BC Liberal candidate Eleanore Sturko marched to victory on Saturday in Surrey South, winning a seat that the party would typically view as a ‘safe seat’ until recently.
Here are the results of the by-election compared to the 2017 and 2020 general election results:
The BC Liberals won, which was no small thing. A loss here would have been a major setback. After being pummelled by John Horgan’s NDP in the 2020 general election, the BC Liberals have shown they can win again, albeit in very friendly territory. Moreover, the BC Liberals gain a potential frontbencher from the Lower Mainland who, among other things, presents a new face for the party in the LGBTQ+ community.
NDP poll results didn’t translate to Surrey South. In 2020, the NDP won the popular vote 48% to 34% – a massive margin. Since then, the NDP have sustained that polling gap in many polls, including a Leger poll that recently showed a 16 point gap. With those kind of numbers, we could have expected a close race in Surrey South, similar to 2020. Instead, the final result (percentage of vote) looks very much like the 2017 dead-heat general election. The NDP didn’t go all-out to win this by-election – the leadership vacuum existing between Premier Horgan packing his bags and David Eby, presumably, waiting to pick up the keys may have been a factor.
Neither party got the vote out – while the BC Liberals got enough votes out to win, both the BC Liberals and NDP received significantly fewer votes than previous elections. Low turnout is normal for a by-election, indicating low voter interest and perhaps low voter anger too. The summer timing certainly conspired against high turnout as well.
The BC Conservativesshowed up and it didn’t impact the result– the BC Conservatives didn’t run a candidate in 2017 or 2020, but they showed up for the by-election and garnered about 13% of the vote. This could have been highly problematic for the BC Liberals in a close race, but Sturko still won with a Cadieux-like margin. Let’s say Jinny Sims becomes mayor and resigns her seat in neighbouring Panorama – a 13% BC Conservative vote there would make life more difficult for BC Liberal chances.
What happened to the Greens? – Sonia Furstenau’s Greens fell to less than 4% of the vote. Is the Green brand in a funk? Normally, a by-election would be a time to stand out, but they ended up in fourth, here, well behind the BC Conservative. Surrey is not a Green hotspot though so their attention may be elsewhere.
I recently wrote about the consequential BC by-elections of the past 50 years. In Surrey South, BC Liberals held a seat they have traditionally held so it doesn’t appear to be historically important, except that the margin of victory could indicate that BC politics is returning to a more competitive footing. The by-election result may not be the cause of a new dynamic, but rather an indicator of what is already taking place. The 2020 general election was an outlier in terms of the pandemic and that the NDP had a major leadership advantage. Perhaps it was an aberration, like 2001, and we are slowly returning to the polarized, competitive political landscape that has been typical of BC politics since the mid 1970s.
I guess you could say the Surrey South by-election was like an NHL exhibition game – interesting, sparsely attended, an opportunity to see some new talent (Sturko), but the real action will be when the regular season starts in December once the new NDP leader gets on the ice.
British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics forever.
It was the election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government and only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for a decade. But its more profound impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.
The Social Credit Party had governed for 36 of the previous 39 years, mostly with a Bennett at the helm. It had renewed itself during the first NDP term of office in the 1970s and emerged stronger under WR Bennett with a broader base of support. Bennett had revived the Socred coalition by attracting Liberals, Conservatives, and even an NDP MLA to run with him in 1975. The renewed coalition was maintained for three elections (1975, 1979 and 1983) in the most polarized elections in BC history. When the Social Credit chose a new leader in 1986, they chose Bill Vander Zalm. While he led the Socreds to victory one more time, their coalition would unravel under his premiership.
Starting in the early 1980s, a small group of Liberals worked to revive the provincial wing. From virtually no candidates in 1979, they ran close to a full slate in 1983 under leader Shirley McLaughlin, with parachutes attached to many Young Liberals. They garnered about 3%. Most federal Liberals (a vanishing species at that time) were supporting the Social Credit Party.
Undaunted, Liberals held a leadership convention in 1984 where former Member of Parliament Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader of a political party in BC, defeated Stan Roberts, who would go on to help establish the Reform Party of Canada. Lee would build a strong relationship with Liberal Party of Canada leader John Turner, who represented Vancouver-Quadra, and BC’s Iona Campagnolo who was president of the Liberal Party of Canada. “A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal” was a mantra I heard at my first political convention in 1985, at the Empress Hotel, as a keen 16-year old.
When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, on the heels of a very popular Expo 86, Art Lee managed to field a team of candidates in most ridings across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. The Liberals placed their hopes on winning one seat – the Leader’s.
Bill Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped the NDP and its faltering leader, Bob Skelly, who famously fluttered at his opening press conference. The Liberals were squeezed out, but doubled their vote to about 7%. Hopes for a seat were dashed as they were shut out of the Legislature. Art Lee stepped down. On election night, BCTV cruelly reported that Art Lee was going to win his seat. Bedlam erupted at Liberal HQ in Vancouver. Out in Maple Ridge, we piled into an old black Lincoln and headed in for the ‘party’. Somewhere around the Sperling interchange, CKNW reported that someone had made an error and Art Lee was 5th! Cheers turned to tears at the Liberal election night party at the old Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark at the wake. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.
