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)
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)
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.