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Nova Scotia's Liberals in majority territory ahead of impending election call
Seat ratings for the upcoming provincial election in Nova Scotia
When Premier Iain Rankin decides to call an election in Nova Scotia — which, with more than four years having passed since the last vote, could be any day now — his Liberals will start with a big advantage over the opposition Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.
But, before I get into the details of where things stand in Nova Scotia, let me explain what I’m doing here.
Seat ratings at The Writ
As one of the regular features of The Writ, I am going to periodically publish seat ratings for all provincial and federal ridings and districts across the country. This is not exactly a seat projection, like I used to do at ThreeHundredEight or with the CBC Poll Trackers, but rather an assessment of where I think each riding or district stands based on a number of factors.
This isn’t a mathematical seat model. I am not turning individual poll results or poll aggregations into seat projections. Instead, I’m trying to take a holistic approach that includes where the polls stand, what the political history of a riding or district is and who the candidates are or are likely to be.
The result is something more along the lines of the Cook Political Report than FiveThirtyEight in the United States. It gives me the leeway to make judgement calls — which might seem like heresy to quantitatively-minded analysts, but I think is something that is really needed when talking about Canadian elections.
Take, for example, the last provincial election in New Brunswick. When Robert Gauvin won the Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou riding for the Progressive Conservatives in 2018, it was a coup. Gauvin came from a family with long political roots in the riding and was a rare francophone in an anglophone PC caucus.
Perhaps inevitably, he split with the PCs (over the government’s proposed health reforms) and sat as an Independent. He eventually was elected as a Liberal in another riding in the 2020 election.
Now, I knew (and everybody knew) that Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou was lost to the PCs the moment Gauvin left the caucus. But there was nothing I could do to make my rigid mathematical model award this seat to the Liberals. All the penalties I could apply based on past precedent weren’t enough — the only way to make the PCs lose the seat was for me to arbitrarily award it to the Liberals based on what everyone knew would happen. As a rule, I don’t put my thumb on the scale of my seat projection models, so I had to leave Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou as a narrow PC win.
They lost it by 75 percentage points.
It’s not the only example where I knew my own model would prove wrong, but it is perhaps the most stark example. But it’s a demonstration of why I’m taking a different approach and will be publishing these seat ratings based in part on polling trends but also my own judgment which, I hope, I have honed well enough after covering dozens of elections across Canada over the last 13 years.
Seats are separated into four different categories: Safe, Likely, Lean and Toss-up.
Safe: I don’t have any serious doubt about which party will win.
Likely: I’m confident about the winner, but there’s something about the riding or district or broader trends that raises some doubts.
Lean: I think one party has a better chance than another to win the seat, but I am not very confident about the call.
Toss-up: Either the race will be too close to call or I don’t have a good hunch either way about which party will win due to the number of unknowns.
On a personal note, I am wondering why I’m putting myself through this. Probably the most stress-inducing part of my work has always been putting out projections that will either be proven right or wrong. Honestly, I’d prefer not to put anything on the line by not making any predictions. But, I feel compelled to, and I feel that many of you expect it of me too. If not, let me know in the comments if I should let myself off the hook!
Okay, that’s enough backstory. Let’s get to Nova Scotia.
The 2017 provincial election in Nova Scotia turned out to be a little closer than most expected. The Liberals, then under Stephen McNeil, won 27 seats — just one more than they needed for a majority government. The PCs under Jamie Baillie won 17 seats and the NDP took seven. The popular vote tally — 39.5% for the Liberals, 35.7% for the PCs and 21.5% for the NDP — was tighter than most polls suggested it would be.
The Liberals maintained their narrow polling lead over the PCs into 2019 when the polls started to tighten. The pandemic, like for many other governing parties across Canada, boosted Liberal support and the party hasn’t trailed in a poll for nearly two years.
There haven’t been a lot of polls out of Nova Scotia lately. The two most recent surveys were conducted by Narrative Research throughout the month of May and the Angus Reid Institute in the first week of June.
Narrative awarded the Liberals an enormous lead with 52% support against 24% for the PCs, 19% for the NDP and 5% for the Greens. The ARI had a more modest lead for the Liberals with 41% to 33% for the PCs, 20% for the NDP and 4% for the Greens.
