third parties in 2014 – an increase of just under twenty two thousand over 2010. This meant nearly 6% more voters chose third parties in 2014 compared to four years earlier. In 2014, 22.62% of voters choose parties that were not the PCs or the Liberals.
Coon’s victory for the Greens is a testament to this increased presence of third parties in New Brunswick. He’s the first ever Green Party candidate elected in the province’s history. However, his win was due to his own votes as well as some very fortunate vote splits along the way.
Fredericton South split nearly four ways, with rounded percentages as follows:
GRN 30% [COON]
Can Coon repeat this in 2018? Perhaps. It will take a lot of ground work and Get-Out-The-Vote to ensure one of the other three parties in contention don’t leapfrog him. With a riding this close it is the absolute definition of a tossup.
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy saw similar circumstances in his riding, although more of a three-way race than a four-way race. Cardy unfortunately did not benefit from the vote-split that Coon did, and it will be interesting to see if he chooses this riding again (see my previous article on this subject)
Fredericton West-Hanwell split three ways, with rounded percentages as follows:
NDP 30% [CARDY]
The closest third party race undoubtedly was in another Fredericton-area riding, this time the riding of PANB’s leader Kris Austin in Fredericton-Grand Lake. We’ll call this a three-and-a-half way race:
Fredericton-Grand Lake split three-and-a-half ways, with percentages as follows:
PANB 28.48% [AUSTIN]
Austin came within 26 votes of winning his riding and being a bigger surprise winner than Coon. Austin’s win would have been the first time in 23 years that four parties had been represented in the Legislature with the most votes spread throughout those four parties provincially.
From 1999 to 2006 roughly 90%-95% of New Brunswickers voted for either the Progressive Conservatives or the Liberals. In 2010, with the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance, that number shrank to 83%. In 2014, with increased growth for the new parties and larger growth for the NDP, the percentage of voters voting for the PCs or Liberals shrank even further to 77%. In other words, the two big parties had 15% less voters to count on than just a decade earlier.
The introduction of third parties in this first-past-the-post voting system also leads to difference in outcomes. Prior to the introduction of the Greens and People’s Alliance a winning MLA averaged between 52% and 56% of the vote in their riding. With the two new parties that number has shrank to 48% in 2014. This means that to win a seat in the legislature the average vote of the winning candidate has decreased by 5% with more parties gaining more votes.
In 2014, the average winning candidate in Central New Brunswick (Fredericton-area ridings) needed only 37% of the votes on average to win their riding. This is due in part to three party leaders running in this region but also to the competitive nature of all five parties in this region as well.
In fact, Central New Brunswick (Fredericton and environs) is becoming increasingly tighter and tighter as we progress with more third parties:
In Eastern New Brunswick (Kent-Moncton-Tantramar areas) a similar trend is forming:
Will this trend continue for 2018? Possibly. The NDP did well in some regions of the province and will need a similar showing to continue that trend. The 12% of votes they received in 2014 is roughly 4% more than their current provincial polling, and even then that 12% total didn’t give them a seat in the Legislature. Focusing their efforts on a single area or region may glean less votes overall but a better chance at winning a riding.
The Greens, with Coon, will almost certainly focus on his re-election campaign in Fredericton South and may increase focus on adjoining ridings in the area. The Greens did well in Kent County due to the fracking debate and may not see similar numbers in the next election.
The People’s Alliance, as i’ve written on before, are likely poised for continued growth. With continued trending Austin should win his Fredericton-Grand Lake riding in 2018, unless there’s a big PC increase in vote share, and other candidates may see similar strong showings if their trending continues. Running more candidates in more rural Anglophone areas will only serve to increase their vote total. This is a party which has still not yet run a full-slate of candidates and averages somewhere around 4% or 5% in the ridings they do run in.
Whenever I bring up third parties in New Brunswick improving their vote totals I always have one or two people say something like: “Yeah but they’ll never run government“. You’re right, they won’t, but even if they’re not winning ridings they’re having an effect on the outcome, and when they are winning ridings they’re having an effect in the legislature and in committee. Just by existing and fielding candidates these third parties are applying pressure to the larger two parties to keep up. A decade or two ago it was very common to win a riding with over 50% of the total vote in a riding because there were only effectively two choices. In 2018 there will be five choices, and every single percentage point can be the difference between sitting at home and sitting in the legislature.
In 2014 the third parties combined for 23% of total votes and ended up with 2% of the seats in the legislature. In 2018 they can still combine for 23% of total votes and end up with 6% or 8% of total seats. It remains to be seen. There’s no denying the impact that third parties are having on campaign races, though, and it’s going to make for an interesting election in 2018 with the currently-governing Liberals only two or three ridings away from minority status.