Art Lee decided to move on from his unpaid, under-resourced, and under-appreciated leadership. By the time the BC Liberals got around to choosing a new leader on Hallowe’en Day 1987, there was only one candidate – Gordon Wilson. A political unknown to most, he had at least been elected to local office on the Sunshine Coast and put up a respectable showing there in the 1986 election. He was an outsider to the Vancouver-centric Liberal Party in BC. Yet he showed up and took on the mantle, though he wasn’t going to get much help from the city folk.
The focus for most Liberals in BC during that time was federal politics, with an election looming in 1988. While Wilson sought to get established, the Vander Zalm government started its meltdown with moderates fleeing. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters encouraged prominent developer Jack Poole (later the Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit Zalmplosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, and organizers Colin Hansen and David McPhee, but ultimately decided not to seek the leadership. Gordon Wilson, who had reluctantly cooperated with the Poole potential candidacy, ventured forth unfettered when Poole left the scene. No one gave him much of a chance.
Wilson’s leadership in 1989 and 1990 could be described as persistent and tenacious, but also was met with setbacks. Byelection results were disappointing while the party was in a constant financial crisis. Federal politics intervened again as Jean Chretien succeeded John Turner in June 1990 after a lengthy leadership campaign. One issue where Wilson and Chretien had common ground was over the Meech Lake Accord. Wilson was as a strong critic and aligned with Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the issue. This was a very divisive issue within the Liberal Party of Canada, but Wilson made a name for himself on this issue. However, the relationship with the Chretien team would become increasingly uneasy.
I was part of a group that strongly believed that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parties. The “BC” Liberal Party needed to be strictly provincial and put BC first on issues. During the Turner years, the party membership did not want to make the move, in part out of respect for John Turner and his commitment to BC. By 1991, the provincial wing believed it was in their political interests, and the federal wing believed it was in its financial interests. At a convention in Spring 1991, the parties decided to split. This was a defining moment in BC political history. Had this not happened, the BC Liberal Party could not have emerged as a ‘big tent’ political party. It was hard enough to attract non-Liberals to the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s, but it would have been impossible if the provincial party was not independent.
There is no greater boost for an opposition party than an imploding government. With many Socreds absolutely ruling out going to the NDP, and some NDP voters open to a liberal option (as they would never go Socred), the opportunity presented itself. The advantage of the Liberal brand, especially once it was detached from the federal wing, was its ability to push out from the middle in both directions.
Thus, a core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. It was felt if we couldn’t break through this time, there was no hope for the BC Liberal Party ever. We had no money and not much of an organization. But we did have a leader who was quick on his feet and would work day and night to succeed, and we started to draw some candidates that helped with credibility. There were some good recruits like Linda Reid who would become the longest serving women in BC history, business executive Fred Gingell, young pilot Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley, and author/executive David Mitchell who had some media cachet. Clive Tanner had served as an MLA in the Yukon and Val Anderson was a former party president and United Church minister who was well known to Liberals. But we had many gaps. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy, to fill out the slate. I would find them, Christy would close them. During this time there was an epic road trip, borrowing Clive Tanner’s van, to Prince George, the Cariboo, Kamloops, and the Okanagan. We met with candidates in hot tubs, recruited mustard manufacturers, dragooned university friends like Karen Bill and Kimball Kastelen, and found the lonely Liberal outposts in places where they had been in hiding. Clive is probably still paying off the bill from his car phone, a real novelty in those days.
We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings. That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. We were shut out of the debate initially because the NDP and Socreds didn’t want us there. So we launched a protest and had picketers in front of the CBC building. The pressure built and the network capitulated. We could not have asked for a better scenario – to have to fight to get on the debate and then win the fight. I found out we had made the debate when I was in Rogers Pass recruiting a candidate. Yes, our candidate was living in Rogers Pass, at the Glacier Park Lodge. She was a wonderful candidate and did respectably in Columbia River-Revelstoke, though our local Golden Liberal wouldn’t help sign the nomination papers in public – “Someone could lose their job by signing these”.
On debate night, party president Floyd Sully invited me to go to the CBC studios with him and be part of the team with Gordon Wilson. We showed up in his dressing room. I will never forget how calm he was. He was walking around, shirt off, listening but focused – his mind was elsewhere. Very calm. He had experience as an actor, which likely helped his preparation. I’m sure we were chattering away with miscellaneous advice that was completely off point and I’m sure he disregarded it. His media aide, John Stewart, prepared for the onslaught as there was a much bigger media hoard back then. Though the media didn’t know it beforehand, Gordon Wilson would be the story of the night and the election.
We watched the debate in the dressing room while it took place down the hall with no audience. When Premier Rita Johnston and Mike Harcourt were squabbling back and forth, Wilson nailed them: “This is a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the Province of British Columbia”. Boom! I don’t think the media realized the full impact of that line when it was delivered, but they did realize that Wilson had made an impact. We were giddy in the dressing room. Floyd and I sprinted down the hall to the studio. I remember passing Mike Harcourt in the narrow hallway backstage – “Hey, how are you,” I think he said. Disciplined, cheerful, seemingly unruffled. Rita Johnston didn’t look too happy. Wilson was surrounded in the studio. He would never turn down a media interview after begging for attention for years. We were excited.
