If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals win Canada’s 44th general election, how will it be done? It’s been a topsy turvy campaign for the Liberals with an assumed lead at the outset that appeared to evaporate. In the final days, it’s an open question as to whether they will achieve a plurality and, if so, by how much. In this post, I look at examples of past Liberal wins, and the regional coalitions they were based on, since the 1960s – and which of these scenarios Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might emulate this time (See my recent post: Erin O’Toole’s pathway to power)
Will a Justin Trudeau win be:
- Lester Pearson’s near miss in 1965
- Pierre Trudeau’s close shave in 1972
- Pierre Trudeau’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
- Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ win in 1997 (a model he used three times)
- Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
- His own ‘all-in’ majority win of 2015
- Or his Ontario drawbridge minority of 2019?
Pearson 1965: the near miss
Lester Pearson won a minority in 1963, defeating John Diefenbaker’s minority government that was elected in 1962. The 1965 campaign was their fourth battle and Diefenbaker seemed out of gas. Pearson recruited three star candidates in Québec by the names of Pelletier, Marchand, and Trudeau. Despite boosting support there, Diefenbaker stubbornly clung to support in the rest of Canada (ROC), and rolled back Liberal support to some extent in the west and Atlantic Canada.
The math came up a little short with Pearson winning 49% of the seats (131 of 265). Tommy Douglas’s NDP held the balance of power along with the Social Credit/ Créditistes. Pearson won almost three-quarters of Québec, a majority in Ontario, but did poorly in the West.
Won big in Quebec, majority in Ontario, but lost big-time in the west
PET’s close shave in 1972
Pierre Trudeau’s first win was in the height of Trudeaumania in 1968. He won two-thirds of the seats in B.C. along with a strong showing in Central Canada. By getting more out of the west, he had done what Pearson couldn’t do – win a majority.
The mood soured by 1972. In the rematch with Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Trudeau’s Liberals were very much on the back foot, and reduced to 38% of the vote and 109 seats in a Parliament of 265 members. The Liberals sunk below thresholds that Pearson had won with in 1965, scraping by with a two-seat margin over the PC’s because of its strength in Québec where they won over half of their seats (56).
Won big in Québec, lost majority in Ontario and Atlantic, lost badly in the west
PET’s Central Canadian Special in 1980
In his fifth and final election campaign, Pierre Trudeau drove the Central Canadian Special right down the gut of Canada’s electoral map, winning a majority with 147 of 282 seats (52%).
He took 99% of the seats in Québec and a majority of seats (55%) in Ontario. He had a little help from the Atlantic too, where he had a better result (59%) than the previous two examples. In the west, the Liberals were virtually extinguished, winning two seats in Manitoba. Nuttin’ in BC, Alberta, or Saskatchewan. Blanked in the North as well.
Dominated Québec, majorities Ontario and Atlantic, nowhere in the West
Jean Chrétien’s ‘Ontario, baby!’ in 1997 (and 1993 and 2000)
In his first re-election campaign, Jean Chrétien’s Liberals took 155 of 301 seats for a majority. It was not the mandate that Chrétien received in 1993 but it was still a majority. No party has ever relied upon one region so thoroughly as the Liberals did in this campaign – Ontario – where they won 101 of 103 seats. Ontario accounted for 65% of the Liberal Caucus. This was due to a stubborn vote split where the PC’s and Reformers played chicken with the Liberals coming out on top. Even the NDP couldn’t figure out how to steal some seats from the the wily Shawinigan fox in Ontario.
Unlike PET and the Central Canadian Special, Chrétien only won about one-third of the seats in Québec, and also failed to win a majority of seats in the Atlantic and the west, though he had a much stronger showing in the west and north than PET did in 1980. Chrétien’s Ontario, baby! formula was entirely based on the opposition’s lack of unity. Though it worked three times, it was not sustainable.
Dominated Ontario, got enough from Québec, Atlantic, and west to reach majority
Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
Paul Martin looked like an unstoppable force when he won the Liberal leadership in 2003 but he was bedevilled by lingering scandal from the decade-old Liberal government. New Conservative leader Stephen Harper chipped away, as did new NDP leader Jack Layton. The opposition was now much stronger than the Chrétien years.
Martin did better in the Atlantic and came in about the same in the west as Chrétien, but he could not replicate the Ontario dominance and fell a bit in Québec. Losing 31 seats in Central Canada cost him the majority.
Under any other circumstance, winning 70% in Ontario would be a huge accomplishment but it wasn’t the 98% that Chrétien had, and he couldn’t make those seats up in other regions.
Strong majority in Ontario and Atlantic, weak in Québec and the West
Justin Trudeau’s all-in majority in 2015
Justin Trudeau’s majority in 2015 (54% of seats) was unlike these other examples. It was much more balanced than his father’s majority in 1980 – not as dependent on Québec and much stronger in the west, winning almost 30% of the seats there (the most of any example discussed).
Justin won two-thirds of the seats in Ontario, half in Québec, and 100% in Atlantic Canada. There were no glaring regional weaknesses. Of all the examples, this was the most regionally representative.
Strong majority in Ontario, dominant in Atlantic, majority in Québec, competitive in west
Justin Trudeau’s Ontario drawbridge minority of 2019
Ontario drawbridge minority? In 2019, the Liberals gave up seats in all regions, except Ontario – well, they lost one seat in Ontario. While the Conservatives and other parties were on the march in other regions, the Liberals pulled up the drawbridge in Fortress Ontario, landing Andrew Scheer in an unfortunate Game of Thrones-like situation which resulted in him not being brought back for another season.
The Liberals won 80 seats in 2015, and took home 79 of 121 seats in 2019. In the rest of Canada, the Liberals dropped from 104 seats to 78 – a net loss of 26 and enough to cost them a majority government.
Liberal vote, compared to 2015, sagged in all regions – a loss of 6 seats in BC, 4 seats in Alberta, lost the only Liberal seat in Saskatchewan, gave up 3 in Manitoba, 5 in Québec, and dropped 6 in Atlantic Canada. In the North, they lost 1 of 3 Liberal seats.
What’s different from previous Liberal minorities is that the Liberals maintained a beachhead in Western Canada – in Metro Vancouver and Manitoba – while winning a good chunk of Québec and most of the Atlantic. But when you drop 6 points in the popular vote, and, in fact, lose the popular vote, there are going to be consequences.
Hold Ontario, distributed losses in other regions
What it means for Justin Trudeau, this time
The examples discussed demonstrate that you can win by utterly dominating a large region, as PET did in 1980 and Chrétien did in 1993, 1997, and 2000. However, if there’s not utter domination, there must be some regional balance. Justin Trudeau’s pathway in 2015 to a majority was regional balance – getting enough in all regions. In 2019, he got enough regionally to hang on, but he was backstopped, big time, by Ontario.
This time, much like 2019, the popular vote between the Liberals and the Conservatives has been very tight. However, a shift is afoot. Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives are betting on gains in Ontario, while possibly giving up some support in their Alberta fortress. It is possible that we see more Conservatives in Ontario, and more Liberals in the West.
Justin Trudeau’s pathway to a minority is to make up what he might lose in Ontario with gains in B.C., Alberta, and maybe Québec too. With a 36-seat edge in 2019, he has a bit of wriggle room.
The pathway to a majority is to follow his own footsteps from 2015. Compared to 2019, the Liberals need to crank it up in B.C., win a slice in Alberta, and incrementally grow in Québec and the Atlantic, all while holding down Fortress Ontario. It’s a tall order.