Federal Leaders in By-elections and the Burnaby battleground

Updated (August 17th)

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh announced his bid for a federal seat today in the riding of Burnaby South, vacated by Vancouver mayoralty aspirant and NDP incumbent Kennedy Stewart.

Burnaby South is over 4,000 km from Singh’s former riding in the Brampton area, but he’s certainly not the first federal leader to leave his home province to seek entry into the House via a by-election.

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Will Jagmeet Singh ride on to victory in Burnaby-South? [Cycling Magazine]

Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney was elected in 1983 as MP from the riding of Central Nova in Nova Scotia.  He gave the seat back to Elmer MacKay when he led the 1984 election from his hometown riding of Manicouagan in Quebec.  Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper found a seat close to home in 2002 when he re-entered the House from Preston Manning’s seat of Calgary Southwest. Rebel founder Ezra Levant had secured the nomination but was evidently persuaded to step aside for the new leader of the Canadian Alliance (this was before the Alliance and PC’s merged).  Of note, both the Liberals and the PC candidate, Jim Prentice, stepped aside to make way for Harper.  The NDP fielded a candidate.

Rt. Hon. Joe Clark made a political comeback to return as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1998 and sought election to the House of Commons in early 2000 when then-PC MP Scott Brison stepped aside in Kings-Hant to make way.

As for Liberals, the longest-serving Prime Minister of all-time, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925 and sought a new seat in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, winning a by-election there in February 1926.  An interesting side note is that Rt. Hon. John Diefenbaker encouraged an independent to run against King in the by-election, then Diefenbaker himself ran unsuccessfully against King in the subsequent 1926 general election. King would continue to represent Prince Albert until the 1945 election when he lost to a CCFer.  He sought re-entry into the House via Glengarry in Ontario and retired while representing that seat.

Rt. Hon. John Turner was the newly appointed prime minister, without a seat, when he announced he would contest the 1984 election from Vancouver-Quadra.  While he had attended UBC and had a longstanding family connection to BC, he had lived in Eastern Canada for decades and did not pretend too hard that he would actually move to Vancouver.  Despite the disastrous national campaign, Turner held on to claim Quadra from the PC’s and the Liberals have held it for the past 34 years.

Jean Chrétien’s return to the House of Commons in 1990 came via the New Brunswick riding of Beausejour. He returned to his home riding of Saint-Maurice

The NDP can look back at the experience of Tommy Douglas.  Douglas was defeated in his first attempt to win election to the House of Commons from the riding of Regina-Centre in 1962.  The former Saskatchewan premier, and first elected leader of the NDP, had to find a seat out-of-province in… Burnaby.  He was elected in Burnaby-Coquitlam in 1963 and 1965.  In 1968, he contested Burnaby-Seymour (similar to MP Terry Beech’s current riding) and lost to Hon. Ray Perrault.  Perrault was a former leader of the BC Liberal Party and a gritty, grassroots politician.  While he would only serve one-term, he went on to a distinguished career in the Senate.  As for Douglas, his opportunity to regain a seat was borne from tragedy when Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands MP Colin Cameron (grandfather of NDP strategist Robin Sears) passed away not longer after the 1968 election.  Douglas won a 1969 by-election there and represented the seat until 1979.

Topical in the news these days is Rt. Hon. John A. Macdonald who was elected in Victoria in 1878.  I assumed it was a by-election victory, but he actually contested three separate ridings in the general election that year, and, having lost in Kingston, he chose to represent Victoria where he had defeated Liberal Amor de Cosmos (!).  Sir Wilfred Laurier also contested multiple districts and won in both Quebec-East and Saskatchewan provisional district in 1896, choosing to represent Quebec-East.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May announced on August 16th that due to  “longstanding parliamentary tradition” she would extend ‘leader’s courtesy’ to Jagmeet Singh by not fielding a Green candidate.

Longstanding tradition?  That’s a selective interpretation of history.  Here are the by-elections contested by leaders:

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Every leader has above has been contested in a by-election, and since 1962, every leader has been contested by at least one other main political party.  The NDP have never extended Leader’s courtesy in a by-election.  Even the Greens contested Harper’s by-election.   And certainly on a provincial level, neither the Greens nor the NDP honoured the “longstanding parliamentary tradition” of leader’s courtesy to Hon. Christy Clark in her two by elections (Point Grey in 2011, West Kelowna in 2013).

Courtesy aside, leaders need a seat in the House and sometimes have to go far afield to find one.  When they are ‘adopted’, sometimes they stay put.  Singh says he will move to Burnaby.

But can Jagmeet Singh win Burnaby-South?  Presumably, the NDP have polled the riding and believe they can win it.  It would be a huge risk, otherwise.  It does not appear to be a slam-dunk seat for the NDP though.

In 2015, Liberal Adam Pankratz won election day.  It was Kennedy Stewart’s margin-of-victory in the advance polls that saved his bacon.  This was a result of two factors – Liberal momentum was still building during the advance polls and the NDP had a superior GOTV machine.

Table 1: Burnaby-South in 2011 and 2015

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Liberal Adam Pankratz (left) with PM Trudeau and MP Terry Beech [Burnaby Now]

Liberal gains in 2015 came at the expense of both the NDP and the Conservatives.  Pankratz himself, a young, educated multilingual candidate whose father was a well-known BC Lion football player, presented well for the Liberals.

There are other variables to consider.