I had had this feeling once before when I helped the Manitoba Liberals in the 1988 election – the feeling of everything coming up roses. Sharon Carstairs had won her TV debate, and rose from one seat to almost win the election, settling for 20 and preventing Gary Filmon from forming a majority. Could this be the same? It was definitely on my mind that we could get on a roll, big time. There wasn’t a lot of time left in the election either.
Floyd and I thought we should head back to Party headquarters at 210 West Broadway. The office was closed so we walked in and our six-line switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree. We took calls, offers of help, crazies, you name it. We had finally been noticed.
An interesting thing about the 1991 campaign was that BCTV commissioned and ran nightly polls. Then, as now, BCTV (Global) led the evening news ratings, but back then it dominated the entire news landscape as well. Anchor Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and announce the new numbers in their daily poll and, after the debate, the Liberals spiked up. The nightly polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds were doomed. The Socred coalition was built on winnability. It became clear within days that the Liberals would be the party that would challenge the NDP.
As we headed into Thanksgiving weekend, there was a real likelihood we could win the whole shebang. The momentum seemed unstoppable. I remember talking on the phone with Clive Tanner, who was running in Saanich North & the Island (and would win decisively). We speculated about actually forming government. At that point, Clive, who was in the bathtub, contemplated electrocuting himself.
The NDP appeared to get a grip and turned their guns on us. Glen Clark showed his fangs and attacked our platform. A hastily organized press conference where Gordon Wilson and Floyd Sully (who had run and served as Finance critic) costed our platform was necessary. Vaughn Palmer provided a dose of the first scrutiny our campaign had had. Up until the final week, no one thought we had a chance so no one cared if our plan made sense or who our candidates were. I can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.
Around that time, I was driving up Kingsway in Vancouver and came across Glen Clark’s campaign office. I walked in to collect some brochures. I was greeted warmly by a receptionist (best practice) and quickly self-identified as “undecided”. I was directed to a table of brochures and within 20 seconds I had Glen Clark interrogating me. “Hey, how are you? Undecided? Want a coffee?” Here he was in a safe seat and he was working for every vote. Of course, I folded like a cheap lawn chair from Zellers. I confessed my true identity and Glen switched gears to quiz me on Floyd Sully, who he debated on finance issues. “What’s he like? He seems intense.” Etc. In any event, that gives a glimpse how hungry the NDP were.
We had come from zero to somewhere. By the time Election Day arrived, I don’t think we thought we were going to win. But I did think something would happen, but how much would happen, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It was quite something to consider our party’s dismal history, and the prevailing conventional wisdom that we had no chance, then use our eyes and ears to understand what was happening right in front of us. It was hard to believe.
In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to Gibsons to help the leader with his local campaign. He had to win and we were there to help. On October 17th at 8pm, we watched the first tranche of early results in Sechelt where it looked like we would be Opposition and would eclipse the Socreds. Gordon Wilson was up in Powell River taking in the results, soon to jump a plane to Vancouver to celebrate with a lot of long-suffering and delighted Liberals. By the time the votes were all tallied up, we won 17 seats and 33% of the vote. We won historically liberal seats on the North Shore and west side of Vancouver, but we also took Saanich North, Richmond, South Delta, South Surrey, most of the Fraser Valley, and Kelowna. Places where Liberals had no business winning, until then.
It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson made his way to the celebration, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat from Gibsons over to Horseshoe Bay. It was a calm, warm night, cruising on moonlit waters before everything would change.
Volunteers from West Van picked us up in station wagons and drove us to the Villa Hotel in Burnaby. It was electric. My best friend Iain, who is a big guy, was drafted to bring Wilson into the room with another big guy, Jim. Peter Gzowski would comment on CBC the next morning about the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.
As I walked in, I encountered a gruff old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. At that moment I saw everything we had accomplished on Dick’s face – a sense of elation, satisfaction, and emotion. It brought it all home to me suddenly because I knew how hard he and others had worked and the example that they had set for others. The moment has always stayed with me because it was the essence of politics as we would like it to be. When you are part of an underdog team that overcomes the odds like that, it is a really special bond. But when you add in the unselfishness of a guy like Dick Kirby, it is a joyful moment. I will never forget that.
That’s where the story should end. It’s a good story.
Euphoria doesn’t last. Hard political choices are ultimately made. Emerging parties that surprise in a 28 day writ period must evolve in order to consolidate their gains.
The BC Liberals had to decide what they wanted to be if they wanted to govern. They would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when they elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. They would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when they failed to win. Idealism crashed on the rocky shores of reality. They would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the heat was cranked and the NDP tanked. The NDP would wait until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls and the electoral buzz saw. It was a long decade and a transformative evolution for the BC Liberals.
During that time, a modern political party was built one meeting at a time, one chicken-dinner fundraiser at a time, one local parade at a time, one vote at a time. The old saying comes to mind – the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. The hard work paid off with the greatest election win in BC history when the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the 2001 election.
The Party changed and evolved. It became a successful, regionally-balanced, modern political party that took a big-tent approach. It was a successful vehicle for the mainstream – winning the popular vote in six consecutive elections between 1996 and 2017. The 1991 election put Liberals back into the free enterprise coalition. While some would argue they were always there during the Social Credit years, by the mid 1980s, they had withered away. The realignment put Liberals back in the centre of the coalition, and by 2001, it was becoming truly balanced with most conservatives and former Socreds signing on.
