Toronto-Danforth by-election (Canada) 2012

Map of Toronto-Danforth (source: Wikipedia)

A federal by-election was held in the Canadian constituency of Toronto-Danforth in Ontario on March 19, 2012. The downtown Toronto seat fell vacant following the tragic death of NDP leader and newly-elected opposition leader Jack Layton on August 22, 2011. Jack Layton, the emblematic leader of the NDP who had just led the party to an historic victory in May 2011, forming the official opposition to Stephen Harper’s Tory majority, died after a fight with cancer in the summer of 2011.

Toronto-Danforth, which took its current boundaries in 2003, is located east of the riding of Toronto Centre and covers an area between the Don River and Coxwell Avenue, and between the lakefront of Lake Ontario and the Don River East Branch/Taylor Creek. The core of the riding, one of the most left-leaning in Toronto, was covered by the old riding of Broadview-Greenwood in the 1970s-1980s, a riding which elected current Liberal leader Bob Rae when he was a federal NDP MP.

The riding is ethnically diverse, with a 33% non-white (visible minority) population, including a large Chinese population (16%) which is concentrated in the southern half of the riding in the neighborhoods of Leslieville and East Chinatown. The north of the riding is noted for its large Greek population, located in Pape Village and Greektown. In 2001, at 11%, the riding had the highest percentage of Greek Orthodox in the province of Ontario (it also had the highest provincial percentage of Buddhists, 5.7%). Historically a fairly working-class or lower middle-class riding, Toronto-Danforth has seen its share of gentrification in recent years with traditionally low-income working-class neighborhoods such as Leslieville, Riverside (Queen-Broadview Village) and The Pocket becoming attractive areas for young professionals, artsy types and more middle-class inhabitants. The Studio District near the lakefront has become a magnet for artists, young professionals and film makers. Other areas, such as Blake-Jones, are poorer and more working-class. The India Bazaar and The Pocket have a large South Asian and Muslim population,

A good indicator of the riding’s gentrified nature is the irreligious-ness of the riding: at 31% in 2001, the lack of religion was the largest ‘religion’. The most irreligious areas were located in the southern half of the riding (Danforth Avenue acts as a divide between a fairly clearly defined north and south), especially in parts of Riverdale and the Studio District. The northern half of the riding concentrates the bulk of the riding’s Orthodox population (in the Greek areas of Greektown, Pape Village and Broadview North). Affluent, residential neighborhoods such as Old East York or parts of Riverdale (Playter Estates) has sizable concentration of mainline Protestants or Catholics.

Toronto-Danforth’s predecessor ridings – Broadview and Broadview-Greenwood (see the boundary history here) have a long NDP tradition. Broadview elected its first NDP MP in 1965, and the party held the seat until the 1988 election. Bob Rae was elected MP in a close by-election in 1978 for the NDP and was succeeded in 1982 by the NDP’s Lynn McDonald who was defeated in 1988 by the second ever Liberal to represent Broadview-Greenwood, Dennis Mills. Mills was easily reelected in all elections until 2004. In 2004, Toronto city councillor and newly-elected NDP leader Jack Layton (elected leader while out of Parliament) defeated Mills in a close contest with 46% to Mills’ 41%. As Liberal fortunes progressively collapsed in the next three elections, the Liberals no longer posed a real threat to the NDP leader in his own seat. In 2011, as the NDP surged into the official opposition, Layton won a landslide in his home turf with 61% of the vote against a mere 18% for the Liberals. The Conservatives won 14%, which was still their best performance since 1988 in a riding where they have never been a major presence since the 1980s – despite the area’s Tory history – it elected Dief-era cabinet minister George Hees between 1950 and 1963.

The Liberals have usually performed best in the northern half of the riding, especially in the affluent right-leaning areas of Woodbine Heights in Old East York, the predominantly Greek areas of Pape Village and Greektown and some of the affluent precincts in Riverdale. In 2011, the Conservatives outpaced the Liberals in Woodbine Heights and other parts of Old East York. The NDP has tended to do well in the southern half, especially Riverside, the Studio District, Leslieville, The Pocket, India Bazaar and Blake-Jones. In 2011, Jack Layton won every single poll in the riding.