Where the NDP and Greens stand seems clear enough, but that spread between the Liberals and PCs is pretty wide. That is par for the course, though, as Narrative has consistently shown a bigger lead for the Liberals while the ARI has shown a tighter race throughout the pandemic.
We’ll have to take both polls at face value for the time being.
What’s notable about the Narrative poll, however, is how it breaks down across the province (a regional breakdown from the ARI was not published).
Narrative showed relatively uniform support for the Liberals throughout Nova Scotia, with 54% in and around Halifax, 52% in Cape Breton and 50% in the rest of the province. The PCs’ best regions were outside of Halifax and the NDP’s was in the provincial capital.
If these numbers are accurate, it means that the Liberals have not only boosted their support from 2017 across Nova Scotia but have really mended their fences in Cape Breton. In 2017, the PCs won Cape Breton with 48% of the vote compared to just 33% for the Liberals. The Narrative poll suggests the Liberals have taken that 15-point deficit and turned it into a 28-point lead. That’s huge, and the only really significant shift in voting patterns since 2017 — the Liberals’ gains in the rest of the province look about in line with what you’d expect if the party has generally gained in popularity.
So, that’s my big question as I put together these seat ratings. The Liberals have certainly improved their position on the mainland, and I don’t think anyone doubts that. The question is whether those gains in Cape Breton are real, because if they are that has some big seat implications.
Liberals in majority territory again
Okay, let’s get to the seat ratings. The chart below shows where each party stands, with their seats divided into safe (darkest colour), likely (next darkest) and lean (lightest), with the total of those seats tallied up. The toss-ups are then shown in the colour of the party that is contesting those toss-ups. The gray toss-up is a three-way race.
(To use the Liberal numbers to explain, the chart below shows 15 Safe Liberal seats, 10 Likely Liberal seats and six Lean Liberal seats for a total of 31, along with an additional four toss-ups the Liberals are contesting with the PCs, two they are contesting with the NDP, and one that is a three-way race.)
The Liberals are in a strong position, because they have 25 safe and likely seats, just three short of what is needed for a majority. Include their leaning seats, and they sit on 31. They can afford to lose a few of those and still win a majority. A further seven toss-ups give them even more wiggle room. If they won all of those seats, they’d end up with 38 of 55.
At this point, the Progressive Conservatives under Tim Houston do not look capable of winning. Even if the toss-ups go their way, the PCs would still end up with just 19 seats. To beat the Liberals, they would need to win not only the Liberals’ leaning seats, but maybe a likely or two as well. That’s not easy — their numbers need to improve to put them in range of the Liberals.
For the New Democrats, they have only three seats in which they are the favourites, and one of them is a lean. But, they are in the running in another four seats. If all goes well for them, the NDP could still emerge with seven seats and match their performance in 2017.
I’m not seeing any seats where the Greens are in contention, nor any Independents.
Let’s go through the seats. I’ve split them up into the regions defined by Elections Nova Scotia, and further divided the Halifax Regional Municipality between the Halifax-Dartmouth core and the wider region. We’ll start there.
The Halifax and Dartmouth region is primarily a contest between the Liberals and the New Democrats, with one exception. It’s where the NDP’s safe and likely seats are located, as well as two of its tosses — in other words, the region represents four of the seven seats in which the NDP is a contender.
A few of these are relatively easy calls. The Liberals won Clayton Park West, Cole Harbour-Dartmouth, Fairview-Clayton Park, Halifax Atlantic and Halifax Citadel-Sable Island by between 10 and 33 points, and the polls give no indication that they should be in any danger in seats they won by wide margins in 2017.
The NDP won Halifax Needham by 23 points in 2017. They don’t have an incumbent as Lisa Roberts is not running again, but the riding has voted for the New Democrats since 1998 and the party only came close to losing it once over that span, in 2013.
There are a few tougher calls.
The PCs won Dartmouth East by just over two percentage points. It’s a riding with more of a Liberal-NDP history, and the swing in the polls indicates the Liberals would be the favourites here.
Dartmouth North and Dartmouth South are Liberal-NDP toss-ups. The New Democrats won Dartmouth North by just under five points and Dartmouth South by just under seven, but the Liberals took both ridings in 2013. With the swing in the polls shown by Narrative, the Liberals would be the favourites in both seats. But if the swing is the more modest one shown by the ARI, then the NDP could eke out two wins.