Gordon Wilson created the opportunity. Gordon Campbell built the foundation, in painstaking fashion, and cemented it as the free enterprise coalition through eight grinding years in Opposition and three successive winning elections. Christy Clark renewed it and earned her own term, tapping into the 1991 experience, knowing that conventional wisdom can be defied, that the ultimate connection for leaders is with the voters, not the intermediaries, and that believing in oneself and the team around you is essential.
Yet, time caught up with the BC Liberals. By 2017, the Party was long past its scrappy origins and frenetic early years in government. Governmentitis crept in. Baggage accumulated. The extremely narrow margin in Comox that divided power from defeat ended a remarkable era for the BC Liberals – a rise from the ashes that begun on Hallowe’en night 1987 with Gordon Wilson taking the stage as leader, and ending in Penticton in July 2017 when Christy Clark took a walk on the beach and put a cap on it. Four years in the wilderness, ten striving years in opposition, sixteen years in power and four mandates.
Ironically, in the aftermath of 2017 and 2020 elections, the BC Liberal Party’s biggest challenge is to retain and recruit Liberals. It has come full circle.
All three of those BC Liberal leaders from 1987 to 2017 – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – taught us that it’s bloody hard work to create, build, and renew.
I’m honoured to have served all three. And I’m honoured to have worked alongside those behind the headlines that made it possible. It was quite a journey that would have ended early had it not been for the remarkable results of October 17, 1991.
Five weeks ago, Justin Trudeau launched his campaign to win a majority government with British Columbia destined to deliver the seats to put him over the magic number of 170. On Election Day, it might be BC that keeps his parliamentary plurality in tact, in a successive Liberal minority government.
The Liberals and NDP entered this election with 11 seats each in BC, while the Conservatives had the largest chunk at 17.
Party – BC standings
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.
Liberal – floor crossing to independent
Steveston – Richmond East
Pitt Meadows – Maple Ridge
Cloverdale – Langley City
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser Canyon
Kelowna – Lake Country
South Surrey – White Rock
Conservative – Liberal (by-election)
Nanaimo – Ladysmith
NDP – Green (by-election)
Port Moody – Coquitlam
Kootenay – Columbia
This time, I expect much fewer seats to change hands in BC as the parties have stayed fairly close together in terms of popular vote. While they will likely have a plurality of the popular vote in B.C., the Conservatives will be challenged to reach their popular vote level from 2019 in B.C., thanks in part to the PPC. The Liberals may cough up a few points to the NDP, while the Greens appear to be doing the same and then some. The NDP may come out with the most gains in terms of votes and seats here. But they will likely be incremental gains.
Seats to Watch in BC
At the outset of the campaign, I listed the seats to watch in B.C. The sands have shifted a bit in five weeks, and I’ve narrowed the list for Election night. Here are the seats to watch tonight:
Burnaby North – Seymour – competitive three-way race between incumbent Liberal Terry Beech and NDP and CPC challengers. Lots of attention from the Leaders’ tours. In 2019, the Conservative candidate imploded during the writ period. The question can the Conservatives spring back and leap frog over the Liberals, or can the NDP harness Jagmeet Singh’s popularity and edge out the Liberals.
Nanaimo – Ladysmith – given the collapse of the Greens, incumbent MP Paul Manly is basically an independent without much help from his party. Nevertheless, he has fended off the NDP twice before and has a strong local organization. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and CPC leader Erin O’Toole have visited the riding. A stronger NDP plus weaker Green Party is the recipe for an NDP win. A perfect Green/NDP split may allow the Conservatives to sneak up the middle.
Vancouver – Granville – Jody Wilson-Raybould vacated the seat throwing it back to the major parties. This riding is inherently Liberal, but the NDP and Conservative candidates have a business case with the NDP pressing hard among renters north of 16th and the Conservatives working single family home neighbourhoods. It should have been a lay up for the Liberals, but now looking like a toss up.
The Northeast suburbs – There will be a lot of action in three contiguous ridings from Port Moody to Maple Ridge. In Port Moody – Coquitlam, the three major parties were between 29% and 31% in 2019, with the Conservatives prevailing. This time, the advantage is to the NDP. In neighbouring Coquitlam – Port Coquitlam, Liberal MP Ron McKinnon faces a stiff challenge from the Conservative Katerina Anastasiadis. The Liberals won by less than 1% in 2019. This time, the Liberal saving grace may be the absence of the Greens, which took 7% last time. Potential Conservative pickup. And across the Pitt River, Conservative MP Marc Dalton entered the campaign with a three-way race. This election will likely rise and fall with party fortunes. If Conservatives win a plurality of votes in BC, this riding likely stays in their column. Likewise, if the Liberals or NDP win a plurality in BC, it could fall in their columns respectively.
Surrey – Liberal MP Ken Hardie faces a challenge from Conservative candidate and former MLA Dave Hayer in Fleetwood – Port Kells. If things start going the Conservatives’ way tonight in BC, this is one of those ridings that could fall into their hands. Next door, former Liberal MP John Aldag is trying to wrestle Cloverdale – Langley City from Conservative MP Tamara Jansen. Jansen won by less than 3 points in 2019, but this time, there is no Green, Elizabeth May endorsed Aldag, and the provincial ridings have gone orange – for the first time. Aldag could benefit from changing dynamics out there, but again, this riding likely goes with the flow based on party trends in BC. The NDP are hungry for Surrey-Centre in an effort to knock off Liberal MP Randeep Sarai. If it’s their night, watch this seat, but it will take a lot to knock off Sarai.
