Majority government between a ROC and a hard place

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?

Let’s take a look at results in ROC and Québec since 2004 and layer in the latest aggregated polling from CBC.

Rest-of-Canada (ROC) popular vote results

Federal election results in ROC 2004-2019 plus 2021 polling (Sept 14)

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

Federal election results in Québec 2004-2019 plus 2021 polling (Sept 14)

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.

Key battlegrounds at-a-glance

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.

Drawing the line on a majority government

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.

Over under

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.

Source: Wikipedia

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).

Source: Wikipedia

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.

The seats to watch in BC

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears poised to call an election for September 20th with the hopes of attaining a majority of the seats. The Liberals won 157 seats in 2019, falling 13 short of a majority. Losing six seats in BC certainly didn’t help.

The Liberals enter this election with 11 seats in BC.

Party BC standings20152019
Liberals1711
Conservative1017
NDP1411
Green12
Independent01

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.

Riding2015 winner2019 winner
Vancouver GranvilleLiberal – floor crossing to independentIndependent
Steveston – Richmond EastLiberalConservative
Pitt Meadows – Maple RidgeLiberalConservative
Cloverdale – Langley CityLiberalConservative
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser CanyonLiberalConservative
Kelowna – Lake CountryLiberalConservative
South Surrey – White RockConservative – Liberal (by-election)Conservative
Nanaimo – LadysmithNDP – Green (by-election)Green
Port Moody – CoquitlamNDPConservative
Kootenay – ColumbiaNDPConservative

*The Liberals had 17 seats heading into the 2019 election, with the election of Gordie Hogg in the South Surrey-White Rock by-election offsetting the loss of Jody Wilson-Raybould who was sitting as an Independent at dissolution. Paul Manly of the Green Party won a 2019 by-election in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, filling the seat vacated by NDP MP Sheila Malcolmson.

The Conservatives gained eight seats in the 2019 election (winning back one that they lost in a by-election), though Conservative governments have typically relied on winning a majority of seats in BC, or close to it. In Stephen Harper’s 2011 election victory, the Conservatives won 21 of 36 BC seats.

Given the amount of dancing and celebrating on Election Night, the NDP campaign was seen as a ‘success’ in 2019 despite losing seats nation-wide and in BC. Blessed by low expectations, they ended up salvaging 11 of 13 held seats in BC, but failed to win back Nanaimo-Ladysmith which they lost in a by-election. The Greens doubled their seat count, while Jody Wilson-Raybould defended her seat as an independent.

All eyes on BC’s battleground ridings. (image: CBC)

What’s ahead in the 2021 election?

The Liberals have been leading in BC according to various pollsters. Pre-writ polls are an unreliable indicator of future events, since most voters won’t tune-in until the writ period. But going with the prevailing trend right now, the Liberals look poised to retain and add seats, the NDP are competitive and in a position to add seats, and the Conservatives’ biggest battle will be in seat retention. Again, things can change. “Campaigns matter”, scream political strategists everywhere.

As of Friday, August 13th, the CBC poll tracker has the popular vote in BC at an aggregated 34% Liberal, 29% NDP, and 26% Conservative. This is basically a return to 2015 popular vote numbers in BC for the Liberals, when they had a plurality of the seats. The Conservatives are going in the wrong direction. The NDP look stronger compared to 2015 and 2019, while the Greens appear to be struggling compared to the last election.

What’s striking about the table below is how fast things change. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had a massive win in 2011, along with a strong popular vote result from Jack Layton’s NDP. The dramatic resurgence of the Liberals in 2015 reshaped the landscape into a 3-way BC battle, which is where we are at today.

Party – Popular vote (BC)2011201520192021 polls*
Liberal13%35%26%34%
Conservative46%30%34%26%
NDP33%26%24%29%
Green8%8%13%7%

A rough application of current aggregated poll results to seats would see the Liberals win about 19 seats, the Conservatives cut down to 9, the NDP up to 13, and the Greens down to 1.

The campaign hasn’t even started yet, so you can consider those projections as written in sidewalk chalk during a rainstorm.

