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.

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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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Interpretations of the Calgary-Greenway By-election

Yesterday’s provincial by-election in Calgary-Greenway has contradictory interpretations.

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Interpretation of Calgary-Greenway is not straight-forward

It was a four-way race ranging from 27.7% for the winning PC candidate to 20.2% for the fourth-place NDP.  It’s rare to see four candidates place above 20%.  I could not find one such example in the 2015 federal election, unless you count Nanaimo-Ladysmith where the four-way race had the 4th place Greens at 19.7%.

In Calgary-Greenway, when only 7.5% separates 1st and 4th, it’s hard to see it as Earth-shaking.  Nevertheless, the PCs won and a win is a win.  Therefore, interpretation #1 is that the PCs are alive, that they must still be reckoned with, and the NDP’s relegation to fourth is a sign of their demise.

Interpretation #2 is that the Centre-Left (NDP/Liberal) has made major gains in this riding since 2012 and further reduced the PC-Wildrose combined vote from 2015.  In 2012, the NDP-Liberal vote in this riding was a combined 15.5%; in yesterday’s by-election it was 42.8%.  It rose from 36.2% in 2015 and given that that was solely the NDP vote, one can see how the NDP benefit from no Liberal in the race.

Table 1: Popular vote of parties in 2012 General Election (GE), 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.06 AM.png

As Table 1 shows, the NDP was actually five times higher than its 2012 vote and the Liberals have doubled from 2012.  There is a lot of talk about PC-Wildrose cooperation, but the centre-left should probably be viewed in the same way.  Not that there is an imminent merger, but there is a competition for like-minded voters.  The Liberals bothered to show up to the by-election after missing the 2015 GE and their impact was significant.  That may be in part a result of local candidate influence, but I’m not sure how many saw the Liberals competing to win the seat.

Table 2: Raw vote of parties in 2012 GE, 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.15 AM.png

The 2012 GE and 2016 by-election are interesting comparisons because the overall number of voters is very similar.  It shows the overall reduction in votes for the PCs and Wildrose (centre-right) and the significant increase for the NDP and Liberals (centre-left).  Let me nail this point a little harder in Chart 1 below:

Chart 1: Combined popular vote of PC-WRP (blue) and NDP-Lib (red)Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.02.12 AM.png

Unlike the recent BC by-elections in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant, turnout in Calgary-Greenway as a percentage of the previous election was relatively high, and as noted, about the same as the 2012 GE.  The by-election turnout was about two-thirds of the 2015 GE turnout while the BC by-elections were about 40% of the previous GE.  That indicates a higher interest and engagement in the outcome and its possible impact on the next election.

If I was a PC or Wildrose strategist, I would interpret this result with some nervousness.  The pool of centre-left voters in this by-election was almost evenly split.  The voter pool that existed in 2015 massively went toward Rachel Notley’s NDP.  This is basically the Justin Trudeau/federal NDP vote bloc.  The Stephen Harper vote bloc was much larger provincially, but is also split.  A consolidated centre-left offering (whereas those voters group behind one strong alternative) appears still able to defeat a split PC/Wildrose offering.

In reality, it is more complicated than described above.  Voters move around between parties with more fluidity – a Liberal may never consider NDP and a PC may never consider voting Wildrose, and vice versa.  But the by-election does show that the situation has become more, not less murkier as a result of Tuesday’s outcome.  It’s too early, much too early, to write off the Alberta NDP.

Finally, it must be noted that – probably for the first time in Canada – there was a competitive four-way race between four South Asian candidates.  This may well have created a dynamic that disrupted prevailing provincial political currents.  I’m not close to the ground so I defer to others and invite comments.  Regardless, the fact remains that the market share for the Centre-Left in this riding has increased sharply since 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Alberta, the Oranges are crying the Blues

Wildrose + PC = Federal Conservative voters in Alberta, right?

Actually, it’s Wildrose+PC plus plus plus

Will the big bloc of federal blue voters drive over the Alberta NDP next election?