Overall, I do not expect a lot of seats to change hands in BC. Ten changed hands in 2019, and I would not be surprised to see only 5 or 6 change hands this time. Therefore, I don’t see a big change to party standings. My guess would be as follows:
Liberal: 9 to 11
Conservative: 16 to 18
NDP: 13 to 15
Green: 1 to 2
Nationally, I see a reduced Liberal minority tonight. Losses in Ontario and Atlantic Canada to the Conservatives and possible losses to the Bloc in Québec, but gains on the Prairies, particularly Alberta.
For the Conservatives to win more seats in Ontario and Liberals to win more seats in Alberta is good for Canada, overall. Both parties need better regional balance in their caucuses. I hope it works out that way.
The Conservatives have been beset by rearguard action from PPC and the untimely political disaster unfolding in Alberta. Throughout, Erin O’Toole’s leadership numbers have improved and he has been more competitive in the middle ground. It will be a big payoff if they do better than expected in vote-rich Ontario.
The NDP look strong heading into Election Day, but it could be an illusion of sorts. Almost every poll in 2019 had the NDP higher than where they ended up. Same thing in 2015. The reason is that they are much stronger with younger votes who do not vote at the same rate as older voters. Conversely, this is why the Conservatives end up higher on Election Day than forecast. Overall, the smaller parties tend to do worse on Election Day as they do not have the machine to get the vote out, like the major parties.
There may be a some micro-surprises tonight. The Greens could win a seat in Kitchener, after the Liberal candidate was fired during the campaign. It would be quite something if the Greens came out of this election with three seats.The Liberal candidate that was fired in Spadina may still win and would have to sit as an Independent.
Often times on election night, we say, “How did that happen?” Storylines could be surprising Conservative strength in Ontario or Liberals gaining seats there; a major shift in Québec; the PPC being much higher than expected; the NDP winning bushels of seats in the West that were not expected; or the Conservatives pulling away from the pack in BC. Whatever is the case, the voters are always right.
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.
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.
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
How many times has Québec gone one way and the rest-of-Canada (ROC) went the other? Quite a few, in fact. There are different campaigns playing out in different languages, with different traditions, and different versions of history. It’s pretty tough to knit Québec and ROC into one coherent national campaign.
Pierre Trudeau famously took 74 out of 75 seats in Québec in 1980 and formed a majority government without winning a seat west of Winnipeg. That was after Joe Clark had formed a minority PC government in 1979 after being almost completely shut out in Québec. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority in 2011 based almost entirely on his dominance of English Canada.
What does current polling tell us about the potential for a majority government?
In 2004, the Conservatives and Liberals were basically tied in ROC, when Paul Martin formed a minority government. They diverged in 2006 with the Conservatives gaining an upper hand and achieved their own minority. The gap widened in 2008, though the Conservatives still fell short of a majority as ROC gains could not overcome Conservative weakness in Québec. In 2011, the Conservatives received almost a majority of the votes (47%) in ROC while the Liberals plunged to an historic low. While Jack Layton had an uptick in ROC, the big story was a transfer of Liberals to the Conservative column. The Justin Trudeau Liberals made a dramatic comeback in 2015, edging the Conservatives in ROC, supplemented by their gains in Québec. The Conservatives won ROC in 2019, yet failed to win government, and the gap between the two parties in ROC, so far, in 2021 election polling is about the same. Bear in mind that the Conservatives have done well in ROC because they do so well in Alberta. This election, they are running about 20% lower in Alberta (yet will likely hold almost all of their seats), while they are doing better in Ontario relative to the Liberals – that’s a better and more efficient situation seats-wise. The NDP trajectory is surprisingly flat. Even the Layton breakthrough election of 2011 did not see a groundswell in ROC, with the vote staying below 27%.
Current polling showing PPC at 7% in ROC is obviously a significant development and, if it holds, could deny the Conservatives key seat gains and an opportunity to widen the gap with the Liberals. Conversely, late-stage polarization could funnel NDP and Greens to the Liberals. The final days in ROC may well be a furious flurry of strategic voting arguments. Right now, current polling results do not give either party a clear shot at a majority.
How about Québec?
Québec popular vote results
Compared to ROC, Québec has been more volatile since 2004. From 2004 to 2015, it was marked by a steady decline in support for the Bloc Québécois. Its lowest points in 2011 and 2015 coincided with majority governments held by Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau respectively.
The Liberals also declined from 2004 to 2011, but roared to first in 2015 which helped enable a Liberal majority. The Grits held their vote in 2019 while the Bloc was revived at the expense of the NDP. The NDP trajectory goes to show how much the Jack Layton breakthrough depended on Québec, and how far the NDP’s prospects have fallen there since. With the relatively flat trajectory in ROC for the NDP, the current scenario fully returns the NDP to its tradition of being a non-contending party and occasional balance of power. The Conservatives enjoyed a bump up to its highest level during this era in 2006 when the Paul Martin Liberals were shown the door and the Bloc was starting to wave. As the Conservatives governed, they saw their small beachhead dwindle to below 20%. The 2021 election shows a potential uptick for Les Bleus but not likely to materialize in beacoup de circonscriptions.
