The Top 2 parties ain’t what they used to be

The Top 2 parties routinely took three-quarters of the popular vote between them until Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard came along and blew up Canada’s political landscape. It hasn’t been the same since.

Going back to John Diefenbaker’s win in 1957 through to Brian Mulroney’s win in 1988, the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals had a duopoly, averaging 77% between them in the elections over that time. Since 1993, the top 2 parties have averaged only 66% between them, with other parties taking a greater share of the popular vote. And sometimes, the Liberals and Conservatives weren’t even in the top 2.

In 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party, which had won back-to-back majorities, disintegrated due to the centrifugal forces of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the imposition of the GST, plus a bunch of other stuff. The day after the 1993 election, those wearing blue pyjamas woke up in cold sweats facing a Quebec separatist party as Official Opposition led by a former senior Minister in the Mulroney government, a western alienation party as the third party led by a prominent small c conservative, and, relegated to fourth place, the once mighty PC party reduced to two seats. A waking nightmare! I imagine there is a plaque at the Albany Club that refers to this dark day.

Since 1993, the Top 2 parties have only combined for over 70% of the votes only twice – both when majority governments were formed (Harper 2011, Trudeau 2015).

The chart below shows the combined popular vote of the top 2 parties since 1957. For the most part, the Liberals (red) and (pre 1993-Progressive) Conservatives (blue) have been the top two parties. In terms of popular vote, the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance (purple) were 2nd place finishers in 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections. Jack Layton’s NDP (orange) finished second in 2011, the only time in 21 elections the Liberals were not in the Top 2.

The black line shows the margin of victory (popular vote) between the 1st and 2nd place parties. In two instances, the winning party, that went on to govern, had fewer votes than the 2nd place party. In 1979, Joe Clark’s PC’s won more seats but trailed the Liberals by over 4% in the popular vote. In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives won the popular vote by about 1% but Justin Trudeau’s Liberals had more seats. Polling as of August 24th is shown, accounting for a combined 64% between the top 2 parties.

What the black line does show is that majorities happen when there is a significant margin between the top 2 parties. In the 1990s, when the Top 2 parties had less share of the vote, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals were walloping the split conservative factions, divided between Reform/Alliance and the PCs. Chrétien’s margin of victory was between 15% to 23% over those three elections. The right wingers got the ol’ Shawinigan handshake in those days.

It’s tightened up since then due to the Conservative merger leading into the 2004 election. Harper and Trudeau won majorities with 9% and 8% margins of victory respectively. In fact, since Diefenbaker, no party has won a majority with less than a 7.7% margin of victory. (Harper missed a majority in 2008 despite winning the popular vote by 11% – no matter how many votes you get in Alberta, you can only win a riding once per election)

It doesn’t mean that a majority can’t be won with a margin lower than 7%. Last election, the Trudeau Liberals were only 13 seats shy of a majority despite losing the popular vote. They had very efficient vote distribution. With votes in the right places, they could win a majority with less than a 5% margin over the Conservatives – and they would be making history if they did so. Right now, the public polls indicate the gap has tightened between the two parties in the first week of the campaign so if either party is going to take a majority, they have work to do.

It’s tough enough for any party to get to 40% these days, making the 50%+ wins of Diefenbaker in 1957 and Mulroney in 1984 ever more impressive. Both Progressive Conservatives, go figure.

The growing share of other parties since 1993 also makes it tougher to win a majority. The NDP, the Greens, and, most notably, the Bloc are taking seats off the table from the Top 2 parties. It was easy for Chrétien when he could dominate a split opposition just as it was easy for Harper in 2011 when he the centre-left was split. In the context of a competitive two-way race, with lots of other parties cluttering the landscape, it will take a combination of overall popular vote strength and efficiency, meaning winning more seats by a little versus winning fewer seats by a lot.

At the end of the day, we count seats not votes in Parliament. But the history of popular vote signals what it takes to win in the fragmented post-1993 era.

See the data below:

Govt2ndOtherTotalMargin
195739%41%21%79%-2.0%
195854%34%13%87%19.9%
196237%37%26%74%0.3%
196341%33%26%74%8.7%
196540%32%27%73%7.8%
196845%31%23%77%13.9%
197238%35%27%73%3.4%
197443%35%21%79%7.7%
197936%40%24%76%-4.2%
198044%32%23%77%11.9%
198450%28%22%78%22.0%
198843%32%25%75%11.1%
199341%19%40%60%22.6%
199738%19%42%58%19.1%
200041%25%34%66%15.4%
200437%30%34%66%7.1%
200636%30%34%67%6.0%
200838%26%36%64%11.4%
201140%31%30%70%9.0%
201539%32%29%71%7.6%
201933%34%33%67%-1.2%

Drawing the line on a majority government

When it comes to winning a majority government, what does it take in terms of popular vote? While its the number of seats, and not the number of votes, that truly matters, popular vote is a guide as to the likelihood of whether the leading party forms a minority or majority government.

