A deeper dive into the conditions for majority and minority governments

I was having a perfectly nice Monday morning doing what most normal people do – blog about obscure electoral statistics.  After posting about the minimum threshold historically needed to secure a majority in Canada, ink-stained wretch Vaughn Palmer entered the conversation on Twitter to make things more complicated.

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My point was that no majority government has ever been formed in Canada over the past century with less than 38.5% of the popular vote.  Fairly straightforward, but Vaughn wanted to belabour it.

So, fine, let’s get into it – when Jean Chrétien won a majority with 38.5% in 1997, he had some help.  The right was hopelessly splintered.  Despite a low popular vote, the Liberals had a 19-point margin over the second place Reform Party, the sixth-largest margin-of-victory, in terms of popular vote between 1921 and 2015. Plus, the Liberals annihilated the opposition in Ontario.  They won virtually every seat.  Let’s also remember the NDP was in the serious doldrums nationally in the 1990s.  It was easy street for the Chrétien Liberals.  Ridiculously easy.

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Of course, Vaughn couldn’t leave it at that.  He had to consult his groaning book shelves for more statistical peculiarities.

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By extending this barely-read Twitter thread, Vaughn was making me think I needed to do a deeper statistical dive.

And I did.  Is there a pattern between polarization and majority/minority governments?  After a pile of work, the answer is… not really.

Here is a chart that shows the combined amount of the top 2 federal political parties (popular vote) from 1921 to 2015.  The blue dots represent majority governments and the black dots represent minority governments.  Some majorities happen when there is low polarization and some

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The ‘extreme polarization’ occurred in 1925 and 1926 when William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen waged battle, and in 1930 when R.B. Bennett prevailed over Mackenzie King, peaking at 93% (combined votes of Liberals and Conservatives).  In spite of the polarization, Mackenzie King and Meighen both failed to win a majority, with the Progressives holding the balance of power.

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William Lyon Mackenzie King: “Majorities are hard”, he might have said.  He finally got one on his 5th try.

Extreme polarization flared up again in 1958 when the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals combined for 87% of the vote (mainly PC).  That’s the last time any two parties combined for over 80%.

The Liberal – PC oligopoly held between the 70% to 80% level from 1962 to 1988.  In the 1990s, all hell broke loose when the PC coalition shattered with the Bloc Québécois going on a five election run of 10% to 13% of the national vote, and the Reform Party devouring the PC’s starting in western Canada.  For six elections between 1993 and 2008, the top 2 level ranged from 58% to 66%.  Very low polarization with many parties receiving double-digit popular vote amounts.

In 2011, the top 2 level rose above 70% and was 71% in 2015.

While this is kind of interesting (to me) about federal polarization, it doesn’t really say much about likelihood of minority and majority governments.

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Vaughn then helpfully recounts how the BC NDP did better in the popular vote – losing – than when they actually won.  True, Glen Clark with 39% and Mike Harcourt with 41% won majorities, while Bob Skelly at 43% was crushed.  Difference was that Skelly faced a dominant Social Credit party while Clark and Harcourt faced a split opposition.

So, I looked at it further, putting aside family time and personal wellness, to deal with Vaughn’s haranguing.

In the past 29 elections, there were 12 where the #1 party won by about 12% of the popular vote or more.  All of those were majorities.

Then there’s a set of 8 elections where the winning party had a popular vote edge of about 7.5% to about 11.5%.  Half of those were majorities, half were minority governments.

Finally, there is a set of 9 close battles where the party with the plurality of seats won the popular vote by 7% to minus 4%.  Huh?  Yes, three governments in the past century lost the popular vote but won the plurality of seats – Mackenzie King in 1926, John Diefenbaker in 1957, and Joe Clark in 1979.  (I should add that Meighen won the popular vote and the plurality of seats in 1925, but Mackenzie King hung on with support of the Progressives, ultimately leading to the King-Byng Affair).  Of those 9 elections, there was only one majority: R.B. Bennett in 1930.

Moral of the story: in #elxn43, the margin between the two parties appears to be pretty close.  The public polls indicate a way lower spread than 7%, at this time.  History tells us that there is strong likelihood of a minority government if it is a tight race, especially if third parties have strongholds where they have a greater chance of winning.

I think we all knew most of that already, but Vaughn has succeeded in sparking a tour through dusty old election results.  Ah, it wasn’t so bad.