While interpreting Canada’s regional realities is a lot more complex than just “ROC” and Québec, it is clear that in order to form a majority government, a party needs to win big in one, or win both by at least a little.
With Election Day looming, the Liberals and Conservatives are basically stalemated. The uncertainty of the outcome and the momentum changes are gruelling for those involved in the campaigns. I cannot help but channel my own past experiences and think of the various psychologies that must be at work in the war rooms and among grassroots supporters.
For the Liberals, about a week before the election call, they had the jaunty bounce of those who read positive poll results and gleeful reports of their opponents’ demise. The pundit/Twitter consensus dictated that a majority was to be had, that the Conservatives were “in trouble”, and that the Liberals should “go now” to “get a mandate” – all of this very enticing.
Who knows whether there were voices inside the room that expressed caution, advocated for going earlier, or later. In the days leading up to the August 15th election call, Afghanistan was careening out of control. It’s hard when you have set out a campaign plan, signalled to the world that this is your intention, then face the prospect of pulling back from your plan when the plane is almost in the air. At some moment, the Liberal campaigners must have considered whether the election call should be postponed. But the hawks prevailed.
I can relate to that. The Liberal campaign team has been through the wars. A pitch-perfect come-from-behind win in 2015, a jarring 2019 re-election effort that was preceded by the JWR / SNC Lavalin controversy, blown sideways by blackface, followed by the onslaught of COVID, social movements of “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter”, and the sorrow unleashed by the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School. They have collectively faced a lot of situations in elections and in government, and Afghanistan was the latest in a long list. Camaraderie, loyalty, and trust is built through tough and challenging times. Plus, let’s face it, Justin Trudeau is a political unicorn – he is a brand unto himself. Every Canadian has an opinion about him, love him or hate him, and when you have that ability to command attention, it’s very unique. The braintrust was undoubtedly confident in him, themselves, and pushed on.
We know now the Liberals did not get their campaign off to an auspicious start, facing a hotter than usual national media corps that had Afghanistan on split screen, demanding to know “Why now?” The Liberals didn’t give a good answer. Immediately, some conjured up ghosts of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberals of 1990 who called a summer election at the seemingly high heights of his powers only to suffer a humiliating and decisive defeat to Bob Rae’s NDP.
What is clear that two weeks into this campaign, the Liberals had an increasingly sticky problem. Voters were shifting, particularly in Ontario. Some excited pollsters proclaimed the Conservative “freight train” was on its way to a majority. Pretty bold. In the Liberal war room, confidence and experience could well have translated into slower reaction to events unfolding around them. However, with confidence and experience, the ability to marshal resources to turn the campaign in another direction could make for a major impact. That brings about memories about past campaigns like 2004 when Paul Martin entered the campaign period as the odds-on favourite, but was pressed hard by upstart Stephen Harper and the newly re-united Conservatives. David Herle, Martin’s campaign manager, spoke on his podcast Curse of Politics about hitting the panic button in 2004 when Liberal polling numbers dipped below 30%. The old plan was thrown into the garbage and a new plan was drawn up. Martin’s Liberals rallied, went negative, dug up some primo opposition research, and formed a minority government.
I was involved in the B.C. election campaign in 2017 where our team was stocked with experience and had an ample supply of confidence. The start of this federal campaign was eerily familiar. A flat start followed by (speaking for myself) a slow-to-realize reckoning about what was happening. The voters were moving with their feet while our campaign heads were up in the clouds. We scrapped and fought to get back on a better footing, but every time we made a step forward, or had a plan we thought would work, we had a setback to stall us. We simply could not pull away from our competition nor could they pull away from us. Similar feeling in 1996 in B.C. where we were way ahead, then we were way behind, and caught back up to even. For the final two weeks, we could not generate momentum and neither could our competition. That feeling you are looking for is when, no matter what you do, it comes up roses, is Momentum. The campaign office buzz gets louder. Everyone is walking faster, with more urgency. Lawn signs fly out of the office. I can only imagine that the second and third weeks of this campaign were challenging for the Liberals – they didn’t have that feeling. They were imploring support, rather than receiving it.
What about the Conservatives? I have been involved in and seen campaigns where there was no faith in the campaign team, the leader, or any prospect of victory. It really comes down to a key distinction – does the campaign team and leader believe in themselves, or is the effort truly doomed?
On the eve of the election call, the Conservative campaign was roundly crapped on for running a juvenile social media ad that was a takeoff of a scene from the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What were they up to? The political intelligentsia pounced on the perceived amateurism and a Conservative MP was compelled to call out his own national campaign team (never a good sign). Meanwhile, the video got over a million hits. Whether the Conservatives were playing 4-D chess or screwing around is beside the point. The team could have fallen apart amidst caucus and internal discord. Instead, it looks like the Wonka controversy served to reinforce the Conservative campaign’s “us against the world” mentality.