Halifax Armdale is without a Liberal incumbent, as Lena Diab is not running again after being elected in 2013 and 2017. This was previously a pretty solid NDP riding once represented by former provincial and federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough and the party has retained some strength over the last two elections. If the NDP gets a big boost during the campaign, then Halifax Armdale could be one to watch. Otherwise, the Liberals remain the favourite.
Halifax Chebucto is NDP Leader Gary Burrill’s riding and he ousted a Liberal MLA from the seat in 2017. Burrill is likely to win this, but the swing in the polls doesn’t make it comfortable enough to make it safe.
There are fewer seats that look likely to be hotly contested in the surrounding area. Of the 11, the Liberals look safe or likely to win seven of them.
The same rule of big Liberal wins in 2017 unlikely to be overturned in 2021 applies to Bedford Basin, Bedford South, Eastern Shore, Hammonds Plains-Lucasville, Preston and Timberlea-Prospect (Rankin’s riding).
Cole Harbour is an interesting one. The new boundaries made the seat more of a three-way race than it was back in 2017, but Liberal cabinet minister Tony Ince is running in this seat and the polls suggest the party’s narrow win in these new boundaries is likely going to be a little wider.
On the new boundaries, Eastern Passage was close, with the PCs winning by just a point. This will be a 2017 re-match between PC incumbent Barbara Adams and former Liberal MLA Joyce Treen. Up in the polls, the Liberals should be the narrow favourite now.
The two Sackville ridings will be fascinating. In Sackville-Cobequid, the PCs were able to steal away an NDP seat in a 2019 byelection by just three points. It had previously been an NDP seat from 1984. The close result in the 2019 byelection came at a time when the PCs and NDP were polling at about the same level as today, so there’s no particular reason to believe it won’t be close again.
Sackville-Uniacke was won by the PCs by about 10 points in 2017, so one would expect they could hold this. But the swing in the polls towards the Liberals — and that includes in the HRM — puts this one on the bubble.
In Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank, the Liberals won’t have Bill Horne on the ballot. He won by just 65 votes last time and the new boundaries make this seat a little more PC-friendly. The lack of an incumbent hurts the Liberals, but the swing in the polls helps them. This seat has also been a bellwether in most recent elections, so that bodes well for the Liberals. The combination of factors makes them the favourites, but only narrowly so.
Moving south and west, many of these seats look safe for the Liberals.
In the Annapolis Valley, the two question marks are Hants West and Kings North.
Hants West was won by the Liberals by a big margin in 2017. But the Liberals won’t have Chuck Porter on the ballot this time. He was elected as a PC in 2006 but eventually crossed the floor to the Liberals, winning them the seat in 2017. That made him the first Liberal elected in Hants West since 1974, so his departure will have a big impact. Both Hants West and Hants East, which looks like a likely Liberal win, have only voted for the same party once since 1984, and that was thanks to Porter. On balance, I’m sticking with a Liberal lean because of the broader trends but I don’t feel very confident about it.
There’s less intrigue in Kings North, but the swing in the polls makes this one less safe for the PCs, who won it relatively comfortably in 2017.
On the south shore, the only serious doubt is in Chester-St. Margaret’s. Hugh MacKay won this one for the Liberals by less than a percentage point over the NDP. He left the Liberal caucus in 2020 after being charged with impaired driving and isn’t running again. Historically, Chester-St. Margaret’s has been a decent NDP riding and they could take advantage of the lack of an incumbent. But the Liberals remain the favourite.
In southwest Nova Scotia, the Liberals have three safe seats in Clare, Digby-Annapolis and Yarmouth, while the PCs look safe in Argyle and Queens.
Shelburne, however, is a toss, but only because of the prevailing trends in the polls. The PCs won this by a good margin in 2017, but if the Narrative poll is right, this is the kind of riding that would swing to the Liberals. If the ARI numbers are closer to the truth, then the PCs hold on.
Moving to central Nova Scotia, this is an area with Progressive Conservative strength.
