Tonight’s by-elections will be indicator of Trudeau government’s resilience

There have been seven by-elections in Canada in 2017 so far, with four more to come today (December 11th), including a hotly contested race in South Surrey-White Rock.

trudeau-byelection-20171202

Will Justin Trudeau and Gordie Hogg be cheering tonight?

Are there any trends?  Any signs that may predict outcomes tonight?

First, you have to look at Alberta separately.  Three Conservative titans resigned their seats – Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Hon. Jason Kenney, and Hon. Rona Ambrose.  One might think the loss of those candidates would depress results in a subsequent election.  Wrong. The Conservatives scored over 70% in each seat, surpassing already strong 2015 numbers.

Conservative vote in Alberta byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
Calgary-Midnapore 66.7% 77.2% 1.16
Calgary-Heritage 63.8% 71.5% 1.12
Sturgeon River-Parkland 70.2% 77.4% 1.10

Moving on to Quebec where there have been two by-elections, it’s a very different story.  The Liberal Party held most of its vote in St. Laurent (Stephane Dion’s seat), and in October, doubled its vote in Lac St. Jean to take a Conservative seat held by Denis Lebel.  Unlike Alberta where support for the Blues was amped up, les bleus went the other way in Lac St. Jean, dropping from 33.3% to 25.0%.  Les oranges dropped in Lac St. Jean from 28.5% and second place to 11.7% and fourth.

Liberal vote in Quebec byelections
2015 2017 DIFF
St. Laurent 61.6% 59.1% 0.96
Lac St. Jean 18.4% 38.6% 2.10

Finally, there were two by-elections in Ontario in 2017.  In both cases, the Liberals only retained about 90% of their 2015 vote, but nevertheless held a majority.

Liberal vote in Ontario byelections
 2015  2017  DIFF
Ottawa Vanier 57.6% 51.3% 0.89
Markham-Thornhill 55.7% 51.4% 0.92

Overall, it’s a pretty good result for the governing Liberals thus far.  Holding on to their own seats while taking one in Quebec from the Conservatives.  Running up the scoreboard in Alberta does little for the Conservatives.  Their numbers in the 2015 election were already through the roof – the Harper Conservatives had 375,000 more votes than the provincial PCs and Wildrose combined.  The Conservatives are in danger of becoming ‘Alberta Island’ if its numbers drop in the rest of Canada but increase in Alberta.

Here are the 2015 election results for the four by-elections:

2015 results LIB CPC NDP
Bonavista-Burin-Trinity 81.8% 10.1% 7.3%
Scarborough-Agincourt 51.9% 38.0% 7.9%
Battlefords-Lloydminster 16.5% 61.0% 17.6%
South Surrey-White Rock 41.5% 44.0% 10.4%

Bonavista and Battlefords both appear very comfortable for the Liberals and Conservatives respectively.  It will be interesting to see if Battlefords-Lloydminster follows a similar pattern as the Alberta by-elections.

Scarborough-Agincourt is tighter and will be the first real test of Jagmeet Singh and whether he has any game in the Toronto outskirts.  You would think the NDP could do better than 7.9%.  That could help Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, and a win there would be huge, but they are certainly downplaying expectations.

I looked at South Surrey-White Rock in detail a few weeks ago.  A strong candidate for the Liberals and lesser-known candidate for the Conservatives is the reverse scenario compared to the 2015 election.  With a thin margin, the Liberals could prevail this time on the candidate match-up alone – everything being equal.  Two years into a mandate, you would think this would be a vulnerable time for any government.  Given the prolonged controversy over small business taxation in the summer and early fall, one might also think that that issue would hurt the Liberals in the upper-income, professional enclave of South Surrey-White Rock.  We won’t know until the polls close if it did – and if Hogg does win, one can ask, “What was that all about?” – a big national issue that had no teeth.

I was surprised that the Conservatives reached back to 1993 to attack Hogg on an issue that had been dealt with conclusively in his provincial by-election win in 1997, when his main opponent was a BC Reform candidate.  That appeared to be the move of a campaign running out of steam.

A Liberal win tonight in BC – and in Scarborough – will be an impressive show of strength by a mid-term government.  Not a guarantee of future success, but a sign of resilience, and an indicator of the magnitude of the challenge facing Andrew Scheer.  His pathway to winning the next election will be made more difficult not by the actual reality of a by-election loss, but by the perception of that loss among his own supporters (I’ve been there).  He’s going to have to demonstrate how he can build his party’s market share beyond Alberta and its diminishing strongholds across the country.  But hey, low expectations can be very beneficial (I’ve been there too).

Jagmeet Singh will also take away some lessons tonight.  He hasn’t been on the job long, but he did enjoy considerable positive publicity in the lead up to his election.  Can he translate that into votes?  You would think the NDP should get a little bump with Singh in place.

Tonight’s results will be another marker on the road to 2019 and, so far, the electoral road has looked fairly smooth for the Trudeau Liberals.

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