The federal NDP typically does not do well in British Columbia when there is an NDP government in Victoria.  The 1974 election was a disaster for the federal NDP, in the height of the Dave Barrett government.  The federal NDP were decimated in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections in BC while a parade of NDP premiers governed (though Svend Robinson held his Burnaby riding).  Will it be a factor this time?  At this point, I don’t think the provincial NDP have angered voters in the manner of previous NDP governments.  It’s early days.  However, being in power can demotivate activists who are accustomed to fighting the establishment rather than being a part of it.

Singh’s connection to BC is not apparently strong.  He will have recruited support during his NDP leadership run in BC, especially from the South Asian community.  But he lacks the personal ‘story’ that Mulroney had in Nova Scotia (he attended university) or Turner had in BC.  Maybe there is one that I haven’t heard yet, and it may not matter that much anyway.

Another factor is Kinder Morgan.  On the surface of it, the NDP have this field to themselves.  The NDP Mayor of Burnaby, a formidable force, strongly opposes the pipeline.  The Liberals and the Conservatives are on the other side of the debate.  Assuming the Greens can be kept at bay (a big assumption), the NDP may have room on that issue.  But is the worm turning on this issue? The protest camp has been drawing negative attention.  Are people ‘worn out’ on all of the Kinder politics? We’ll see.

Municipally in Burnaby, Mayor Derek Corrigan has ruled since 2002.  He has built a strong political machine.  For the first time in a long time, he faces a credible challenge this October.  Will that divert energies away from Singh’s campaign? Will the winds of change blow away from NDP candidates?  Opponents hope, but I know from experience that the NDP machine in Burnaby is real.  It will take a lot to defeat them.  Singh has to get the most out of the local organization.

About 46,000 residents voted in 2015.  In a by-election, the turnout is almost always lower.  GOTV will be a huge factor.  Not just the ‘machine’ but the motivation of voters to vote.  Will they turn out for Jagmeet Singh? He will have to build a connection with them.

Kennedy Stewart’s departure may be another factor.  Vancouver mayoralty candidates will be taking shots at Stewart for leaving his post as a Burnaby MP to run in another jurisdiction.  It turns out Stewart was living in Vancouver – how is that going over in Burnaby? Issues like “demovictions” are being raised in Burnaby which could make life uncomfortable for NDPers.  It may all amount to nothing and the status quo may well prevail.  We’ll see how the opposition approaches it.

Singh obviously has the most to win and lose.  A win gets him into the House while getting a weight off his back.  A loss could be curtains for him.

Some Liberals may want Singh to win, preferring his leadership to an unknown alternative that could present itself in the aftermath of a Singh by-election loss.  Liberals ought to be concerned about the Conservatives winning though.  As the 2011 results show, the Conservatives were not far off.  The Liberals could consider not running a candidate, as was the case with the Stephen Harper by-election in 2002.  This would be a bit surprising given their narrow margin of defeat in 2015.  They might also yield the seat to the Conservatives if they fail to contest it.  We will most likely see all parties in it.

It will be an interesting test of the three parties.  We have seen the Liberals steal a Conservative seat in White Rock and the Conservatives steal a Liberal seat in Chicoutimi in recent by-elections.  Local factors played a big role, but this by-election will take on more of a national dimension.

The upshot is that Singh is the favourite but there are a lot of reasons why this may not be an easy ride.  It’s not a slam dunk.  He does not have the advantages of being a sitting prime minister and not especially well-known in British Columbia. The riding was a close call in 2015.  It’s a risk, but politics often rewards the risk-takers.  Or buries them.

 

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Taking a look at Chicoutimi

This week’s by-election made me a bit curious about Chicoutimi.  It’s a long way from my perch on the west coast and probably even further in cultural terms. Turns out to be a pretty interesting riding in terms of its political history and volatility.

The riding boundaries have changed over time but I have gone with the main Chicoutimi riding to see the overall trends (purists alert – this is not precise, just directional).  Since Diefenbaker, Chicoutimi has gone Creditiste, Liberal, PC, Bloc, PC, Liberal, NDP, Liberal, and, now, CPC.

Chart 1: Chicoutimi federal election results since 1962

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Here’s a closer look at elections since 2000…

Chart 2: Chicoutimi federal election results since 2000 only

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As the charts show, there has been huge volatility over time.  Parties swing from domination to destruction.  For the NDP, they managed to go from 8% to winning with 38% and back to 9% over four elections.

The Liberal percentage held fairly steady compared to 2015.  Before 2015, the prior Liberal win was with Andre Harvey who had been first elected as a federal PC MP in 1984.  Harvey won in ’84, ’88, and ’97 as PC, but crossed over, and won as a Liberal in 2000. Harvey’s nemesis was the Bloc Quebecois which won in ’93 and again in 2004, 2006, and 2008 before giving way to the one-and-done NDP MP.

The Conservatives were lower than a snake’s belly in 2000 and 2004, and only at 17% last election, but clearly their candidate in the by-election did an excellent job drawing support.  The question is: are we also seeing a consolidation in Quebec between the Liberals on one side and the Conservatives on the other, feasting from the remnants of NDP and Bloc support?

I will leave that to others to judge. Quebec politics is definitely above my pay scale.