The internal infighting is often the result of insecurity and not believing in the plan as grassroots supporters are influenced by media commentary. There’s nothing that rankled me more than to hear defeatists. “We should try to save our core seats” was a common refrain. My uncle, a WWII veteran, not to mention a candidate for Pearson in ’65, talked about those who got “hemorrhoids on their way to Halifax”, meaning some people weren’t really up for a fight. Or you hear complaints about the campaign team not being up to the job. In fact, I read about my job performance in the Vancouver Sun one day: “some Liberals must be wondering whether McDonald is over his head in this campaign”. I’m sure the columnist had been hearing from a few Schadenfreudians. There’s a lot of them when you’re losing, but they are hard to find when you win.
You gotta ignore the whispers, even when they’re loud, because battle-scarred politicos know that anything is possible. If you have been around long enough, you have seen it happen. I was part of efforts that were more like comets than campaigns – Sharon Carstairs’ Manitoba breakthrough in 1988, Gordon Wilson taking the B.C. Liberals from obscurity to Official Opposition, and watched from afar as Justin Trudeau went from third to first in 2015, and, last month, Nova Scotia’s PC’s taking power after being leagues under water months earlier. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. How many more times does that need to be proven? Most pundits and media experts play it safe. They stick to the consensus. Smart politicos understand and have a pulse for voters and know that they can move quickly, decisively, and sometimes imperceptibly, especially during the writ period. Erin O’Toole and his campaign team likely believed, and likely still do, that they could win. Smaller parties, like the NDP, the Greens, and the Peoples Party cling to the hope of anything is possible as well. Need I say it? Campaigns Matter!
As the campaign moved through its first week, the Conservatives would have been feeling good. They launched successfully, including a smooth platform unveiling. While the Liberals stumbled, Erin O’Toole had a clear path to introduce himself to Canadians. The Conservatives were doing some things differently – the platform, charting a path for middle ground, and communicating and touring in a new way. Likely, they were feeling, “Our plan is starting to work.” They were probably feeling that on the ground too. As the first week rolled into the next, the public polling numbers were creating an environment that Conservative prospects were being taken more seriously, which made the Liberal call of the election a bigger story. Had Justin blown it? A nice run of momentum started to unfold that must have felt like uncharted territory. Who knows what Conservative internal polling numbers showed, but public poll numbers are avidly read by grassroots supporters and the 99% of headquarters staff that don’t see the closely guarded internal tracking. Things were looking up! The Conservative inside voice: “Do we dare to dream? Are we allowed to have nice things?”
Many campaigns go through phases, which makes sense. As one party gets the upper hand, the main rival normally does everything in its power to push back. In situations where a government has been in power for a long time, it’s harder for an incumbent government to push back when ‘time for a change’ is in the air. It has to be compelling. As much as the national media has its inherent biases, they like a big story more. Justin Trudeau blowing the election is a big story. An exciting horse race is a bigger story than a dull pre-determined outcome, like the Chrétien re-elections in 1997 and 2000. With Conservatives on the rise, and Liberals on the ropes, what’s gonna happen next? Is this the end of Justin, or will he prevail again? Stay tuned for more!
The Liberals have amped up the attacks and found one that seemed to hurt – on guns. Frankly, I’m not even sure of the details of the issue. All I heard was that the Conservatives had a policy, and they flip-flopped mid-campaign. That is never a good idea. It’s a tough spot – they likely felt they were taking water in urban and suburban ridings that they targeted for victory in the GTHA and Metro Vancouver, and among attainable younger and female voters. They must have come to believe that they could not persevere with the current policy so decided to course-correct. One wonders how that decision was made, on what timeline, and who was in the room? Was it decided by ‘committee’, were they forced by candidates threatening to speak out, was it a Leader directive? Whatever the case, it created a new problem – a perception that the Leader is a flip-flopper when under pressure. They may have believed their plan would work and talked themselves into it, perhaps without getting an outside read on it. Whether or not voters even care about the gun issue or how the Conservatives responded, it will be having an effect on the Liberal war room by putting wind in their sails, and on the Conservatives who may have the sinking feeling that they were outfoxed by the Liberals on an attack that they had to know was coming. They should have been able see that big red missile from one coast to the other.
In 2013, the BC Liberal campaign seized on a mid-campaign flip flop by the NDP leader. Similarly, it was an issue that everyone could see coming but the NDP tried to finesse it. The narrative became not that issue – oil pipelines – but leadership. The leader was a weathervane.
We are at that point now in this election where it’s truly up for grabs – everyone knows it – with the final French language debate followed by the lone English language debate. By the time the leaders walk off the stage on Thursday night, it’s a ten-day sprint to final voting day.
The debates are high stakes. My first campaign in 1984 was as a lowly, yet devoted young Liberal in no-hope riding. John Turner was a very admirable leader with an impeccable record of public service. Yet, he took on the leadership at the tail end of an almost-uninterrupted 21-year run of Liberal government- and he was rusty. In that year’s election debate, Brian Mulroney delivered a devastating critique of Liberal patronage appointments. The election was over that night, though it limped on for weeks. In 1988, the rematch debate delivered a different thunderbolt when Turner delivered a passionate, patriotic attack on Mulroney over Free Trade. The effect was immediate and the Liberals rocketed to the top of the polls after starting the campaign in third and withstanding an attempted leadership coup. However, Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives had time on their side and wheeled against the Liberals with a furious negative onslaught, prevailing on election night.