Stephen Harper delayed dropping the writ until the very last moment, the first indication that the Conservative machine would not bother wasting resources on a by-election contest they would surely lose whatever they did. The climate was also somewhat unfavourable to Stephen Harper’s governing Tories, given that their support has declined somewhat since May 2011 because of a series of controversies including electoral robocalls and mishandled kerfuffles over pensions and internet surveillance.

Thus, the contest became an unequal battle between the NDP’s Craig Scott, a law professor and distinguished scholar; and Liberal candidate Grant Gordon, a marketing firm boss. Jack Layton surely cast a long shadow over the contest, as the NDP attempted to tap into a reservoir of sympathy for the riding’s popular star MP. The Liberals wanted to make people believe that they actually stood a chance (which they never did) and did invest some resources in the riding, which was to be the first test for the Liberal Party since the party’s historic electoral annihilation of sorts in May 2011.

The results were:

Craig Scott (NDP) 59.44% (-1.36%)
Grant Gordon (Liberal) 28.51% (+10.89%)
Andrew Keyes (Conservative) 5.37% (-8.95%)
Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu (Green) 4.69% (-1.77%)
Dorian Baxter (PC) 0.64%
John Christopher Recker (Libertarian) 0.41%
Christopher Porter (CAP) 0.24%
Leslie Bory (Ind) 0.24%
John C. Turmel (Ind) 0.18%
Brian Jedan (United) 0.17%
Bahman Yazdanfar (Ind) 0.11%

Turnout was fairly solid for a by-election at 43.4%, but still down a lot from 64.9% in the federal election.

The NDP and the Liberals came out of the by-election with reason to cheer. The NDP easily held the seat, as was expected, but held the seat by a very large margin and a percentage of the vote down only a bit from Jack Layton’s landslide in May 2011, when he obviously had won personal votes from traditional Liberal or Green voters. It would be hard to take anything out of this by-election, but it is still a very encouraging result for the NDP which heads into a leadership convention next weekend to replace Jack Layton and which has seen its numbers level off or drop off a bit since the party’s victory in May 2011.

The Liberals won a result which is nearly 11% better than their terrible performance in 2011, and the party actually won more raw votes than in May 2011 despite the major drop in turnout overall. This is not by any means an historic result for the Liberals, they are only returning to a level a bit below their 2008 level in the riding which was already fairly weak. The Liberals as a third party in the House have managed to do better than anyone expected after their thumping in May, and Bob Rae has proven a good interim leader for the weakened party. The post-election talk of their imminent death has shifted into speculation about  their chances at returning to official opposition in a perfect storm by the time of the next federal election in 2015. They still have a long road to climb to return to even where they stood between 2006 and 2008, but their poll numbers have already increased a bit from the lows of May 2011.

The Liberals likely took back traditional left-Liberals who had voted for Layton himself in 2011 but also some more right-leaning Liberals or swing voters who had voted Conservative in May but shifted their votes, strategically, to the Liberals this year. The Conservatives had never put any effort into the riding, and won a terrible result at barely 5.4% – probably the lowest results for the Tories in the riding in recent electoral history. It would be hard to draw much from this, given that the Tories have proven that they can do terribly in by-elections they don’t care about and do spectacularly well in by-elections they heavily target. The weak result could be interpreted as a general decline in Tory fortunes since the highs of May 2011, which wouldn’t be entirely off the mark, but which is still a very tentative conclusion to make about such matters.

The NDP goes into a leadership convention next weekend, with the top contenders being Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair (the base’s favourite and the most Third Way-ish of the main contenders), backroom man Brian Topp (the establishment favourite, slightly to the left of Mulcair), Ontario MP Peggy Nash (fairly left-wing and backed by some unions) and Ontario MP Paul Dewar (more of a middle-of-the-road, centre-left figure). BC MP Nathan Cullen, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Martin Singh are the other ‘smaller’ candidates’. The NDP leader will face the task of securing the party’s orange wave gains in Quebec – by now the party’s top base – but also reaching out to win more seats in Ontario and the West.

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Posted on March 20, 2012, in By-elections, Canada, Ontario. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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