But where is the battleground right now? Largely in those seats listed above – the ones that changed hands between 2015 and 2019. Given the Liberals’ current strength, this is where they would likely win next. The NDP would see opportunities to win Conservative seats and edge out both parties in tight 3-way races.

Liberal Targets (previously held)Liberal Targets (not held 2015-2019)
Vancouver-GranvillePort Moody-Coquitlam
Steveston-Richmond EastRichmond Centre
South Surrey-White RockLangley-Aldergrove
Cloverdale-Langley CityKamloops-North Thompson
Pitt Meadows-Maple RidgeVictoria
Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Kelowna-Lake Country

The previously-held targets are fairly straight-forward. They won there recently and, with Conservative weakness, can likely win there again or come close. In the other targets, the Liberals almost won Port Moody-Coquitlam in 2019 and presents itself as a juicy target. The rest of the list are outliers. Richmond-Centre has held firm behind Alice Wong, but this could be the time the Liberals win back the seat held by Raymond Chan for several terms? Langley-Aldergrove, by virtue of being a suburban riding in Metro Vancouver, could be in play (the BC NDP won there last year). It is hard to envision the NDP losing a seat to the Liberals on Vancouver Island – it would require Green voters to defect to the Liberals. Unlikely, but Victoria may be the Liberals best shot on the Island (some wags may argue Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke). Kamloops was close in 2015 and would require Conservative collapse of sorts. The inimitable Terry Lake learned the hard way in 2019. Right now, I would expect the Liberals would view 17 seats in BC as a minimum target with stretch goal of 19-20.

NDP Targets (previously held)NDP Targets (not held 2015-)
Port Moody-CoquitlamPitt Meadows-Maple Ridge
Nanaimo-LadysmithCoquitlam-Port Coquitlam
Kootenay-ColumbiaMission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon
Burnaby North – Seymour
Vancouver-Granville

The NDP are likely circling Nanaimo-Ladysmith like a Stanley Park coyote, looking to take a bite out of the Green Caucus. With Greens in disarray, MP Paul Manly may need to win as a virtual Independent. Port Moody-Coquitlam was held by Fin Donnelly and was a near-miss in 2019. The belt of ridings on the north side of the Fraser River from Coquitlam out to Mission and up the Canyon have elected many NDP representatives over the years and could be fertile ground if the NDP moves up the ladder. Burnaby North-Seymour seems like a reasonably safe Liberal seat, but the last election saw the mid-campaign firing of the Conservative candidate. Now that is reset, and the NDP candidate is a known quantity on the North Shore, it might intrigue orange strategists. Another outlier could be Vancouver-Granville where the NDP would expect to run second and could contend with a strong candidate and JWR dynamics. NDPers may argue that Cloverdale-Langley City could follow the pattern of the BC election where NDP MLAs were elected in hitherto safe ‘free enterprise’ seats. My take is that the federal Liberals will be the non-Conservative contender.

The Conservatives, until they right the ship, will be thinking retention. Of course, in order to win the election, they need to do a lot better than that. A lot can happen in 35 days and recent history proves that. Where would the Conservatives win next, beyond their current seats, if the winds of change blow in their direction?

  • South Okanagan – West Kootenay: NDP edged the Conservatives by 3% in 2019
  • North Island – Powell River: this is one riding with an issue that favours the Conservatives – salmon farming. Conservatives offer a clear alternative to NDP and Liberals. NDP edged CPC by 5% in 2019.

In the Lower Mainland, the Conservatives have retreated from the City and have done poorly in the suburbs in successive elections. Targets to reclaim would be:

  • Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam: former stomping grounds of James Moore
  • Fleetwood-Port Kells: narrow loss to the Liberals in 2019
  • West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky: with Avi Lewis as NDP candidate, a usually strong Green effort, and Liberal who won with 35% last time, Conservatives could fantasize about ‘coming up the middle’. Former CPC MP is running again.
  • Vancouver South: Liberals won by only 8% in 2019. Conservaitives would need to do well in Chinese community.

