Interpretations of the Calgary-Greenway By-election

Yesterday’s provincial by-election in Calgary-Greenway has contradictory interpretations.

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Interpretation of Calgary-Greenway is not straight-forward

It was a four-way race ranging from 27.7% for the winning PC candidate to 20.2% for the fourth-place NDP.  It’s rare to see four candidates place above 20%.  I could not find one such example in the 2015 federal election, unless you count Nanaimo-Ladysmith where the four-way race had the 4th place Greens at 19.7%.

In Calgary-Greenway, when only 7.5% separates 1st and 4th, it’s hard to see it as Earth-shaking.  Nevertheless, the PCs won and a win is a win.  Therefore, interpretation #1 is that the PCs are alive, that they must still be reckoned with, and the NDP’s relegation to fourth is a sign of their demise.

Interpretation #2 is that the Centre-Left (NDP/Liberal) has made major gains in this riding since 2012 and further reduced the PC-Wildrose combined vote from 2015.  In 2012, the NDP-Liberal vote in this riding was a combined 15.5%; in yesterday’s by-election it was 42.8%.  It rose from 36.2% in 2015 and given that that was solely the NDP vote, one can see how the NDP benefit from no Liberal in the race.

Table 1: Popular vote of parties in 2012 General Election (GE), 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.06 AM.png

As Table 1 shows, the NDP was actually five times higher than its 2012 vote and the Liberals have doubled from 2012.  There is a lot of talk about PC-Wildrose cooperation, but the centre-left should probably be viewed in the same way.  Not that there is an imminent merger, but there is a competition for like-minded voters.  The Liberals bothered to show up to the by-election after missing the 2015 GE and their impact was significant.  That may be in part a result of local candidate influence, but I’m not sure how many saw the Liberals competing to win the seat.

Table 2: Raw vote of parties in 2012 GE, 2015 GE, and 2016 by-electionScreen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.42.15 AM.png

The 2012 GE and 2016 by-election are interesting comparisons because the overall number of voters is very similar.  It shows the overall reduction in votes for the PCs and Wildrose (centre-right) and the significant increase for the NDP and Liberals (centre-left).  Let me nail this point a little harder in Chart 1 below:

Chart 1: Combined popular vote of PC-WRP (blue) and NDP-Lib (red)Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.02.12 AM.png

Unlike the recent BC by-elections in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver-Mt. Pleasant, turnout in Calgary-Greenway as a percentage of the previous election was relatively high, and as noted, about the same as the 2012 GE.  The by-election turnout was about two-thirds of the 2015 GE turnout while the BC by-elections were about 40% of the previous GE.  That indicates a higher interest and engagement in the outcome and its possible impact on the next election.

If I was a PC or Wildrose strategist, I would interpret this result with some nervousness.  The pool of centre-left voters in this by-election was almost evenly split.  The voter pool that existed in 2015 massively went toward Rachel Notley’s NDP.  This is basically the Justin Trudeau/federal NDP vote bloc.  The Stephen Harper vote bloc was much larger provincially, but is also split.  A consolidated centre-left offering (whereas those voters group behind one strong alternative) appears still able to defeat a split PC/Wildrose offering.

In reality, it is more complicated than described above.  Voters move around between parties with more fluidity – a Liberal may never consider NDP and a PC may never consider voting Wildrose, and vice versa.  But the by-election does show that the situation has become more, not less murkier as a result of Tuesday’s outcome.  It’s too early, much too early, to write off the Alberta NDP.

Finally, it must be noted that – probably for the first time in Canada – there was a competitive four-way race between four South Asian candidates.  This may well have created a dynamic that disrupted prevailing provincial political currents.  I’m not close to the ground so I defer to others and invite comments.  Regardless, the fact remains that the market share for the Centre-Left in this riding has increased sharply since 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A deeper dive on BC By-election turnout

My post on by-election turnout earlier this week was picked up in the Vancouver Sun and Globe & Mail, proving that there’s a lot of interest in apathy.

In my earlier post, I stopped at 2004 in terms of comparing turnout to past BC by-elections.  Because I couldn’t help myself, I have now gone back to 1981 to see how engaged BC voters have been when it comes to mid-term voting.  If you’re not a political junkie, avert your eyes.  This is really geeky stuff.

obit-bill-bennett

Bill Bennett was successful in electing a government member in the 1981 Kamloops by-election.  It hadn’t happened since 1966 and it hasn’t happened since, unless the candidate’s name was Christy Clark.

This week, turnout in the two by-elections was less than 22% of eligible voters.  Put another way, the turnout was only 39% and 41% of the voters who voted in the 2013 general election.  In Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, less than 8,000 voted in the by-election compared to about 20,000 in 2013.My review of 15 by-elections between 1981 and 1999 shows a much higher turnout by comparison.

Only one by-election had less than half the voters of the previous general election – that was in Vancouver-Quilchena in 1994 when Gordon Campbell was elected to the Legislature for the first time.  He won in a cakewalk so arguably voters didn’t see a lot of reason to vote.

Table 1: Turnout in by-elections compared to preceding General Election.  Asterisks (**) indicate a two-member seat.  Until 1991, BC had some riding that had two members with voters having the choice to vote for two MLAs on their ballot.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 9.38.09 PM.png

The other 14 by-elections saw a turnout of at least 63% of the previous general election.  Most of these races had a compelling storyline.

1981 Kamloops – The Socreds fought to hold their seat at a time when the margin in the 57(!) seat BC Legislature was razor-thin.  1984 Okanagan North – the then-unpopular Socreds succumbed to the NDP in a strong Socred seat.  The Socreds regained the seat in 1986.  Both of these by-elections had a turnout rate of about 80% of the previous election.