On a national basis, if the NDP collapses in Quebec, it will have an impact on their national effort.  The NDP had one-quarter of the vote in Quebec in 2015, with Quebec representing about one-quarter of the national population.  That’s good for about 6% nationally in the popular vote.  Chicoutimi-Le Fjord dropped from 29.7% (above Quebec average for NDP in 2015) to 8.7% in the by-election.  Not to read too much into by-elections, but if the NDP slip to 10% province-wide in the next election, that drops their national share of the vote by about 4%.  That means they are going to look more like a third party that can’t keep up with the Liberals and Conservatives, whereas in 2011 and 2015, they were at the main table.  The Layton legacy is in real jeopardy and that will have consequences across the country unless they can find new voters elsewhere. The Tom Mulcair days are looking pretty good right now.

Pondering a Nanaimo By-election

Nanaimo NDP MLA Leonard Krog announced his candidacy for Mayor of Nanaimo on Wednesday.  If he wins, his resignation as MLA will set up a high stakes by-election that could have a major impact on the government’s razor thin margin in the House.

Nanaimo is a mess and an embarrassment.  Whatever the reasons are, the Council has failed to pull themselves together, evidenced by criminal investigations, staff departures, and chaos. The City, renowned for tasty Nanaimo bars and bathtub races, but lately for dysfunctional politics, desperately needs new leadership.

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Krog pondering the fate of British Columbia.  (Nanaimo News Now)

Leonard is a well-respected elected official who has respect from both sides of the electoral fence.  I lived in the area for 15 years and saw Leonard around town a lot – he’s present.  He’s well liked.  I like him.  He’s a good constituency MLA.

The City has a ton of potential.  It’s growing, it has an underrated university that does great things, an airport that is one of the fastest growing in Canada, and if someone would please figure out a passenger-ferry link to Vancouver, it would be very attractive for housing-stressed families that work in Vancouver area.  It’s a pretty good lifestyle on the mid-Island.  It would be even better if the City could get its act together.

It is surprising though that Leonard would seek to leave his post as MLA.  When I first heard the rumours of his mayoral candidacy, I rejected them out of hand.  Notwithstanding the need in Nanaimo, the NDP have a precarious hold on the Legislature after having endured a sixteen year time-out.  I thought there was no way that a by-election could even be contemplated.

Leonard has been serving as MLA since 2005 (and before that he was a government backbencher from 1991-1996).  He has 17 years of service, but the call to Cabinet did not come last year.  Perhaps, had it not been for Darryl Plecas, he would be Speaker today, and, thus, a central figure in a split Legislature.  That opportunity passed him by as well.  I’m not sure if any of this factored into his decision, but here we are.

If Leonard wins as mayor and resigns as MLA, the Legislature would then stand at 40 NDP, 3 Green, 42 BC Liberal, and 1 Independent until a by-election fills the seat.

If the BC Liberals win the by-election, they would then have as many MLAs as the combined NDP-Greens, with the Independent Speaker (formerly a BC Liberal) holding the tiebreaker.  We can go back a year in time to the exhaustive discussions about how the Legislature will be in gridlock if it is tied.  The recruitment of Darryl Plecas relieved that pressure, but losing the by-election makes the situation worse than it was pre-Plecas, especially when the situation would be one of the NDP’s own making.

It should be noted that there already is a strong candidate in the Nanaimo mayor’s race – Don Hubbard.  Don is a former chair of Vancouver Island University, a former chair of the Vancouver Island Health Authority, past Citizen of the Year, and an active businessperson in the Nanaimo area.  He brings a lot to the table as a mayoralty candidate.  While he does not have the profile of Leonard, Nanaimo has only elected one left-leaning mayor (Joy Leach) since the 1960s, and through much of that time, elected a free enterprise pirate.   Hubbard is more than capable to be the mayor and could save Horgan the grief of a by-election.

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Modern-day Nanaimo Pirate: Is Leonard Krog making John Horgan walk the plank?

If Leonard does win and resign, is there a chance the NDP could lose the by-election?

There are a number of things about the Nanaimo riding to consider.

  • Nanaimo is a north-south City.  The BC Liberals are strong in the north; the NDP are very strong in the south.  A lot of North Nanaimo was previously in the Parksville-Qualicum riding when Judith Reid and Ron Cantelon were the MLAs, but the redistribution prior to 2009 pushed the core Nanaimo seat to the north.  This favoured the BC Liberals chances in Nanaimo, but they have not been able to capitalize on that shift.  Had former BC Liberal MLA Mike Hunter run on the current boundaries in 2005, he would have been very close to winning the seat.  Instead, he lost to Leonard on previous boundaries.
  • Prior to 2017, the boundaries were tweaked.  It improved the riding yet again for the BC Liberals as some polls in the tough south end were swapped over to Nanaimo-North Cowichan while some good BC Liberal polls were added in.  It didn’t help. The BC Liberals did worse in 2017 but that was for other reasons.
  • With Leonard, the NDP had a strong candidate with a strong local brand.  There is no question he added to the NDP margin.  In 2013, BC Liberal Walter Anderson was the 84th of 85 BC Liberal candidates nominated.  He was in Hawaii when the campaign started and was recruited by phone.  He did a good job and lost to Leonard by only 9.5% – not a huge margin, and won 34 polls, indicating a solid base of support.  Had the NDP not had Leonard, had the BC Liberals been more organized, and had the current boundaries been in place, it might have gone to the BC Liberals.  Coulda shoulda woulda.