As for the cuddly Greens, they don’t look as cuddly this time with their dirty laundry strewn about. Elizabeth May appears to be electable in her own right and not requiring brand support. Paul Manly, as noted above, will be in for a tougher time. While they have contended on the South Island in the past, it doesn’t look like fortunes favours them this time.

That’s what the battleground looks like to me … today. Prove me wrong in the comments as you wish.

Where does the NDP pathway lead?

Jaggernaut.  Jagmentum.  Jagmeet Singh has been the story of the campaign since the English-language debate – in English Canada – where the NDP, for most of its history, has won its seats.

Until 2011, the NDP’s political game plan was all about Canada outside Québec – the rest of Canada (ROC). It has only won multiple seats in Québec twice – the previous two elections.  Historically, NDP vote in ROC ran far ahead of its vote in Québec. But in 2011 and 2015, that equation changed, with NDP vote in ROC running behind the national number, because of NDP strength in Quebec.

Table 1: NDP popular vote and seat share (1997 to current poll estimates in 2019)

Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 10.29.59 PM

Layton’s Quebec surge of 2011 did not translate the same way in ROC. Even at its peak in 2011, the NDP was only at 26% of the vote in ROC, which translated into the NDP winning only 19% of ROC seats, running well behind the Harper Conservatives. Happily for the NDP in that election, 59 seats of the 75 seats in Quebec went orange, more than doubling their best-ever seat count in a federal election.

In 2015, the NDP plummeted in ROC from 26% to 18% – a lower level than all four of Jack Layton’s elections between 2004-2011, and resulted in only 11% of the seats from ROC.  – half of those (14) were in British Columbia.  The remaining seats were in Alberta (1), Saskatchewan (3), Manitoba (2), and Ontario (8).  

Table 1: NDP by the numbers in Canada and ROC (1997-2015)

Screen Shot 2019-10-14 at 10.38.33 PM

Jagmentum?

Clearly, the NDP leader has been the recipient of well-deserved positive media coverage since the English debate, and he has campaigned well throughout the writ period.  How does it translate into seats?

In ROC, the NDP looks to be at or above where it finished the 2015 election under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair.  However, they will likely lose all or almost all of their 16 seats in Québec.  That’s a lot of seats to make up in ROC, especially when they are still a fair distance below the historic ROC highs of Jack Layton’s 2011 campaign (44 seats) and Ed Broadbent’s effort in 1988 (43 seats in ROC).  In other words, to come out even in this campaign with 2015 (which was a disappointment that caused the resignation of Mulcair), Singh will have to pull off a record performance in ROC.

Even if Singh’s NDP pushed it to Laytonesque levels (26% in ROC), the NDP would still be far behind the major parties.  As it sits right now, the NDP may be the fourth place party in the House of Commons behind the Bloc Québécois.

The more impactful consequence may be the NDP feasting on Liberal votes in suburban battlegrounds where the Conservatives stand to benefit.  NDPers can also rightly assert that their rise may come at the expense of Conservatives in other places, such as the BC Interior where two NDP incumbents face tough re-election battles.

The campaign momentum is surely a welcome reprieve from the doom many NDPers feared.   To their credit, the federal NDP has finally shaken off its extended phase of self-destruction and unsteady start of Mr. Singh. It was only four years plus a month ago that the NDP were on the very verge of power with Thomas Mulcair.  Now, here they are celebrating momentum that will deliver, what, 30 seats?   Singh’s comeback started with winning the Burnaby South by-election, and, now, the NDP has stabilized itself on a footing very consistent with its history, but a long way from what a 2015 pathway looked like: Quebec domination plus seats in all regions.

So, who is really cheering Jagmentum in the final week? Scheerly, you can figure that out.

BC’s photo finish: translating votes to seats

British Columbia will be fascinating to watch on election night. As advance polls open, there has been a struggle between the Liberals and Conservatives to emerge as a clear leader, while the NDP appear to be on the move post-debate.  The Greens maintain a strong presence on the Island that could be converted into a bushel of seats.

When you see these poll numbers bouncing around, how do they convert to seats?  I thought it would be ‘fun’ to play with numbers today.

