There are 15 seats in the projection where the NDP is within 10 points of the leader. Two of those seats are held by the Bloc Québécois, five by the Liberals, and eight by the Conservatives. So the NDP could be a bit of an equal opportunity spoiler. But in a lot of close Conservative-Liberal seats, the NDP's increase in support could turn more than a few ridings over to Stephen Harper.This is the very real danger Liberals traditionally warn about in voters turning to the NDP. This is often written off as partisan "fear mongering" which tends to imply an irrational or overblown fear being exploited, and maybe in other times and places that has been the case, but given that the Tories go into this election sitting at 143 seats, just 12 shy of a parliamentary majority of 155, and that Canada has a first past the post system, it is a very real threat.
Before I'm accused of making the usual sort of "hold your nose and vote Liberal anyway" type argument, that really isn't my intent. For one thing I don't exactly have a mass audience, so even if I want to engage in mass voter persuasion it isn't really an option. No, I'm interested in the potential fall out here. I should say that of course the situation is very fluid. This sort of thing could easily, on its own, turn a big pile of soft NDP supporters back to the Liberals if the media starts saying "Tory majority likely..." But let's assume this happens, what will it mean for the other parties?
The NDP is trying to walk a very difficult tight-rope in order to supplant the Liberals as the alternative party of Canada. I doubt any of their leaders seriously expect to actually come in first in this election, and maybe they don't even expect to actually come in second. But beating the Liberals in Quebec and BC would be a huge win for them, setting the stage for the next election to try and do so in Ontario and the Atlantic.
The real challenge will be in keeping these voters, particularly if the additional NDP support does not translate into many more seats, or even a number that seems close to the Liberal number of seats. The system isn't linear, an extra 5% of the vote doesn't translate into 5% more seats, and there are tipping points - the first tipping point is the one which has the NDP and Liberals split the vote in a lot of Ontario ridings leaving the Conservatives to win the seat with a high 30 or low 40 percent of the popular vote. If the NDP reach that one, but not the next one, where they win some of those Liberal ridings, we get a Tory majority much bigger than Conservative polling support would suggest, and a potentially huge blow to NDP voter morale.
Will these voters stay with Jack if they decide that supporting him ushered in a Harper majority?
Layton is clearly in it to win it, and committed to this game, so I don't expect anything anyone like me writes about the dangers of this strategy will have any appreciable impact on it, but this is now shaping up to be the most likely outcome. If you could have told me in 2006 that the NDP were on a 5-10 year plan to replace the Liberals and it would mean some Conservative governments in the interim, but in the end we would have a more progressive alternative governing party I would not have been enthusiastic, but if you could guarantee it would work, I might go along thinking it would be worth it in the long term.
However what if that 10 year strategy doesn't actually work? What if the NDP reach a historic high level of popular vote support, but the demoralizing result of a Tory majority sees it all fade and the new voters go back where they came from? Then it will have all been for nothing and no progressive upside.
It's a very real possibility.
Things are about to get ugly, I expect Ignatieff and Duceppe are going to turn some serious fire on Layton now, to try and dampen his personal popularity. Expect to hear about the Gun Registry free vote, and all the times Layton propped up Harper's government. Expect to hear about that 2004 letter Layton signed with Harper. What was Jack thinking progressive Canadians could really get out of a Conservative coalition government that they couldn't wrest from the Martin Liberal minority?
Meanwhile Harper will chuckle watching his enemies expend precious advertising resources on each other instead of him.