What can we expect for turnout in the Nanaimo by-election?
I took a look at five competitive by-elections since 1989 – government-held seats where both the government and opposition had a good chance to win.
In all of these cases, there should have been ample incentive for both government and opposition to win and, therefore, work hard to get their vote out.
By-election turnout as a percentage of the previous general election ranged from 40% to 89%. None of these examples, nor any example of any by-election in recent memory, saw a higher turnout than a general election. Therefore, it is pretty safe to say that fewer people will vote than the 2017 general election even though Press Gallery sage Keith Baldrey calls it “pivotal” and NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson calls it, “The most important by-election in BC history.”
The NDP pulled off by-election upsets in 1989 and 2012 when they over-performed declining turnout. In both cases, they had more votes than the previous general election. Part of that was motivating their supporters and part of it was winning votes from non-traditional supporters. In two other cases, the NDP still won by-elections from the BC Liberal government even though they had fewer votes compared to the previous election (in which they lost).
Poor old governments. They have a tough time in by-elections. In these five examples, the government of the day had between 30% and 75% of the votes from the previous election. In Oak Bay in 1989, 75% should have been enough to elect Susan Brice. Campaign manager Frank Leonard probably thought he had the votes. But NDP candidate Elizabeth Cull really brought the vote out in an anti-Vander Zalm tide. (It didn’t help the Socreds that Liberal Paul McKivett grabbed 9% either – a story for another day).
The 2011 Pt. Grey by-election is a good parallel for Nanaimo. Here was a newly elected leader of the governing party, Christy Clark, seeking her way into the Legislature. I can say, as her then-Chief of Staff, that I never seriously contemplated losing this by-election. We were too darn busy at the time to think about losing. Yet, with our campaign only garnering 68% of the votes from the previous election, and NDP David Eby garnering 78% of the previous campaign’s NDP votes, it became uncomfortably close. If Eby had taken 90% of the votes of Mel Lehan’s 2009 effort in Pt. Grey, he would have won then, instead of 2013, and created a major problem for me.
In 2017, the Nanaimo riding results were as follows:
So, you can expect there will be less than 27,399 that vote in this by-election. According to recent history, we might reasonably expect a range of 69% (Pt. Grey) to 85% (Chilliwack-Hope) of the previous election, or a range of about 18,900 to 23,300 voters. If 40% share of the popular vote is a win, because of a strong Green in the race, then 7,600 to 9,300 votes might be enough to win. Maybe less if this emerges as a three-way race.
A more recent example is the ProRep referendum.
A total of 19,938 Nanaimo riding residents voted, with a majority (10,785) voting for First-Past-the-Post. Perhaps that’s the floor for the by-election turnout. I will leave it others to speculate what 10,785 First-Past-the-Voters might be thinking about BC politics right now.
Why does this matter?
Because when turnout declines, as it surely will, in this by-election, motivating supporters becomes more important. The three main parties will work very hard to motivate their support base.
The NDP base may not be as strong as some assume. First of all, Leonard Krog is not on the ballot. How much of the vote was NDP and how much was Leonard Krog? We’ll soon find out.
Secondly, Sheila Malcolmson’s support as NDP MP was not as strong as some assume. She only received 33% of the vote in the past federal election. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I think she did better south of the current provincial riding than she did within. That may have been more of a problem with Tom Mulcair’s flagging fortunes than anything, but the fact remains that Malcolmson did not have huge coattails of her own.
You might crunch the 2017 numbers and say, “The NDP still have a pretty big cushion”. You would be right. But go back to 2013 and look at those results. It was a lot closer between the NDP and BC Liberals. How much of a difference will Andrew Wilkinson and Tony Harris make in favour of the BC Liberals, and how much difference did Leonard Krog make for the NDP? We’ll see.