Screen Shot 2019-10-11 at 5.11.30 PM.png

Four parties (and an independent) in the hunt for seats in BC. It’s that close, it seems.

In ‘BC Battleground’, I wrote about the key regions.  In particular, the Lower Mainland outer suburbs and Vancouver Island are very volatile.

A political sniffle can lead to an electoral coma for parties mired in three and four way battles.

When we forecast results, they are based mainly on the result of the last election, adjusted to potential 2019 scenarios.  When it’s all said and done, the seats normally follow a similar pattern.  The ranking of seats, party by party, doesn’t usually shift that much from election to election (a party’s best and worst seats tend to be consistent, such as the NDP in East Van, CPC in Peace River, or Liberals in Quadra). Over time, yes, coalitions shift and parties evolve, winning in places that are new, and losing in places that used to be strongholds.  That pattern usually takes a few cycles.

Assuming patterns are fairly consistent to 2015, we can look at how seat totals might play out based on popular vote.  This does not take into account special local factors.

Reminder that in 2015, the seat totals in BC were:

  • 17 Liberal
  • 14 NDP
  • 10 CPC
  • 1 Green

Scenario 1: Three-way tie, with Greens trailing in fourth

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 26.5% 26.5% 26.5% 16.0%
Seats 12 13 16 1

Despite the three-way tie in popular vote, the NDP has an efficiency advantage, mainly based on winning, like they did in 2015, six of seven seats on the Island with about one-third of the vote.

Scenario 2: Top 2 CPC and Liberals, NDP third, with Greens trailing in fourth

In 2015, the Liberals won popular vote in BC by 5.5%.  This scenario has the CPC tying the Liberals, with NDP trailing by about same amount as 2015.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 28% 28% 23% 16.0%
Seats 14 14 12 2

Both Conservatives and Liberals vote breaks evenly into seats with NDP punching above its weight due to the Island.

Scenario 3: CPC lead over Liberals, NDP third, Greens trailing in fourth

If the Conservatives take a 4-point lead over the Liberals, the math starts to move.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 30.0% 26.0% 23% 16.0%
Seats 17 11 12 2

Seat pick ups increase in the outer suburbs of Vancouver for the Conservatives, levelling that region which the Liberals dominated in 2015.  The Liberals would hold most of their Vancouver-urban core seats.

Scenario 4: Liberals lead Conservatives, NDP third, Greens fourth

Scenario 3 is flipped to a Liberal 4-point lead, holding the NDP and Greens constant.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 26.0% 30.0% 23.0% 16.0%
Seats 10 17 13 2

Scenario 5: NDP falters, Greens rise

The previous four scenarios have the Green constant at 16%.  This scenario moves them to 20% and the NDP to 22%.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 27.0% 27.0% 22.0% 20.0%
Seats 14 14 10 4

The Island is very dynamic in terms of vote splits.  If the Greens rise over there (with 20% province-wide indicating a popular vote on the Island of over 35%), then NDP seats fall to the Greens, at least on the Lower Island.

Scenario 6:  One party blowout

It would take a 10%+ lead in the popular vote for any one party to grab 50% of the seats (21 seats).

Blue crush

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 35.0% 24.0% 22.0% 15.0%
Seats 22 9 9 2

Big red machine

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 24.0% 35.0% 22.0% 15.0%
Seats 5 23 12 2

Jagmentum

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 24.0% 24.0% 33.0% 15.0%
Seats 9 11 21 2

Green armageddon

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 15% 15% 15% 50%
Seats 0 0 0 42

I mean, isn’t Green armageddon just inevitable?  Who doesn’t want unicorns and rainbows?

Local factors

The seat modelling ignores that Paul Manly won the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election for the Greens, that the Conservatives fired their Burnaby-North Vancouver candidate, that the Liberals fired candidates in Victoria and Cowichan last election, thus lowering their base for this model.  It also does not account for a candidate by the name of Jody Wilson-Raybould.  So, yes, local factors can confound the model, but the model overall speaks truth.  Due to our system, the votes have to land somewhere. When you see fortunes rise and fall in the polls, the seats will follow.

