If the Big Red Machine rolls to victory on October 21st, how will it be done? Regional seat balances have been like whack-a-mole this election. In this post, I look at examples of 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 on Conservative pathways to power).
Will it 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), or
- Paul Martin’s missing majority in 2004
- Or a repeat of the all-in majority of 2015?
Pearson 1965: the near miss
He loved baseball but couldn’t hit the home run in 1965
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 badly in the west
PET’s close shave in 1972
Land was Strong, but campaign wasn’t
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)
“Ontario was really good to me, like really really really good”
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
And now the opposition gets organized?!
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
Chart 1: Results from six Liberal wins (popular vote %, and seat %)
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 domination, there must be some regional balance. Justin Trudeau’s pathway is regional balance.
It looks like it will be very difficult to replicate the regional strength he had in 2015. Seats will be given up in the Atlantic. The Bloc Québécois is a stronger contender this time making it difficult to hold 40 seats (not impossible). The likely pathway to victory is a strong majority of seats in Ontario and Atlantic, bolstered by getting enough seats out of Québec and the west to win a plurality. Without regional dominance, it depends on broad popular support, which works on a rising tide, but can be fatal when the tide goes out. The Liberal 2019 position looks very similar to the regional shape of Paul Martin’s 2004 results. It does not look like 1972 when PET nearly lost his first re-election bid. Justin Trudeau is much stronger in ROC, but weaker in Québec than his father. The final week will show if the Liberals can stay on a pathway to victory. Like the Conservative pathway, it is not an easy one.
Table 1: Results from six Liberal wins