In the past 65 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 33.1% (the Liberal 2019 result) 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% (Pearson, 1963), therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to most likely be free and clear of a minority.

Over under

In fact, the 2019 election was the first time the governing party was elected with less than 34% of the popular vote.  Justin Trudeau’s 33.1% was the new low, falling beneath John A. Macdonald’s 34.8% from Canada’s first post-Confederation election in 1867.

In 2019, the relative standings of the major parties were fairly consistent except for a latter-campaign uptick for the NDP. No major reversals of fortune took place with no party able to pull away to gain a majority.

Source: Wikipedia

It was a different story in 2015. The Liberals eclipsed the NDP mid-campaign, won the ‘Stop Harper primary’, and gained separation over a static Conservative voter base. (In 2011, Jack Layton’s NDP eclipsed Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals during the writ period).

Source: Wikipedia

There are different pathways to a majority as parties cobble together seats across the provinces. For the Liberals, a assuming they are BLOCked from major gains in Quebec, it’s getting more out the regions outside of Ontario. For the Conservatives, it’s doing better, much better, in Ontario – in 2011, Stephen Harper won 69% of Ontario’s seats, but in 2019, Andrew Scheer only took 30% of the seats there. For both the reds and the blues, the competitive British Columbia battleground can add the mustard to the winning hot dog.

Momentum shifts can take place, sometimes imperceptibly. The public pollsters are telling us, in Election 2021, that no party has demonstrated it’s in ‘majority territory’. In this day and age, with the Bloc taking a good share of votes in Quebec, and the Greens and PPC carving upwards of 10% of the vote, a majority may not require 38.5%, but until a party climbs above 36-37%, it’s most likely that a minority government, in some form, will be the likely outcome.

The seats to watch in BC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears poised to call an election for September 20th with the hopes of attaining a majority of the seats. The Liberals won 157 seats in 2019, falling 13 short of a majority. Losing six seats in BC certainly didn’t help.

The Liberals enter this election with 11 seats in BC.

Party BC standings20152019
Liberals1711
Conservative1017
NDP1411
Green12
Independent01

In 2019, there were 32 seats in BC that stayed the course and 10 seats that switched hands, mostly at the expense of the Liberals.

Riding2015 winner2019 winner
Vancouver GranvilleLiberal – floor crossing to independentIndependent
Steveston – Richmond EastLiberalConservative
Pitt Meadows – Maple RidgeLiberalConservative
Cloverdale – Langley CityLiberalConservative
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser CanyonLiberalConservative
Kelowna – Lake CountryLiberalConservative
South Surrey – White RockConservative – Liberal (by-election)Conservative
Nanaimo – LadysmithNDP – Green (by-election)Green
Port Moody – CoquitlamNDPConservative
Kootenay – ColumbiaNDPConservative

*The Liberals had 17 seats heading into the 2019 election, with the election of Gordie Hogg in the South Surrey-White Rock by-election offsetting the loss of Jody Wilson-Raybould who was sitting as an Independent at dissolution. Paul Manly of the Green Party won a 2019 by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, filling the seat vacated by NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson.

The Conservatives gained eight seats in the 2019 election (winning back one that they lost in a by-election), though Conservative governments have typically relied on winning a majority of seats in BC, or close to it. In Stephen Harper’s 2011 election victory, the Conservatives won 21 of 36 BC seats.

Given the amount of dancing and celebrating on Election Night, the NDP campaign was seen as a ‘success’ in 2019 despite losing seats nation-wide and in BC. Blessed by low expectations, they ended up salvaging 11 of 13 held seats in BC, but failed to win back Nanaimo-Ladysmith which they lost in a by-election. The Greens doubled their seat count, while Jody Wilson-Raybould defended her seat as an independent.

All eyes on BC’s battleground ridings. (image: CBC)

What’s ahead in the 2021 election?

The Liberals have been leading in BC according to various pollsters. Pre-writ polls are an unreliable indicator of future events, since most voters won’t tune-in until the writ period. But going with the prevailing trend right now, the Liberals look poised to retain and add seats, the NDP are competitive and in a position to add seats, and the Conservatives’ biggest battle will be in seat retention. Again, things can change. “Campaigns matter”, scream political strategists everywhere.

As of Friday, August 13th, the CBC poll tracker has the popular vote in BC at an aggregated 34% Liberal, 29% NDP, and 26% Conservative. This is basically a return to 2015 popular vote numbers in BC for the Liberals, when they had a plurality of the seats. The Conservatives are going in the wrong direction. The NDP look stronger compared to 2015 and 2019, while the Greens appear to be struggling compared to the last election.

What’s striking about the table below is how fast things change. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a massive win in 2011, along with a strong popular vote result from Jack Layton’s NDP. The dramatic resurgence of the Liberals in 2015 reshaped the landscape into a 3-way BC battle, which is where we are at today.