A few surprising things about the federal election in Alberta:

  • Almost a half-million more people voted in the federal election, compared to the May 2015 provincial election
  • Despite their huge win in May, the NDP lost votes compared to their previous federal effort in 2011, including a significant drop in ‘market share’
  • And the most surprising to me – the federal Conservatives had 375,000 more votes than the two ‘conservative’ provincial parties (PC and Wildrose) combined.

Chart: Comparing the 2015 Alberta provincial results to 2015 Alberta federal results in TOTAL VOTES.  Note: Wildrose and PCs combined and compared to federal CPC.

Alberta 2015P 2015F

For those who prefer the raw numbers:

Provincial Party 2015 AB PROV Federal Party 2015 AB FEDERAL Difference
NDP 603,459 NDP 224,198 -379,261
PC + Wildrose 773,082 CPC 1,148,649 375,567
Liberal 62,171 Liberal 473,661 411,490
Total Voters 1,486,901 Total Voters 1,929,197 442,296

So, 442, 296 more Albertans voted in the federal than the provincial, despite the fact that the Alberta provincial election was a once-in-a-generation change.  These ‘new’ voters didn’t necessarily march to the polls to trounce Harper – there was a bit of that – but many may have been small ‘c’ conservatives sitting out the provincial election.  While the provincial turnout was higher than normal at 58%, the federal turnout this month was 69%.

Comparing Alberta federal results: 2011 to 2015

Leaving the May 2015 provincial election aside for a moment, both the Conservatives and Liberals made gains in total votes, while the NDP was flat.  Because turnout was much higher, the NDP and Conservatives lost market share while the Liberals went way up.

Chart: Comparison 2011 to 2015 federal results in Alberta by VOTES

ab 2011 2015

Chart: Comparison 2011 to 2015 federal results in Alberta by market share

ab 2011 2015 %

The Liberals go way up in votes and market share; the Conservatives go up in votes and down in market share; and the NDP are flat in votes and go down in market share.

What does it all mean?

Well, you gotta be dispirited if you’re an NDPer.  On the surface, it makes the May 2015 results look very fleeting and surely there were hopes last May of a “Quebec-Alberta bridge” that could have delivered a federal NDP win, a’ la Mulroney 1988 and many PMs in the past.

Don’t despair, orange friends.  When you look at it a little deeper, a combination of federal NDP and federal Liberal voters makes for a significant voting bloc, one that is larger than the NDP vote from last May.

It’s a salivating prospect for non-NDPers in Alberta to consider how to harness the power of the federal Conservative voting bloc.  It remains the most dominant political base in the province, but has been divided provincially in recent years.  Also, just because some Notley voters would have voted CPC doesn’t mean they won’t return to Notley next election.

Governing well is the key to success for Premier Notley.  She will need to try to not awake the Beast – those million-plus federal Conservative voters.  She cannot do much to keep the conservative base from unifying – that’s on them, and it won’t be easy given the cultural differences at the provincial level between PCs and Wildrose.

On her end, she will be very keen to unite ‘progressive’ voters and appeal to those 473,661 federal Liberal voters that were energized by Justin Trudeau,  most of whom residing in Calgary and Edmonton who largely voted for her last May.  Putting all her eggs in the NDP-brand basket is a non-starter in Alberta.

The Premier of Alberta making nice with a Prime Minister named Trudeau… now that would be something.

Related:

 A panel discussion of the Alberta election hosted by the Broadbent Institute

Alberta election – before the votes were counted

In April, I wrote a mid-campaign view of the The Alberta Election from my vantage point west of the Rockies and sent it around to friends and foes.  It appeared something historic was happening and I attempted to place it in the context of other elections – notably, Ontario 1990.

This led to my appearance on a panel convened by the Broadbent Institute along with NDP campaign manager Gerry Scott, former Wildrose/PC MLA Kerry Towle, and NDP 2015 national campaign manager Anne McGrath.  It was a lively discussion and it was an honour to share the stage with Gerry Scott who is a BC campaign legend – even if he was occasionally horrified.

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