It seems that close.  We’ll see which scenario prevails.

What is the magic number for a majority in #Elxn43?

We all know that it’s seats that matter, not the popular vote.

How does popular vote translate to seats, and what is the threshold for winning a minority or a majority in federal politics?

In the past 60 years, the magic number has been a minimum of 38.5% for a majority and a minimum of 35.9% 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%, therefore, the modern-day range has been 38.5% to qualify for a majority and over 41.5% to be free and clear of a minority.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals finished above the 38.5% ‘minimum’ for majority governments, earning 39.5% of the popular vote.

Chart: Popular vote of party that formed government with plurality of seats

Slide1In fact, only Lester Pearson’s Liberals were unlucky enough to be above the 38.5% mark and not win a majority – in consecutive elections too.  John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives were on the 38.5% line in 1957 and missed out on a majority that time. In 1958, he took care of business with a majority of seats and votes.

Jean Chrétien in 1997 had the lowest popular vote at 38.5% in past 50 years to win a majority.  Here is a list of the majorities and popular vote since 1957:

Majorities PM Vote
1958 Dief 53.7%
1968 PET 45.4%
1974 PET 43.2%
1980 PET 44.3%
1984 Mulroney 50.0%
1988 Mulroney 43.0%
1993 Chrétien 41.2%
1997 Chrétien 38.5%
2000 Chrétien 40.9%
2011

2015

Harper

Trudeau

39.6%

39.5%

Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives had the lowest popular vote to win a plurality of seats (35.9%).  Not only that, he lost the popular vote by five points to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals, but he still won more seats.  Here are the minority governments:

Minorities PM Vote
1957 Dief 38.5%
1962 Dief 37.2%
1963 Pearson 41.5%
1965 Pearson 40.2%
1972 PET 38.4%
1979 Clark 35.9%
2004 Martin 36.7%
2006 Harper 36.3%
2008 Harper 37.7%

Sure, a majority could be earned nationally with less than 38.5% of the vote.  It’s happened provincially.  François Legault won a majority with 37.4% of the vote in Québec’s 2018 election.  The Bob Rae government scored 57% of the seats with 37.6% of the vote in 1990.

The 2019 election and after

So far in the 2019 election, the public polls indicate that the two contending parties – Liberals and Conservatives – are falling below the 38.5% threshold.

If they continue to hover in the 35% range, the likelihood of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, Yves-François Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois, and/or Elizabeth May’s Greens holding the balance of power increases.  It could even be an independent if the margin between minority and majority is razor thin.

Canada was governed by minority governments from 2004 to 2011.  It was Jack Layton’s NDP that pulled the plug on Paul Martin’s Liberal government.  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives governed with a minority for five years thanks to the NDP.

This time, winning a plurality of seats is no ticket to the Prime Minister’s Office.  Jagmeet Singh has said as much.  Elizabeth May says she may not decide to prop up anyone.  Andrew Scheer may find it harder to pull together confidence than Stephen Harper – the Bloc Quebecois may be his only hope, which would be ironic when considering the aftermath of the 2008 election.

Crossing that line of 38.5%, or wherever it exactly lies, will ensure the government is decided on election day.  Falling short means that winning the confidence of 338 Members of Parliament will be the election that takes place soon after, and that will be decided in the backrooms.

Will the biggest surprise of #Elxn43 be that there’s no surprise?

There seems to be a growing media / insider consensus about the October 21st federal election:

  • Liberals will win a plurality of seats
  • Conservatives can’t win because they are being held back by Doug Ford
  • The NDP are in double trouble
  • The Greens are going to increase their seat count, notably on Vancouver Island
  • The Peoples’ Party remains a fringe party, unlikely to be a major factor

With 38 days to go until election day, it’s worth noting that the past two federal elections featured major surprises . The convention wisdom of Day 38 was turned on its ear by Election Day.