***

See below for stats:

Table 1: Results of top 2 parties (1921- 2015); sorted by difference in popular vote between party with plurality of seats, and second place party (pop vote)

Top 2 Margin Plurality 2nd Majority
1993 59.9% 22.55% 41.24% 18.69% y
1940 80.6% 22.08% 51.32% 29.24% y
1984 78.1% 22.01% 50.03% 28.02% y
1958 87.4% 19.92% 53.67% 33.75% y
1949 78.8% 19.50% 49.15% 29.65% y
1997 57.8% 19.11% 38.46% 19.35% y
1953 79.5% 17.41% 48.43% 31.02% y
2000 66.3% 15.36% 40.85% 25.49% y
1935 74.5% 14.84% 44.68% 29.84% y
1968 76.8% 13.94% 45.37% 31.43% y
1945 67.4% 12.16% 39.78% 27.62% y
1980 76.8% 11.89% 44.34% 32.45% y
2008 63.9% 11.39% 37.65% 26.26% n
1921 71.1% 11.20% 41.15% 29.95% n
1988 74.9% 11.10% 43.02% 31.92% y
2011 70.3% 8.99% 39.62% 30.63% y
1963 74.3% 8.68% 41.48% 32.80% n
1965 72.6% 7.77% 40.18% 32.41% n
1974 78.6% 7.69% 43.15% 35.46% y
2015 71.4% 7.58% 39.47% 31.89% y
2004 66.4% 7.10% 36.73% 29.63% n
1925 85.9% 6.39% 46.13% 39.74% n
2006 66.5% 6.04% 36.27% 30.23% n
1972 73.4% 3.40% 38.42% 35.02% n
1930 93.3% 2.29% 47.79% 45.50% y
1962 74.2% 0.25% 37.22% 36.97% n
1957 79.0% -2.00% 38.50% 40.50% n
1926 88.3% -2.45% 42.90% 45.35% n
1979 76.0% -4.22% 35.89% 40.11% n

What is the magic number for a majority in #Elxn43?

We all know that it’s seats that matter, not the popular vote.

How does popular vote translate to seats, and what is the threshold for winning a minority or a majority in federal politics?

In the past 60 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 35.9% for a plurality of the seats, which historically leads to a minority government.  The highest popular vote that did not translate into a majority was 41.5%, therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to be free and clear of a minority.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals finished above the 38.5% ‘minimum’ for majority governments, earning 39.5% of the popular vote.

Chart: Popular vote of party that formed government with plurality of seats

Slide1In fact, only Lester Pearson’s Liberals were unlucky enough to be above the 38.5% mark and not win a majority – in consecutive elections too.  John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives were on the 38.5% line in 1957 and missed out on a majority that time. In 1958, he took care of business with a majority of seats and votes.

Jean Chrétien in 1997 had the lowest popular vote at 38.5% in past 50 years to win a majority.  Here is a list of the majorities and popular vote since 1957:

Majorities PM Vote
1958 Dief 53.7%
1968 PET 45.4%
1974 PET 43.2%
1980 PET 44.3%
1984 Mulroney 50.0%
1988 Mulroney 43.0%
1993 Chrétien 41.2%
1997 Chrétien 38.5%
2000 Chrétien 40.9%
2011

2015

Harper

Trudeau

39.6%

39.5%

Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives had the lowest popular vote to win a plurality of seats (35.9%).  Not only that, he lost the popular vote by five points to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, but he still won more seats.  Here are the minority governments:

Minorities PM Vote
1957 Dief 38.5%
1962 Dief 37.2%
1963 Pearson 41.5%
1965 Pearson 40.2%
1972 PET 38.4%
1979 Clark 35.9%
2004 Martin 36.7%
2006 Harper 36.3%
2008 Harper 37.7%

Sure, a majority could be earned nationally with less than 38.5% of the vote.  It’s happened provincially.  François Legault won a majority with 37.4% of the vote in Québec’s 2018 election.  The Bob Rae government scored 57% of the seats with 37.6% of the vote in 1990.

The 2019 election and after

So far in the 2019 election, the public polls indicate that the two contending parties – Liberals and Conservatives – are falling below the 38.5% threshold.

If they continue to hover in the 35% range, the likelihood of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, Yves-François Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois, and/or Elizabeth May’s Greens holding the balance of power increases.  It could even be an independent if the margin between minority and majority is razor thin.