Chart 1: Total votes in Nanaimo riding by Party (2005-2017)

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  • In 2017, the BC Liberals performed poorly across the entire Island.  While Paris Gaudet increased the number of votes for the BC Liberals compared to 2013, turnout increased considerably with the Greens and NDP also growing.  The spread between the NDP and BC Liberals grew.  Things have changed now.  Christy Clark – who had become a lightning rod – has moved on.  Andrew Wilkinson is yet to be truly introduced to voters.  John Horgan appears strong on the Island but he will not have Leonard on the ballot this time and will have to account for government decisions over the past year.

By-elections in BC suck for governments.  Since 1981 when the Social Credit government won a by-election in Kamloops,  a sitting government has only won by-elections twice and, in both cases, the candidate’s name was Christy Clark (Point Grey and Westside-Kelowna).

The NDP never lost one of their own seats to a by-election in the 1990s, because no one resigned.  In fact, no NDP MLA resigned during the Barrett government either.  If Leonard resigns, it will be the first time in BC history that any NDP MLA has resigned his or her seat while an NDP government held power.

While they didn’t have to defend any seats in the 1990s,  the NDP were trounced in numerous by-elections, including Parksville-Qualicum in 1998 in which Leonard was a candidate.  He had been the MLA in the riding from 1991-1996 but lost in a squeaker to Parksville Mayor Paul Reitsma.  Reitmsa disgraced himself over phoney letters to the editor, and other transgressions, and resigned before he could be recalled.  What was a slim defeat for Leonard in 1996 mushroomed to a 28-point swing and blowout win for BC Liberal Judith Reid in the 1998 by-election.

One year later, in the Delta South by-election,  NDP support plunged from 26% in the previous general election to 2.44%.  This may be a record-low in Canada for an incumbent government in a by-election (which can’t be blamed on the candidate, Richard Tones, who dutifully put his name on the ballot).  Yes, Millennials, the NDP government really was that unpopular.  Is the Horgan government at the same stage as Glen Clark’s government twenty years ago?  No.  Not even close.  But stuff happens and who knows what the next 2, 3, 6 months look like?

(By-elections were not easy for the NDP in the 1990s. In the Matsqui by-election of 1994, the NDP nominated a witch.  The witch did not make it to the ballot).

The BC Liberals had their problems with by-elections too.  Despite being relatively steady in the polls, the BC Liberals lost a relatively safe seat in Coquitlam – Burke Mountain in a 2016 by-election  (a harbinger of things to come).  In 2012, during a time of trouble and turmoil early in her premiership, Christy Clark’s government lost two BC Liberal seats, in Port Moody and Chilliwack-Hope.  Chilliwack-Hope was truly a safe seat yet voters soundly rejected the government.  Is Horgan’s government in the glue as much as Christy Clark’s government was in 2012? No.  Not even close.  But the 2016 example should give them pause for thought.

Since 1981, there have been twelve by-elections were the government defended its seat and government’s record is 2 wins, 10 losses.  Or more precisely, it’s 2 wins for candidate Christy Clark, and 10 wins for the NDP Opposition, which won five by-elections against the Social Credit government between 1984-1989, and five against the BC Liberals between 2004-2016.

Table 1: BC by-elections since 1981 in government held seats

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The average swing against the incumbent government of the day since 1981 is 26%, ranging from a massive 59% swing in Surrey-Panorama in 2004 to a 6 point swing in favour of the government in the by-election that elected Premier Christy Clark in Westside-Kelowna in 2013, the only example where the government improved its position.

Since 2008, leaving Christy Clark out of it, the swings range from 14% to 36%.

The high-stakes Point Grey by-election of 2011, won by Christy Clark, had a 7% swing against the BC Liberal government.  In hindsight, it was a very risky move to run there.

The swing that is needed for the BC Liberals to win Nanaimo is 15%.

Therefore, the swing required for the BC Liberals to win Nanaimo is on the low end of the spectrum.

If I was an NDP strategist, I would be a little nervous about this.  The BC Liberals will be fired up for this opportunity.  There will be no shortage of volunteers and money.  If the free enterprise base can’t be motivated for a high-stakes by-election like this, then the Party has a deeper problem.  I suspect they will rally to support the local campaign, even if the odds are against them.

Finally, it comes down to candidates.  Candidates make a big difference in a local campaign.  Take Leonard away and the NDP lose support.  There is likely not a candidate who is as strong as Leonard available to the NDP.

The BC Liberals must consider carefully their approach too.  This is an opportunity and the Party should be beating the bushes, talking to local members and identifying a range of potential candidates.

The Greens say they will run a candidate.  They improved their vote in 2017 at no consequence to the NDP.  They were also a serious contender in the 2015 federal election in Nanaimo.

As of today, victory still looks like a tall order for the BC Liberals, but not impossible.  I estimate, with my gut, that the BC Liberals have a 20% chance of victory.  That’s worth fighting for, given the stakes, and given the history of swings against governments in by-elections.

Politics is full of surprises – who would have thought Rachel Notley, Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and Doug Ford would be where they are today?  Not to mention John Horgan – he didn’t look like a likely prospect 6-12 months before the election.

The NDP sounded confident in the Province newspaper on Sunday.  “We’re very confident we would win that by-election,” said an NDP official.

Free advice: don’t take the voters for granted.

Especially ones that travel by bathtub.♦

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Electoral Wipe-Outs and the Aftermath

Ontario Liberals are looking into the abyss.  This isn’t news.  Premier Kathleen Wynne said as much already when she conceded defeat, a rare admission by a campaigning incumbent Premier.

But how bad will it be?  And then what?

