For most of the 1980s, the Progressive Conservative party didn’t have a prayer in the federal riding of Yorkton-Melville.
PC candidates in the elections of 1980, 1984 and 1988 garnered only 35 percent of the vote and finished a distant second behind NDP MP Lorne Nystrom.
Two decades later, in the 2000s, the voting pattern in northeastern Saskatchewan swung extremely to the political right.
Conservative MP Garry Breitkreuz received 63 to 68 percent of the votes in the riding, winning elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008 without a bead of perspiration because NDP candidates only received 19 percent of the vote.
A vote shift of more than 30 points in just 15 years is remarkable and represents a wider phenomenon in Western Canada.
In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s and reaching back to the 1930s, the NDP and other parties had a fighting chance in rural ridings, particularly in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
However, in the last 20 years the Reform party, Canadian Alliance and the Conservatives have owned rural and agricultural regions in the West, coasting to victory with margins of 15,000 to 20,000 votes.
Jim Farney, a University of Regina political scientist, said Tory domination is more complicated than voters moving collectively to the right.
He said the Conservatives have taken advantage of the rural affinity for political populism.
“Voters in Western Canada, especially in the rural ridings, have always been populists first and then secondarily right or left,” Farney said.
“If you look back all the way to the 1920s, you see people voting for populist parties of the left, like the old CCF and the progressive farmers’ parties…. And to the right, for Social Credit and Reform.”
Farney said populist parties appeal to the basic political instincts of rural voters.
“They (populists) are going to articulate the common sense of a common person, which is Preston Manning’s own phrase,” he said.
“(And) often there is a streak of anti-elitism, against the media or against the eastern bastards.”
Farney said the NDP tapped into its populist roots for decades to consistently win seats in rural Canada, but that changed following the election of 1993, when Preston Manning and the Reform party absorbed the populist vote.
“They (the NDP) shifted from being this populist, often religious party, to being more downtown-based, more focused on things like gay rights,” Farney said.
“In the process they kind of deactivated a lot of their old prairie, church basement and rural roots.”
Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a former chief adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, agreed.
He said the NDP lost its rural credibility after the 1993 election.
“It was really Reform that drove the NDP out of rural ridings,” Flanagan said.
“It wasn’t that the NDP voters disappeared, they were now outnumbered by a party that had consolidated nearly everybody else behind them in the rural ridings.”
Flanagan said the NDP severed its rural roots when it transformed into an urban party with a flair for progressive lifestyle issues.
“The NDP went through a period of weak leadership,” he said, referring to Alexa McDonough and Audrey McLaughlin.
“And when they revived, it was under a different kind, more of a eastern-metropolitan leadership…. People on farms and small towns… are more traditional in their values and are more likely to be churchgoers. So constant harping on lifestyle issues like abortion and gay marriage isn’t going to build you a lot of support in small towns.”
Meanwhile, as the NDP shifted it focus to urban residents, the Reform party and the Conservatives latched onto kitchen table issues such as the unpopular federal gun registry and solidified its rural base.
Nystrom, who was elected nine times as a MP from Saskatchewan, said the federal NDP’s demise in rural ridings is more about the people who live on farms and in villages.
He said the NDP’s strength in rural Manitoba and rural Saskatchewan was an aberration. Rural voters around the world are naturally conservative.
“One thing you see is that rural people, anywhere in the world, are more conservative than urban people…. I go to China a lot and people in rural China are much more conservative,” said Nystrom, who now works as a business and political consultant.
“You go to rural France, rural England, rural India … (they’re) much more conservative…. In my opinion rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba have reverted to … voting patterns that are common around the world.”
Nystrom said populist parties such as the CCF gained a foothold in Western Canada following the droughts and economic depression of the 1930s, when farmers and rural citizens banded together to survive.
“Hence the rise of the credit union movement, the wheat pools and the co-operatives, and by extension the CCF,” he said.
“Across the border (in Alberta), the same thing happened but it became a right-wing populist with (William) Aberhart (Social Credit premier in the 1930s and 1940s).”
Nystrom said the CCF was conservative on social issues and “very left” on economic issues.
“That went along for a long time, for two or three generations, but as generations evolve it gradually dissipated,” he said, noting NDP support in rural ridings probably peaked in the 1960s.
“There were ups and downs, but the trend line had been going down since the early ’60s…. It’s been a trend line going down for 50 years.”
There were still thousands of small scale, mixed farms on the Prairies in the 1970s and 1980s, but farmers with 1,000 acres of land and a few dozen cows are now nearly extinct.
“The farmers that are still on the land … are more likely to think of themselves as small businessmen,” Farney said.
“That’s going to change how you imagine yourself politically.”
Nystrom said small farms stuck around longer in northeastern Saskatchewan because the area was settled later than other parts of the Prairies. However, small farms eventually disappeared along with the NDP vote in the region.
Nystrom said the NDP won federal seats in rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but the party was never popular with farmers. He won elections in Yorkton-Melville by collecting votes from big towns and small cities.
“I was an MP for over 32 years. I don’t think we ever won the farm vote, the real farm vote,” he said.
“We would have come close in our best campaigns … but it got tougher and tougher as time went on.”
Nystrom pointed to the 2013 by-election in Manitoba’s Brandon-Souris riding as proof that rural Canadians have shifted their support to the Conservatives.
Conservative Larry Maguire beat Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale by 391 votes, and Nystrom said the rural vote saved Maguire.
“The Liberals won almost every single polling station in Brandon,” he said.
“You get one inch out of Brandon and they (the Liberals) got clobbered…. That’s sort of a microcosm of what I think is the new reality.”
Flanagan agreed that NDP and Liberal support has crumbled to dust in small towns, villages and farms.
“I don’t see the other parties making much of a dent in the rural seats,” he said.
“They (the Conservatives) may not win this election, but I think they will continue to dominate in rural (areas).”