Does Erin O’Toole have a pathway to power?
One way to find out is to ask how the math worked for six (Progressive) Conservative wins dating back to 1962. Excluding the freakishly large Mulroney win in 1984, examples of Conservative wins provide insight as to how O’Toole can find his pathway to power.
Of these six examples, only two resulted in majorities. One example – Mulroney ’88 – was the ‘Quebec-Alberta bridge’, where the PC’s dominated in both. The second example – Harper 2011 – was domination in English Canada.
(This article updated – first published in 2019)
Dief won a minority government in 1962 following a massive majority he won in 1958. In the ’62 campaign, Dief’s Tories won 44% of the seats on 37.2% of the popular vote.
The plurality was based on winning two-thirds of the seats in the West and North and two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. He lost the huge gains he had made in Quebec.
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario
It was a long wait for the PC’s to win another government and Joe Clark came close to a majority (48% of seats) with less than 36% of the popular vote. No government has won a majority with less than 38%. In fact, Clark lost the popular vote by over 4%.
How did he win a plurality? Domination in the West by winning almost three-quarters of the seats there, and winning a strong majority (60%) of seats in Ontario.
While he won a majority of seats in Atlantic Canada, he was virtually shut out of Quebec. This template was virtually the one with which Harper won a majority with in 2011.
Won big in the West, won majority of seats in Ontario, but blown out in Quebec
Brian Mulroney won everywhere in 1984 in what was truly a change election. However, in 1988, the ‘free trade election’, it was much more competitive. In the West, Mulroney had to contend with an upstart Reform Party and strong NDP campaigns.
Mulroney managed a majority of seats in the West (54%) but Conservative share of seats in that region was the lowest level of these six examples. While Alberta was dominated by PCs, BC went NDP and Liberals made gains in Manitoba. The PC’s came close to winning a majority of seats in Ontario (47%). The big difference was Quebec. Unlike the five other examples, Mulroney won big in la belle province, taking 84% of its seats. The Quebec-Alberta bridge delivered a majority – the PC’s held 57% of the seats in the House of Commons.
Won big in Quebec to complement bare majority (50%) of seats in combined West/Ontario
In Stephen Harper’s first successful election, he won a plurality (40% of seats) with 36% of the popular vote. The Conservatives won two-thirds of the seats in the West but less than two-fifths of the seats in Ontario. The shape of Harper’s win was similar to Dief’s in 1962 except that Dief won in Atlantic Canada and Harper fell far short. Both did poorly in Quebec. But after 13 years of Liberal government, a win’s a win!
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario
Stephen Harper fought hard for a majority in 2008 but fell just short with 46% of the seats on 38% of the popular vote. The shape of this win was similar to 2006, except that the Conservatives amped it up in the West (76% of seats) and Ontario (48% of seats). They continued to fall short in Quebec (13%) and Atlantic Canada (31%). Compared to 1962 and 1979, the West/Ontario rose from 59% to 65% of the seats in the House of Commons making it more possible to win with a strong position in those regions, but Harper needed a clear win in Ontario in 2008 and he didn’t get it. In the aftermath of the 2008 election, Harper almost saw his minority mandate slip away when the opposition parties ganged up to – almost – catapult outgoing Liberal leader Stephane Dion into 24 Sussex Drive. It surely made Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper hungrier for a majority the next time.
Won big in the West, fell short in Ontario – again
Harper finally gets his majority winning 54% of the seats on the strength of 40% of the popular vote. The Conservatives dominated the West (78% of seats) and Ontario (69% of seats). They also raised their game in Atlantic Canada (44% of seats) while falling back in Quebec (7% of seats).
The Harper win was a souped-up Joe Clark pathway to power – winning everywhere while being trounced in Quebec. The difference was that Harper got more out of the West and Ontario than Clark.
Won very big in the West, won strong majority in Ontario
Table 1: Popular vote, Percentage of total seats for examples
What it means for O’Toole
Given the Conservatives’ chronic lack of success in Québec, O’Toole’s Conservatives must dominate Western Canada while pushing toward a majority of seats in Ontario. There are now more seats in these two regions than there were in the examples listed above.
- West (and North) 107 seats + Ontario 121 seats = 228 seats (67% of all seats in the House of Commons)
The Conservatives dominated Alberta and Saskatchewan in 2019 – 69% of the popular vote in Alberta and 64% in Saskatchewan, winning all but one seat. It was a Big Blue Wave from Yellowhead to Prince Albert. The swamping of the prairies helped the Conservatives win the national popular vote, which was cold comfort considering we measure power by the seats. Outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Scheer’s Conservatives didn’t measure up. They didn’t get enough out of B.C., Québec, the Atlantic, and certainly did not get enough out of Ontario. In fact, the Liberals virtually locked in their 2015 Ontario results onto the 2019 map.
Erin O’Toole’s team has clearly decided that winning big on the Prairies and losing big in Ontario is a pathway to Stornaway. The Conservative campaign has shifted its focus to appeal more broadly in urban and suburban ridings, especially Ontario. As is often the bargain, move in one direction and face a rearguard action from the other. Gains made in the middle have been challenged by populist rage on the right under the leadership of Mad Max.
O’Toole cannot replicate the Mulroney ’88 win – he doesn’t have the support in Québec and may lose seats in Alberta as well. It does not look like O’Toole has the support to pull off the Harper 2011 majority win which was dominance in the West and a strong majority in Ontario.
He’s looking at a Dief ’62 / Clark ’79 model – strong showing in the West and stronger showing in Ontario compared to Scheer, combined with modest gains in Québec and the Atlantic. B.C. is a wildcard – he really needs to push toward winning half of the 42 seats in B.C. (a gain of 4), but throughout this campaign, public polling indicates a competitive three-way race without any party pulling away to make major gains. We’ll see.
Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives lost 157-121 in seats. A simplistic view is for O’Toole to hold steady outside of Ontario and flip 20 seats in Ontario, for a narrow plurality. The Liberals won Ontario by 9-points in 2019 and have not been near that mark so far in public polling. So, if O’Toole can get to Joe Clark levels in Ontario, and nets out the same in the rest of Canada, he might get there.
But it isn’t that easy. Despite how tantalizing the opportunity in the middle is to Conservative strategists, a renegade crew of angry, non-vaxxed populists could put a barricade across the pathway to victory by weakening fortress Alberta and splitting the vote in key battlegrounds. In this respect, there are parallels to Mulroney’s ’88 win in that the PC’s had to fend off pesky Preston Manning and the Reform Party in order to protect the fortress. Mulroney defended his fortress in 1988 before watching the walls crumble in 1993; the assault on O’Toole’s fortress is happening in real-time.
Prime Minister O’Toole? It could happen, but he needs a combination of Joe Clark math and Mulroney ’88 magic.
In a future post, I will look at the Liberal path to re-election.
Table 1: Results from six (Progressive) Conservative wins