Party – Popular vote (BC)2011201520192021 polls*
Liberal13%35%26%34%
Conservative46%30%34%26%
NDP33%26%24%29%
Green8%8%13%7%

A rough application of current aggregated poll results to seats would see the Liberals win about 19 seats, the Conservatives cut down to 9, the NDP up to 13, and the Greens down to 1.

The campaign hasn’t even started yet, so you can consider those projections as written in sidewalk chalk during a rainstorm.

But where is the battleground right now? Largely in those seats listed above – the ones that changed hands between 2015 and 2019. Given the Liberals’ current strength, this is where they would likely win next. The NDP would see opportunities to win Conservative seats and edge out both parties in tight 3-way races.

Liberal Targets (previously held)Liberal Targets (not held 2015-2019)
Vancouver-GranvillePort Moody-Coquitlam
Steveston-Richmond EastRichmond Centre
South Surrey-White RockLangley-Aldergrove
Cloverdale-Langley CityKamloops-North Thompson
Pitt Meadows-Maple RidgeVictoria
Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Kelowna-Lake Country

The previously-held targets are fairly straight-forward. They won there recently and, with Conservative weakness, can likely win there again or come close. In the other targets, the Liberals almost won Port Moody-Coquitlam in 2019 and presents itself as a juicy target. The rest of the list are outliers. Richmond-Centre has held firm behind Alice Wong, but this could be the time the Liberals win back the seat held by Raymond Chan for several terms? Langley-Aldergrove, by virtue of being a suburban riding in Metro Vancouver, could be in play (the BC NDP won there last year). It is hard to envision the NDP losing a seat to the Liberals on Vancouver Island – it would require Green voters to defect to the Liberals. Unlikely, but Victoria may be the Liberals best shot on the Island (some wags may argue Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke). Kamloops was close in 2015 and would require Conservative collapse of sorts. The inimitable Terry Lake learned the hard way in 2019. Right now, I would expect the Liberals would view 17 seats in BC as a minimum target with stretch goal of 19-20.

NDP Targets (previously held)NDP Targets (not held 2015-)
Port Moody-CoquitlamPitt Meadows-Maple Ridge
Nanaimo-LadysmithCoquitlam-Port Coquitlam
Kootenay-ColumbiaMission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Burnaby North – Seymour
Vancouver-Granville

The NDP are likely circling Nanaimo-Ladysmith like a Stanley Park coyote, looking to take a bite out of the Green Caucus. With Greens in disarray, MP Paul Manly may need to win as a virtual Independent. Port Moody-Coquitlam was held by Fin Donnelly and was a near-miss in 2019. The belt of ridings on the north side of the Fraser River from Coquitlam out to Mission and up the Canyon have elected many NDP representatives over the years and could be fertile ground if the NDP moves up the ladder. Burnaby North-Seymour seems like a reasonably safe Liberal seat, but the last election saw the mid-campaign firing of the Conservative candidate. Now that is reset, and the NDP candidate is a known quantity on the North Shore, it might intrigue orange strategists. Another outlier could be Vancouver-Granville where the NDP would expect to run second and could contend with a strong candidate and JWR dynamics. NDPers may argue that Cloverdale-Langley City could follow the pattern of the BC election where NDP MLAs were elected in hitherto safe ‘free enterprise’ seats. My take is that the federal Liberals will be the non-Conservative contender.

The Conservatives, until they right the ship, will be thinking retention. Of course, in order to win the election, they need to do a lot better than that. A lot can happen in 35 days and recent history proves that. Where would the Conservatives win next, beyond their current seats, if the winds of change blow in their direction?

  • South Okanagan – West Kootenay: NDP edged the Conservatives by 3% in 2019
  • North Island – Powell River: this is one riding with an issue that favours the Conservatives – salmon farming. Conservatives offer a clear alternative to NDP and Liberals. NDP edged CPC by 5% in 2019.

In the Lower Mainland, the Conservatives have retreated from the City and have done poorly in the suburbs in successive elections. Targets to reclaim would be:

  • Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam: former stomping grounds of James Moore
  • Fleetwood-Port Kells: narrow loss to the Liberals in 2019
  • West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky: with Avi Lewis as NDP candidate, a usually strong Green effort, and Liberal who won with 35% last time, Conservatives could fantasize about ‘coming up the middle’. Former CPC MP is running again.
  • Vancouver South: Liberals won by only 8% in 2019. Conservaitives would need to do well in Chinese community.

As for the cuddly Greens, they don’t look as cuddly this time with their dirty laundry strewn about. Elizabeth May appears to be electable in her own right and not requiring brand support. Paul Manly, as noted above, will be in for a tougher time. While they have contended on the South Island in the past, it doesn’t look like fortunes favours them this time.

That’s what the battleground looks like to me … today. Prove me wrong in the comments as you wish.