Canada's new electoral divide: It's about the money
The newly drawn electoral map is split, but the cleavage is not left versus right, nor is it Quebec versus the rest of Canada.
The true divide, the new reality of Canadian politics, is between the economic heartlands that the Conservatives now dominate throughout the country and the economic hinterlands won by the NDP.
The energy powerhouses of Alberta and the B.C. Interior are Conservative, while B.C.'s struggling north coast is solidly NDP. The suburbs and thriving technology centres of Ontario are deep blue territory, but the north of the province is orange. Quebec's rural areas are largely held by New Democrats, but the entrepreneurial hub of the Beauce remains a Tory bastion.
With Canada still shaking off the effects of the recession, the Conservatives were clearly looking to herd economically worried voters into their column at the start of the campaign. The party was aiming not just at the haves, looking to safeguard their affluence, but at the just-hads, aching to reclaim their recently lost prosperity.
That message resonated strongly in Southern Ontario, where the manufacturing industries are still reeling and voters are no mood to take risks. "In Southwestern Ontario, they are not screwing around with the economy," said Greg Lyle, managing director at Innovative Research Group. (Although the NDP also benefited in a more limited way from those same worries, maintaining its traditional strength in Windsor and Hamilton.)
Then came the unexpected surge of the NDP, and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's eleventh-hour appeal to Liberal voters with economically conservative leanings, often called blue Liberals. "Let me speak very clearly to traditional Liberal voters: I know many of you do not want NDP policies. That you do not want NDP tax hikes," Mr. Harper said on Sunday.
The message: Only we can protect your prosperity.
The result is that the Conservatives were able to achieve in 2011 what eluded them in 2008, a coalition of economically conservative-minded voters who cast their ballots based on pocketbook issues rather than concerns over cultural issues, including the Tories' supposed leanings toward social conservatism.
Those blue Liberals were the missing element in the Conservative coalition. In the 1990s, they were the foundation of the successive Liberal sweeps of Ontario. So long as they remained with the Liberals, Mr. Harper would be shut out of the urban heart of most big Canadian cities.
But the rise of the NDP, which siphoned off progressive-minded Liberals, clearly spooked a sizable number of blue Liberals, causing them to bolt to Mr. Harper in the last weekend of campaigning, said Nik Nanos, president and chief executive officer of Nanos Research.
It was clear at the start of the campaign that there were a large number of Liberals who would be prone to bolting: Nearly a quarter of committed Liberals (largely older men) ranked Mr. Harper, rather than Michael Ignatieff, as the most competent federal leader. Mr. Nanos said that figure is a clear proxy for the extent of the blue Liberal vote.
At the end of the campaign, as the Liberal vote dropped precipitously, so did the ranks of blue Liberals within their long-time party - just 16 per cent of Ignatieff supporters ranked Mr. Harper as the most competent leader. However, that figure also indicates that the Tories have yet to win over all of the Liberals' economically conservative supporters.
The task of luring blue Liberals is not yet complete, and the Conservatives' ability to woo voters on economic matters was far more limited in Quebec than in other parts of the country - NDP momentum simply overwhelmed the appeal of the Tory economic message. But the reduced Conservative foothold in Quebec is in that part of the province that is strongly for free trade, and that produced libertarian cabinet minister Maxime Bernier.
Unfinished it may be, but the new Conservative coalition now dominates more than just the natural-resources powerhouses of the West - it also has strengthened its lead in the areas containing the brainy industries of Ontario, in the prosperous, immigrant-heavy suburban communities and even, most startlingly, in the wealthy ridings in the heart of Toronto.
Those voters have delivered Mr. Harper his majority government. Keeping it, and keeping them, will depend on the Conservatives proving that their only agenda is prosperity.