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It’s just politics.  Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell on Election Night, 1993.

We’ll know Thursday night where the Liberals will stand, but they stand to face drastic losses.  Reaching 10 seats at this point will be a triumph.  Our numbers at Pollara Strategic Insights, applied to a seat model, indicate there is a greater likelihood that they will be reduced to five or less seats.

Canadian politics provides us with several examples of tsunami elections where incumbent governments were literally washed away:

  • 1987 New Brunswick (58 Liberal, 0 PC).  Premier Richard Hatfield had governed uninterrupted since 1971, but by the mid 1980s, his government had lost its way, not to mention Hatfield’s own personal scandals.  Upstart Liberal leader Frank McKenna mobilized the electorate behind his active, youthful leadership.
  • 1993 Canada (PC’s reduced from 169 seats to 2 seats).  After two successive majority PC governments, the fallout of the Charlottetown Accord defeat, rise of Preston Manning’s Reform Party, and imposition of GST had dealt fatal blows to the Mulroney government.  Despite leadership change and the first and only female prime minister in Canadian history, the PCs were obliterated.  The Liberals had been dealt a hobbling blow themselves in 1984 -their worst outcome since Confederation.  Not only did they return with a majority under Jean Chretien in 1993, a key part of three successive wins was their utter domination of Ontario.
  • 2001 BC (77 BC Liberals, 2 NDP).  The BC NDP pulled a rabbit out of the hat in 1996 when incumbent NDP Premier Mike Harcourt gave way to one of his ministers, Glen Clark.  Clark won a majority by a thin margin.  However, Clark’s government was quickly under siege early and never recovered.  Clark resigned and Ujjal Dosanjh led the NDP into an electoral clearcut.  Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won the largest majority in the province’s history.

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There are examples where governing parties have been rendered extinct – the BC Social Credit, United Farmers of Alberta, Alberta Social Credit, Saskatchewan PCs, and Union Nationale come to mind.

The Ontario Liberals look to finish well below Richard Hatfield’s PCs and Ujjal Dosanjh’s NDP in terms of popular vote.  They have fallen below the “pitchfork line” – my newly coined phrase that I am marketing to Canada’s political science professors. It’s that line where – once crossed – a government will never recover because a critical mass of voters is so angry that the incumbent government cannot overcome that passion and intensity.

It’s hard to believe that the Ontario Liberals will become a political DoDo bird.  It’s more likely they will rise again, in due course.  Among the stages of recovery:

  • Mourning
  • Walk of humility
  • The professional class gives way to the true believers and new believers
  • New governments eventually screw up, therefore, opportunity
  • Momentum builds for a comeback
  • Time passes, change is inevitable

1987 New Brunswick – the PCs came back and won the first election after the retirement of McKenna.  It took a while to rebuild and the flash-in-the-pan Confederation of Regions Party supplanted the PCs briefly during that period.  But eventually, voters stopped punishing the PCs and Bernard Lord’s PCs returned to power in 1999. (12 year recovery)

1993 Canada – From two seats, the PCs climbed to official party status, then the merger with the Canadian Alliance, which had evolved itself from the Reform Party.  After forcing a minority in 2004, Stephen Harper won the 2006 election and governed for nine years. (13 year recovery)

2001 BC – the NDP were reduced to two of 79 seats.  They roared back in 2005 almost upsetting the Campbell government, and for the next three elections, there was a 4-point standoff between the governing BC Liberals and NDP.  After 16 years, in 2017, the NDP returned to power, with support from the Green Party.  While missing their chance at the 12 year mark, they are there now. (16 year recovery)

Whatever happens on June 7th, the Liberals will not be dead, they will just be resting.  In all likelihood, they will be back some day.  The three-party system is well-established in Ontario. Maybe it will be the 12 to 16 year range like the examples above.  Or maybe the volatility of today’s politics will expedite that process.

I will draw from my own personal experience.  My first campaign was in 1984 when as a Liberal in the Mission-Port Moody riding, I saw the pitchforks first-hand.  Voters were very angry with the Pierre Trudeau government and weren’t buying the change that John Turner offered as his replacement.  While burma-shaving on the Lougheed Highway in that summer campaign, the rage emanating from the commuters was hotter than the pavement we were standing on.  We were clobbered, going from government to 40 seats – the most humiliating defeat for the Liberal Party since Confederation.  Yet, the Party rebuilt, made a hard charge during the 1988 election, and then won a decisive majority in 1993.  A nine year recovery.

In 1988, I was on hand for Liberal Sharon Carstairs’ amazing breakthrough from one to 20 seats in Manitoba, only a few seats from governing.  Then again in 1991, for BC Liberal Gordon Wilson’s rise to Official Opposition from zero seats.  Turnarounds can be faster than people expect, especially in the social media age.  I mean, six months ago, did anyone – anyone – expect Doug Ford would be the next Premier of Ontario?  Anything can happen.

Ontario Liberals can learn from the 2011 federal election and events thereafter.  It was a humiliating loss for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals and many touted a Liberal-NDP merger, with the NDP having the strong hand.  Until halfway through the 2015 election campaign, it looked like Tom Mulcair’s NDP were the primary opposition to Harper.  Justin Trudeau turned the tables and governs today, taking his party from third to first in probably the most dramatic comeback in Canadian political history.