In Central Nova, the three Pictou ridings are all safe for the PCs. Pictou Centre was the closest of the three in 2017, and the PCs still won it by 25.5 points. Pictou East, won by the biggest margin, is Houston’s.
Antigonish and Guysborough-Tracadie were not won by big margins by the Liberals in 2017, but their standing in the polls should make them safe enough.
The Fundy Northeast region is also looking good for the PCs, though none of the ridings are looking safe. The Liberals are without an incumbent in Hants East and the PCs only won Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River in a 2020 byelection, taking it from the NDP. Both parties can probably repeat their wins, but it isn’t a sure bet.
The Liberals won Colchester North by 5.5 points in 2017, but that was with Karen Casey as their candidate. She was elected as a PC in 2006 and 2009 before crossing the floor and winning re-election twice more as a Liberal. Without Casey this time, can the Liberals hold on? The surrounding ridings swung pretty hard to the PCs in 2017 and Truro went blue in last year’s byelection. The winds are blowing in the Liberals’ favour in the polls but there are too many questions here to call this anything but a toss.
Cumberland North is similarly murky. Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin was booted from the PC caucus over her role with the recent border protests. It isn’t clear yet whether or not she will run as an Independent, but the local riding executive says it will back her if she does.
This riding went NDP in 2009, Liberal in 2013 and PC in 2017, so it swings pretty wildly. Former PC MLA Ernie Fage was able to take 27% of the vote when he ran as an Independent in 2009, so if Smith-McCrossin does the same the seat could become unpredictable and the split could possibly help the Liberals reclaim it. If she doesn’t run, the riding was still close enough in 2017 that current provincial polls would put it on the bubble.
Update: Smith-McCrossin has said she will run as an Independent. I don’t think that changes the call, but it sure makes it more of a toss-up. I’ll have to see some sign that Smith-McCrossin could win it on her own before re-classifying Cumberland North as a three-way contest.
Cumberland South is a lean PC because it wasn’t won by a big margin in 2017, though the PCs did better in the 2018 byelection when the Liberals were doing well enough in the polls. The broader trends still make this a question mark.
Finally, we get to Cape Breton. Here I tread carefully. If Narrative is right and the Liberals are back in front in Cape Breton, then a lot of these seats will be up for grabs and we could be in for some surprises. If, however, the Liberals have not regained their favour here as much as the poll suggests, then the PCs and NDP should be able to hold what they have without much trouble.
The riding boundaries also shifted quite a bit in Cape Breton, further muddying the waters.
Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier was won by the NDP by about nine points in 2017 and they retained it in a 2020 byelection by 12 points. The polls haven’t shifted dramatically since then, so the NDP — which has held this riding or at least part of it since 1998 — should still be favoured. But those Liberal poll numbers in Cape Breton…
Glace Bay-Dominion is one where I have completely thrown up my hands and I’m calling it a three-way race. The Liberals won this by just 5.5 points last time, but Geoff MacLellan is not running for re-election. He has won the seat three times and it has voted Liberal since 2000. So, there is some residual Liberal strength despite the loss of an incumbent, and the polls look good for the party.
But the NDP is running John Morgan, who was mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality from 2000 to 2012. The NDP also has a decent historical base of support here for Morgan to build upon.
And then the PCs, who are running the same candidate who got 39% of the vote in 2017, also can’t be discounted. It’s possible the confluence of these factors make the race close for all three parties. But it’s also possible any one of these three win comfortably. It’s just too tough to call.
Alana Paon won what is now Richmond in 2017, but the new boundaries actually give this riding to the Liberals. Paon was removed from the PC caucus in 2019 and it isn’t clear if she is running again. The Liberals held this seat from 1988 to 2017 and, with the polls turning in their favour, look like the favourites this time.
In short, the Liberals look like they can hold what they won in 2017 and add a few more seats to their tally to cushion what was a narrow majority win last time. There are enough close contests, however, that this election could become more competitive very quickly with just a small bump in the polls for the Progressive Conservatives and/or New Democrats.
And that’s it! I’m not planning to update seat ratings too frequently, and particularly for smaller provinces. But, if Nova Scotia does hold its election soon and, if a shift in the polls warrant it, I will update these seat ratings before ballots are cast.
Let me know what you think of these calls — where you agree and disagree, but also whether you want to see more of this kind of thing in the future.