Canada was governed by minority governments from 2004 to 2011.  It was Jack Layton’s NDP that pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s Liberal government.  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives governed with a minority for five years thanks to the NDP.

This time, winning a plurality of seats is no ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office.  Jagmeet Singh has said as much.  Elizabeth May says she may not decide to prop up anyone.  Andrew Scheer may find it harder to pull together confidence than Stephen Harper – the Bloc Quebecois may be his only hope, which would be ironic when considering the aftermath of the 2008 election.

Crossing that line of 38.5%, or wherever it exactly lies, will ensure the government is decided on election day.  Falling short means that winning the confidence of 338 Members of Parliament will be the election that takes place soon after, and that will be decided in the backrooms.

Will the biggest surprise of #Elxn43 be that there’s no surprise?

There seems to be a growing media / insider consensus about the October 21st federal election:

  • Liberals will win a plurality of seats
  • Conservatives can’t win because they are being held back by Doug Ford
  • The NDP are in double trouble
  • The Greens are going to increase their seat count, notably on Vancouver Island
  • The Peoples’ Party remains a fringe party, unlikely to be a major factor

With 38 days to go until election day, it’s worth noting that the past two federal elections featured major surprises . The convention wisdom of Day 38 was turned on its ear by Election Day.

In 2011, according to public polls, Jack Layton’s NDP started a fair distance behind Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.  Within the first two weeks, the cane-wielding Layton made his move, based on a groundswell in Quebec, and eclipsed the hapless Liberal campaign. Once the NDP passed the Liberals, the equation changed and the Liberal business case collapsed (‘vote Liberal as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’).  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were an immovable block in that campaign and stayed on top throughout, but the churn below in the opposition was dramatic.

Chart 1:  2011 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

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In 2015, Thomas Mulcair’s NDP were seen as the prime opponent of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives leading into the election.  While Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were successful attracting candidates and generating crowds, it took a while before the polls responded.  No one was predicting a Liberal majority in early August.

Two significant events happened.  The Trudeau Liberals’ jujitsu move on deficit financing caught the NDP flat-footed.  Mulcair’s conservative approach was addressing a perceived weakness on their competence and to make the NDP less scary to Canadians on economic issues.  The Trudeau campaign detected a mood in the electorate that wanted more activism from government.  The Liberal move shook up the campaign on the left side of the spectrum.

Second, there was a huge political disruption in Quebec.  The Harper Conservatives move to stimulate a debate on cultural issues backfired.   By devastating the NDP campaign, the Conservatives elevated the Liberals.  As the NDP dropped in Quebec, its national polling numbers dipped allowing the Liberals to surpass them.  Once that happened, the business case for the NDP collapsed with the Liberals winning the ‘primary campaign’ to be the main challenger to Stephen Harper.  The NDP tanked and finished over 10 points below where they started the campaign.

Chart 2:  2015 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

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Campaigns matter.  The events of the 2011 and 2015 campaigns were driven by campaign strategy.  This is how surprises happen, when smart campaigns detect a ripple and turn it into a wave, while less seaworthy campaigns are beached.

Sure, this federal campaign could be about as boring as the Chrétien re-elections of 1997 and 2000.  The Stephen Harper re-election in 2008 was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

What constitutes a good and bad surprise for the parties in 2019?

Liberals: despite controversies, they win a majority at or above 2015 or fall below the Conservatives in seat count

Conservatives: Andrew Scheer outperforms low expectations and wins a majority or significantly falling below 2015 performance in seats and popular vote

NDP: Jagmeet Singh outperforms very low expectations and wins 30+ seats or the NDP is driven deep into single digits and fall behind Greens

Greens: Move into third place nationally in seats or fail to make a meaningful breakthrough

Peoples Party: Win more than 5% nationally and contest seats other than Maxime Bernier (this would be a big surprise) or … expectations are so low that I’m not sure there is a bad surprise.

Turnout – Will turnout be as strong as 2015 or will it fall below 50%?

These good/bad surprise scenarios seem timid.  There could be wilder outcomes (eg. Rachel Notley-esque). The biggest surprise will be if there is no surprise at all.

Campaigns matter.  We’ll see in the next two weeks if there is a big move to be made.

The pollsters, pundits and political scientists now take a back seat to the people.  They will decide what happens and no one truly knows what to expect.

** Media elder Vaughn Palmer notes the Bloc Quebecois’ ability to surprise, which I overlooked.

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