A huge loss can be a good loss.  It allows for new growth and regeneration.  The Liberals will shake off “government-itis” in the face of the obvious. Voters will want to see that the Party has learned its lesson, has changed, and is offering new leadership.  Internally, the party will need to heal and unify.

Electoral wipe outs – and subsequent recoveries – speak well for our system.   There is elasticity.  Voters are in charge, punishing when they are mad, generous to parties that change and renew.  Parties that can take a punishing hit, rebuild, and contend for power are examples of parties that strive to be inclusive, rather than staying in a narrow box that only appeals to a narrow slice of voters (like the Greens, for example).  For Ontario Liberals, this phase may be over, but it will also be the beginning of something new.

Voter Turnout lessons and what it means for Ontario

Update: My editorial in the Globe & Mail (June 6, 2018)

Ontario voters will render their verdict on June 7th.

It’s a very significant election.  The Liberals have governed since 2003.  A change in Ontario – either to Doug Ford’s PCs or Andrea Horwath’s NDP – will be a major tone-setter for national politics and influence the make up of the issues heading into the 2019 federal election, not to mention the impact it would have on one of the largest sub-national economies in the world.

But of course, only those who actually vote get to decide.  Millions of Ontario residents will avoid the polls altogether.

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Who will end up voting to elect the next Premier of Ontario? (Photo: CBC)

The recent BC election and 2015 federal election provide insight into who will show up to the polls in Ontario, and what it means for parties when the overall voter pool grows, and by how much.

You can’t stand still while the voter pool grows

Like the Ontario Liberals, the BC Liberals won four consecutive elections in BC – and like the Ontario Liberals – a female leader replaced a three-term Premier and won an improbable fourth term for her party.

In the case of BC, Christy Clark succeeded in holding her Party’s overall raw vote and its market share, especially in relation to the BC NDP, and won a majority in 2013.  In 2017, Clark’s BC Liberals still held their raw vote (almost identically), but the voter pool grew resulting in a loss of market share.  The Greens surged and the NDP bridged the gap.  Result: a minority government and we all know how that turned out.

Chart 1:  Raw vote for BC parties (1996-2017)

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In fact, when looking at BC’s historic forces of “Free Enterprise” versus “The Left”, the change over time is quite dramatic.  Free Enterprise has been sitting at around 800,000 voters for 20 years while the NDP/Greens have nearly doubled.  It finally caught up to “Free Enterprise” in 2017.

Chart 2:   Raw vote for Free Enterprise (BC Libs/Right wing parties) vs. NDP/Greens (1996-2017)

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The number of voters in BC provincial elections has climbed steadily since 2009 after a dip, with the total now reaching close to two million. Federal turnout was not that much different than provincial turnout from 2000 to 2011, but exploded in 2015.  Close to 2.4 million British Columbians voted, 20% more than the 2017 BC election.

Chart 3: Total number of voters in British Columbia in recent provincial and federal elections (BC only)

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The federal Conservatives – like the BC Liberals in 2017 – held their raw vote in 2015, but lost market share because almost three million more Canadians cast ballots in 2015 compared to the previous election. The Conservatives were happy with their slice of the pie in 2011, but Justin Trudeau helped bake a bigger pie leaving the Conservatives with their same old slice.  The Liberals were clearly the beneficiary of the increased turnout.

Chart 4: Federal parties’ raw vote totals (2006-2015)

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It also matters where you hold your vote.  Both the Clark BC Liberals and Harper Conservatives actually increased their raw vote in their heartland.  The BC Liberals cleaned up in the Interior while the Conservatives thumped the other parties in Alberta (and gained votes in Quebec).  But they both lost ground in the vote-rich urban regions.

A study of federal voter turnout among registered voters between 2011 and 2015 showed that there was increased turnout in all age groups, but the largest increase was among younger voters.

Chart 5: Turnout rate of registered voters by age group (2011 and 2015 federal elections)

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So, increased voter turnout, means more young people voting, meaning bad news for centre-right parties.  Got it?

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Federal turnout in 2015 was quite exceptional.  It blew the lid off of previous federal elections and, as shown above, the 2017 BC election did not replicate that level of turnout.  Turnout increased, but it wasn’t “Justin-sized”.

In BC, the Golden Agers still rule the roost.  Those aged 55 to 74 punch above their weight.  Compared to their share of the population, those age groups make up a much bigger share of the voter pool.  The 55-64 age group makes up about 17% of the adult population but accounts for about 21% of the voters; the 65-74 age group makes up about 13% of the population but 18% of the voters. Combined, about 30% of the population have close to 40% of the voting strength.  Add the over 75s, who also have a disproportionately large share of voting strength, and you have half of the voting population over the age of 55.

The reverse is true, obviously, for younger voters, particularly those under 35.  Those voters make up about 28% of the population but only about 18% of the voters in BC.

Chart 6: BC age groups as a percentage of the population and as a percentage of voters

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When looking at how age groups compared between the 2013 and 2017 provincial elections, there are interesting findings.  The largest increase by age group was the 65-74s with over 60,000 more voters in that category in 2017.  The next largest increase was 25-34s at close to 40,000.  What explains this?  Demographics partly, but there may be a mini-Justin effect with the Greens inducing turnout (a theory, not proven) and it may have been a result of third-party turnout activism (again, not proven).  These numbers are also the result of Elections BC estimate so we also have to assume they got it right, but it rings true to me. (Not sure what’s going on with that 45-54 category – did I remember to vote?)

