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