During the Vander Zalm years, there were six by-elections created by the departure of four Socreds and two NDPers.  The NDP took all six by-elections.  Turnout was high relative to current-day by-elections.  At the height of Vander Zalm’s unpopularity, almost as many people voted in by-elections in the Cariboo and Oak Bay as voted in the preceding general election.  They showed up with their pitchforks!

Turnout was at 65% to 70% of the previous election in three Fraser Valley by-elections between 1994 and 1997.  While the governing NDP did very poorly, they were not really at issue in these by-elections.  It was a brawl-for-it-all for the Free Enterprise mantle between the BC Liberals and the Socreds (1994), and the BC Liberals and Reform (1995 and 1997).  There was a lot at stake and voters, for the most part, turned out.

The Parksville-Qualicum 1998 by-election was more of a BC Liberal-NDP fight with Judith Reid eclipsing former (and future) MLA Leonard Krog.  This by-election was a verdict on Glen Clark at the time and had a turnout that was double of this week’s Coquitlam by-election.  Pitchfork time again.

In 1999, it was another BC Liberal-Reform fight when Bill Vander Zalm mounted his political comeback.  The BC Liberals rallied to win 2:1, with about twice the turnout of this week’s Coquitlam by-election.

The 1981-99 era had a lot of by-elections with high stakes and high turnout.  Even the low stakes by-elections had higher turnouts.  Why is it different now?  Perhaps voters are harder to get in a distracted world.  Media sources are more fragmented.  Voters are not herding toward BCTV (sorry Keith) like they used to, nor are they all opening the door in the morning to retrieve the morning Sun and Province like days gone by.  Fragmentation aside, the mainstream media seemed to great the by-elections with a collective yawn this time.  With less media interest, there is inevitably less chatter about politics at coffee-time and over the backyard fence and, ultimately, less turnout.

This all serves to reinforce my view in the earlier post that, unlike the Zalmy 1980s and Parksville in 1998, this week’s by-elections were not pitchfork-carrying affairs.  Low turnout indicates a lack of urgency and lack of consequence.  The turnout, and margin of loss, in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain was lower than in the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam 2012 by-election.  The BC Liberals regained that seat, so there’s no reason to suggest they can’t do the same next year.  We’ll see.

 

 

 

Turnout goes underground in BC by-elections

Tuesday’s by-elections were remarkable for one key factor – rampant apathy.  It was fitting that the by-elections took place on Groundhog Day – the voters were underground.

apathyCompared to the turnout in the preceding general election, both Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver Mount Pleasant had the lowest turnouts of any BC by-election since 2004.

In both ridings, less than half that voted in 2013 showed up to vote in the by-election.  In Coquitlam it was 39%, in Mt. Pleasant 41%.  That’s not 39% turnout, that’s 39% of the turnout of the last election so the overall turnout was barely 20%.

Compare that to turnouts in other by-elections, again, comparing to the previous election:

  • Vancouver Fairview (2008):  44%
  • Vancouver Burrard (2008): 49%
  • Port Moody-Coquitlam (2012): 60%
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (2011): 70%
  • Surrey-Panorama (2004): 77%
  • Westside-Kelowna (2013): 77%
  • Chilliwack-Hope (2012): 85%

Voters, especially BC Liberal voters, just didn’t seem motivated to vote.  Why?  There was not a lot of media attention and there was not a lot at stake – the government is not going to fall.  It is not unlike the 2008 by-elections where there was not a lot driving the public debate and thus turnout was low.  I lived through the 2012 by-elections, which were critical in terms of clarifying the free enterprise option for the 2013 election.  As poorly as the BC Liberals fared relative to the preceding election, they fared well enough to survive another day and helped to ultimately resolve matters with many potential BC Conservative voters.

Say, what do Jenn McGinn, Gwen O’Mahoney, and Joe Trasolini have in common?  They were NDP MLAs elected in by-elections one year prior to a general election.  In all three cases, they were defeated in the general election.  When turnout returned to its usual levels, BC Liberals prevailed at the polls.  That’s not to assume it will happen in 2017 in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, but it will be a much different fight with many more voters voting.

Let’s take a closer look at the by-election results in Coquitlam:

In 2013, the BC Liberals had 49.9% of the vote and the NDP 37.4% – a 12.5% spread.

In the by-election, The NDP won 3,562 votes (46%).  In 2013, their candidate received 7,315 votes, so the by-election candidate scored about half as many votes.

Of course, the BC Liberal dropped further, from 9,766 votes to 2,936 votes (38% of the popular vote).

Compared to 2012 by-election in the neighbouring Port Moody-Coquitlam riding, the BC Liberals did much better.

In 2012, the BC Liberals dropped from 52% to 30% while the NDP gained from 40% to 54%.  The BC Libs dropped 22% and the NDP gained 14%.  In this week’s by-election, the swing was less – the BC Libs dropped 11% and the NDP gained 9%.

As mentioned, the turnout in Mt. Pleasant was also very low with the NDP losing market share dropping about 5 points while the BC Liberals dropped further by about 8 points.  The Greens gained at both party’s expense.

What does it all mean?  By-elections are a tough place to turn out voters and BC’s history shows that Opposition parties usually prevail.  The last time a government MLA won a by-election – who was not the Premier of BC – was 1981 in Kamloops.

When stacked against the by-elections of 2012, the government fared much better in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain.

Congratulations to the NDP and the newly elected MLAs.  A win is a win, no matter how you slice it.  See you in 2017.