Chart 7: Increase in votes by age category between 2013 and 2017 BC elections

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Was the increase in 25-34s concentrated in the Lower Mainland where the BC Liberals suffered heavy losses? I don’t know.  It would be an interesting study to see where in BC the largest increases took place.

The increase in 65-74s – and indeed increases across the board among 55+ age groups, should have been a good thing for the BC Liberals.  The fact is – they didn’t do as well as 2013 with their base.  It wasn’t just young people showing up that made a difference; it was a lack of performance among previous BC Liberal voters.

What does this mean for Ontario?

Let’s take a look at how Ontario provincial elections compare to federal elections when it comes to turnout.

Federal turnout has been consistently higher.   In 2015, 6.5 million Ontario voters galloped to the polls to vote in the federal election, yet no Ontario provincial election has ever seen more than five million voters.

Chart 8: Comparison of number of Ontario voters voting in recent federal and Ontario elections

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Historical election data in Ontario shows us that – only once – has a political party received over two million votes (Premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals in 2003)

Chart 9: Ontario elections since 1990 – total votes and top party votes

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Taking turnout into account relative to federal elections, how many voters can we expect in the June 2018 election in Ontario?  And how many votes will the top party need?

The 2014 election saw provincial turnout at 88% of the level of the dull 2011 federal election.  If the 2018 Ontario election is 88% of the sizzling 2015 federal election, then that would equate to 5.7 million voters in June. That would be a huge increase. I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I think, like BC, there will be an increase in the voter pool – over 5 million for the first time – but probably not as high as 5.7 million.  Even with an increase north of five million, the winning party will likely need a record-setting vote total (+two million) or hope for a good vote split.

Then, who votes?

It is more likely that Ontario’s age composition will resemble BC’s 2017 profile than Canada’s 2015 profile – older people having a disproportionate share.

I looked at the share of each age group in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, and the BC 2017 election, and applied those ratios to Ontario’s population.  Based on these three scenarios, 55+ age group would account for 42% to 48% of the voters in the coming election, compared to 38% share of the population.

Chart 10: Ontario population by age group compared to age models from 2011 and 2015 federal elections, and 2017 BC election

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Does it matter in Ontario?  Typically, the 55+ age group leans right relative to younger voters.  This was certainly the case federally in 2015 and in BC in 2017.

However, in Pollara Strategic Insight’s mid-election survey of Ontario voters, we found that the NDP had gained 7 points among voters aged 50 and over during the first half of the campaign, taking the lead in this category of high-turnout voters.

Chart 11: Pollara Strategic Insights survey results of Ontario election, May 4 & 22, 2018 (50+ voters)

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The striking difference in Ontario is the gender split, with men more likely to vote PC, and women more likely to vote NDP at this stage of the campaign.  From what I have seen over the years, there is not a major turnout difference between men and women, like there is with age.

If the poll results stand, the NDP will have blunted a major advantage for the PCs – support among older voters.  Geographically, there is likely still a PC advantage.  The NDP may be gaining in key demographics, but at the end of the day, it matters where the votes are located – in the ridings.  (More on seat models another day).

Pollara’s research also finds an “enthusiasm” advantage for Doug Ford’s PCs.  Ford Nation is already lining up at the polling stations to vote, they’re so excited, though slightly less so than earlier in the campaign.  The NDP voters are the least excited.  Is that just their nature or is their rise in support a bit thin? In terms of impact on votes, if Ford over performs the polls on Election Day, it may well be because he was throwing red meat to his base, regardless of their age.

Chart 12: Pollara Strategic Insights survey results of Ontario election, May 4 & 22, 2018 (Enthusiasm Gap)

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What does it all mean?

  • When the voter pool grows, parties must grow with it or perish.
  • Older voters (55+) still rule the roost and constitute a majority (or close to it).  They punch above their demographic weight at the polls.  The party with an advantage in this age group will have a turnout advantage.
  • Youth turnout continues to lag behind, but it is growing and becoming a bigger factor.
  • While it will likely be a record turnout for an Ontario election, it is very unlikely that the June election will keep pace with 2015 federal turnout. The unknown is to what extent 55+ age group exerts control over the outcome, or whether Millennials offset their influence by voting in increased numbers.

 

Three lessons for Ontario from B.C. and the world of outrageous politics

Published in Globe & Mail, March 2 / 2018

As Ontario PC members and interested observers brace for the finale of an unanticipated and compressed leadership race, they may wish to take note of how BC Liberals recently selected Christy Clark’s successor using basically the same voting system. Instead of outrageous politics, the boring math will decide the next PC leader, and maybe the next Ontario Premier.

Three key points:

1) Some votes count more than others: In British Columbia, Andrew Wilkinson prevailed in the six-candidate race despite having the fifth-highest number of votes on the first count. How did he win?

It’s a weighted ballot. Every riding is created equally. A riding is worth 100 points, and points are allocated according to the percentage of votes received by each candidate. In Mr. Wilkinson’s case, while he had the fifth-highest number of raw votes on the first count, he had the third-highest number of points because he did well in ridings that had low membership levels (mainly in B.C.’s Interior) where his supporters had higher impact.

 Another candidate, Michael Lee, had more votes than anyone in the race but finished third because his support was concentrated in ridings with big membership lists.

 

2) First choices are important, but second and third choices will decide: It’s a preferential ballot, meaning that you only vote once and you have the opportunity to rank your choices. In the Ontario PC race, there are four candidates.