In 1991, I attended the B.C. Leaders debate as part of a motley crew of Liberal campaign volunteers. Leader Gordon Wilson strutted around the small CBC dressing room, bare chested, focusing on his breathing exercises, and astutely disregarding the scattershot advice being tossed at him by me and others. He knew what he had to, and he delivered the most memorable line in B.C. election debate history. That debate blew up the campaign and led to the end of the Social Credit Party. I was learning early in my political life that debates matter and how they could turn the psychology of campaigns upside down.
I never had fun watching a debate after 1991. Henceforth, my party was expected to win and no longer a plucky insurgent. Debates brought stress – even when I had nothing to do with the preparation. I could barely watch. When things went well, we cheered, and when things didn’t go well, we rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal, but sometimes you had those “uh oh” moments. Thinking back to provincial debates over the years, I don’t recall many dramatic moments – I just remember a lot of careful preparation undertaken by the debate teams and the pressure on the leaders.
When I directed the 2013 BC Liberal campaign, I had little to do with debate prep. It was not my strength and certainly not my happy place. We had a great team of advisors that thought through the content, the camera angles, and how best to rehearse. But I do remember watching the debate and feeling good and feeling proud of our team and our leader, Christy Clark. It was exactly how you want to feel at a seminal moment of the campaign. Then what followed was that feeling of momentum, not just in my bones, but in our nightly tracking. The debate was a big factor in our ultimate success.
Debate night must be a moment aspiring leaders imagine for years. Other than election night, it is probably the most exciting moment of the campaign, especially when there are fireworks. This is Justin Trudeau’s third election, and Jagmeet Singh’s second. Erin O’Toole is the newcomer. Their relative experience in debates will flow into their leaders’ teams. How to protect against over-confidence? How to build up under-confidence? How to get the leaders in ‘the zone’? And uncluttered. A common problem with leaders is that they are over-scheduled. Have their teams found the right balance to let the Leaders rest, think and prepare, amidst a frenzied election campaign? Have they settled on their final debate strategy or are they spitballing until the stage lights turn on?
The French language debates are over and on English language debate night, thousands of campaign volunteers will be watching every moment and the psychology of their respective campaigns will be impacted by how they feel their leaders performed. In fact, the campaigns will tell their volunteers how their leader performed. “We won!”. Polls will be generated to show they won. A furious spin war will be waged with edicts to grassroots supporters to share, tweet, Instagram, TikTok, phone, doorknock, and telepathically transmit that their leader won the debate.
That’s where this story ends for now. The final ten days will be a roller coaster ride for all campaigns. Their hopes are invested in their leaders and in themselves. At the centre of it all is two campaign war rooms that are vying to govern. The Liberal team, is no doubt, facing the Conservative challenge squarely in the eyes now, and drawing upon its collective experience and confidence in order to prevail, while exhorting supporters to stay true and steady in order to beat off the surprising Conservative challenge. The Conservative team is thirsty for a win, yearning for its taste from the goblet of victory, made sweeter by the doubters, while keeping at bay the nagging feeling, nurtured by past defeats, that it could fall out of their grasp just when it seemed victory was so close.
Election 44 appears to be a close battle at the national level, but how is it playing out in Canada’s three largest provinces compared to the past two elections?
British Columbia – All three major national parties are competitive in B.C., with any of three capable of gaining a plurality of seats. Right now, current aggregated polling results via CBC’s Polltracker website show the Liberals holding steady compared to 2019, the Conservatives down slightly, and the NDP up (at the expense of the Greens, it seems). The upshot is that, in terms of seats, the standings of Liberals relative to the Conservatives would not change much in this scenario. For a major shift, one of the three parties needs to break from the pack.
Quebec is complicated, as usual. The Bloc is down and the Liberals, despite declining slightly, are holding their ground. The NDP and Conservatives are up compared to 2019, but at those levels, does not equate into significant seat gains. Plus du même?
Ontario is where the action is. To their detriment, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives could not make gains in 2019 in this vote-rich battleground. This time, the Erin O’Toole Conservatives are running neck and neck with the Liberals, despite an uptick in support for the Peoples Party. Last election, the Liberals won Ontario by 9% and took 79/121 seats, almost the same as their majority win in 2015 when they won 80/121. Clearly, the Conservatives must make major gains here in order to win a plurality of seats. Flipping 18 seats from red to blue, everything else being equal, would lead to a tie in seats nation-wide.
The numbers in these battlegrounds will shift and move yet again. To borrow a golf saying, we’re now at “moving day at the Masters” meaning this is the time where parties will make their defining moves, or fall back. The next few days, including the debates, will set up the final round of Election 44. Who’s tee shot is going to land in the rough, who is going to be chipping from the sand trap, and who is going to drain that 44 foot birdie putt to win it all? It looks like the most important golf will be played in Ontario.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a plurality of seats with an even lower popular vote than 2019, dropping from 33.1% to 32.6%., thus it was the first time a government had been elected with less than 33% of the popular vote. Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives had a higher popular vote with 33.7%, though it was lower than Andrew Scheer’s level in 2019. The Liberals obviously had a more efficient vote, winning more seats by a slimmer margin, while the Conservatives won many seats by a large margin (e.g., Alberta and Saskatchewan).