Mr. Wilkinson started third on the first ballot with only 18 per cent of the weighted votes, but he won. He made huge progress on the third count, and by the fourth count he was second, ultimately winning on the fifth and final count. He climbed throughout the counting process because he accumulated more second and third choices than any other candidate. He especially gained from former finance minister Michael de Jong, with whom he had a formal alliance to support each other as second choice, and from Mr. Lee, whose supporters decisively preferred Mr. Wilkinson over his final-ballot rival, Dianne Watts.

3) Not every voting member stays in the “convention hall” to the end: In the old days, delegates voted on the first ballot, heard the result, then lined up and voted again, and kept doing so until one candidate had a majority. In the Ontario PC system (as was the case in B.C.), members do all of their voting in advance, which means ranking their candidates from 1 to 4. However, they do not have to rank all of the candidates. They can just vote for their first choice if they want, but they might find that their ballot won’t count when it comes down to the final two candidates.

In the BC Liberal race, about one-quarter of the voters who cast a vote on the first count did not have their ballots considered on the final count. They had essentially “walked out of the convention hall” as they did not express a preference for either Mr. Wilkinson or the runner-up, Ms. Watts. Since they had only voted for candidates already eliminated, their ballots were removed from the counting process. Smart candidates will plead for second and third choices from voters who might otherwise “leave the hall.”

 The outcome in B.C. was certainly unpredictable. When it comes down to who wins, the next Leader of the Ontario PCs may be the one who is the best at math.

Ben there, done that

Ben Stewart made way for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 and, last night, the voters of Kelowna West returned him to the BC Legislature to continue his career as MLA.

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Kelowna West MLA-elect Ben Stewart.

Someone had to open up a seat for Premier Christy Clark in 2013 when she was unseated in Vancouver-Pt. Grey despite winning a majority government.  Ben stepped up and, now, he has returned to where he has always truly wanted to be – serving his constituents in the BC Legislature.

Making way for defeated leaders has happened from time to time throughout Canadian history.  Canada’s longest serving prime minister, Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King, lost his seat in York North in 1925.  A seat was made available in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1926 which he won.  He stayed put in Prince Albert until 1945 when he lost his seat again and returned to run in a by-election in Glengarry, Ontario for his final term.  During that 19 year stretch in Prince Albert, he even managed to defeat a young, upstart named John Diefenbaker (the only time two people who served as prime ministers faced each other in an election?).

Ben Stewart’s resignation and return is not the first time this has happened in modern BC political times.  In 1975, NDP Premier Dave Barrett rushed to an election, in part to head off the revival of the Social Credit Party under Bill Bennett.  It didn’t work.  Bennett rallied the forces opposed to the NDP and vanquished the Barrett government, including Barrett himself who lost his seat in Coquitlam to Socred George Kerster by 18 votes.  Vancouver East MLA Bob Williams made way for Barrett, triggering a 1976 by-election that Barrett easily won.  After Barrett’s third successive defeat to Bennett in 1983, he retired and returned the seat to Bob Williams who was elected in a 1984 by-election. Williams had the additional task of fending off newly elected BC Liberal leader Art Lee, the first and only Chinese Canadian political leader of a major party in BC history.  Williams easily won and served until 1991.

As for the significance of the Kelowna-West by-election, here are the results for the last four times those voters went to the polls:

Table 1: Westside-Kelowna (2013) and Kelowna West (2017-8) results

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The 2017 by-election was the first time in four elections since 2013 (two by-elections and two general elections) that four parties had contested the seat.  (The name of the riding changed but the boundaries are identical).

No one party can claim any type of breakthrough.   The BC Liberals held their support, and given that there were two minor parties this time, losing a couple of points compared to previous efforts was bound to happen. (The final by-election results will not be available for a couple of weeks as Section 98-106 votes have not yet been counted.  It likely won’t change much.)

The NDP have slid in the riding since the 2013 general election, which reflects the move away from the NDP in the Interior in the 2017 election, but moreso, it’s the impact of the Greens showing up on the ballot in 2017 and 2018, splitting their vote a bit.  I wouldn’t be too fussed by this result if I was John Horgan.  They didn’t expect to win this and, in the 1990s, when they were deeply unpopular, they would be obliterated in such by-elections.   That wasn’t the case here.

The BC Conservatives returned to the ballot in the 2018 by-election but had a very similar result to the 2013 by-election and much less than 2013 general election.  In 1973, the BC Conservatives had stress tested the then Coalition party (the Socreds) in a by-election in South Okanagan to replace the retiring WAC Bennett.  BC Conservative leader Derrill Warren challenged WAC’s son, Bill Bennett.  The younger Bennett (39%) defeated Warren (24%), settling the issue.  This was significant as, arguably, Warren’s performance in the 1972 general election was a key factor in defeating the Socred government and electing the NDP.  After the ’73 by-election, Warren left BC politics, senior Conservatives joined the Socreds, and Bennett went on to be premier.  The Kelowna West by-election yesterday was decidedly uneventful by comparison.

It’s the Greens that should be down in the mouth.  Despite the controversy over the PipeWine dispute, the NDP held its second place standing comfortably over the bronze Greens.  If anything, it may show that as long as the NDP and Greens are in cahoots, it will be difficult for the Greens to make a relative gain against their Coalition partners.  Maybe they’re happy playing second fiddle.

For new BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, he gets a win under his belt, even if it was gift-wrapped.  His team is back to 42 seats in the Legislature with no nasty surprises.