In 2011, according to public polls, Jack Layton’s NDP started a fair distance behind Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.  Within the first two weeks, the cane-wielding Layton made his move, based on a groundswell in Quebec, and eclipsed the hapless Liberal campaign. Once the NDP passed the Liberals, the equation changed and the Liberal business case collapsed (‘vote Liberal as the main alternative to Stephen Harper’).  Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were an immovable block in that campaign and stayed on top throughout, but the churn below in the opposition was dramatic.

Chart 1:  2011 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

2011FederalElectionPolls.png

In 2015, Thomas Mulcair’s NDP were seen as the prime opponent of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives leading into the election.  While Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were successful attracting candidates and generating crowds, it took a while before the polls responded.  No one was predicting a Liberal majority in early August.

Two significant events happened.  The Trudeau Liberals’ jujitsu move on deficit financing caught the NDP flat-footed.  Mulcair’s conservative approach was addressing a perceived weakness on their competence and to make the NDP less scary to Canadians on economic issues.  The Trudeau campaign detected a mood in the electorate that wanted more activism from government.  The Liberal move shook up the campaign on the left side of the spectrum.

Second, there was a huge political disruption in Quebec.  The Harper Conservatives move to stimulate a debate on cultural issues backfired.   By devastating the NDP campaign, the Conservatives elevated the Liberals.  As the NDP dropped in Quebec, its national polling numbers dipped allowing the Liberals to surpass them.  Once that happened, the business case for the NDP collapsed with the Liberals winning the ‘primary campaign’ to be the main challenger to Stephen Harper.  The NDP tanked and finished over 10 points below where they started the campaign.

Chart 2:  2015 federal election polling (source: Wikipedia)

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Campaigns matter.  The events of the 2011 and 2015 campaigns were driven by campaign strategy.  This is how surprises happen, when smart campaigns detect a ripple and turn it into a wave, while less seaworthy campaigns are beached.

Sure, this federal campaign could be about as boring as the Chrétien re-elections of 1997 and 2000.  The Stephen Harper re-election in 2008 was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

What constitutes a good and bad surprise for the parties in 2019?

Liberals: despite controversies, they win a majority at or above 2015 or fall below the Conservatives in seat count

Conservatives: Andrew Scheer outperforms low expectations and wins a majority or significantly falling below 2015 performance in seats and popular vote

NDP: Jagmeet Singh outperforms very low expectations and wins 30+ seats or the NDP is driven deep into single digits and fall behind Greens

Greens: Move into third place nationally in seats or fail to make a meaningful breakthrough

Peoples Party: Win more than 5% nationally and contest seats other than Maxime Bernier (this would be a big surprise) or … expectations are so low that I’m not sure there is a bad surprise.

Turnout – Will turnout be as strong as 2015 or will it fall below 50%?

These good/bad surprise scenarios seem timid.  There could be wilder outcomes (eg. Rachel Notley-esque). The biggest surprise will be if there is no surprise at all.

Campaigns matter.  We’ll see in the next two weeks if there is a big move to be made.

The pollsters, pundits and political scientists now take a back seat to the people.  They will decide what happens and no one truly knows what to expect.

** Media elder Vaughn Palmer notes the Bloc Quebecois’ ability to surprise, which I overlooked.

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FPTP vs. PR – and the winner is?

If this was a conventional election, it would appear First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) will prevail over Proportional Representation (PR).  Is it a conventional election? Let’s take a look.

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It’s all over but the counting. (photo: Times Colonist)

It appears, according to public polls, that it’s a competitive race between the two options. Various polls have it in the 50-50 range.  There is also a consensus among public polls that PR is strongly favoured among young people and FPTP is strongly favoured among older people.

There are regional variations.  Areas where PR appears strong are Vancouver Island (where the Greens are strongest) and the City of Vancouver. FPTP appears strongest in BC’s Interior.

Ethnicity and language also appear to play a role.  Public polls do not show breakdowns by ethnicity (and I wonder if they are properly represented in sampling), but we can see that turnout has been lower in ridings that have lower English-first language populations, such as Richmond and Surrey.

There has been some interesting analysis conducted by Star Metro reporter David Ball and Langara College professor Bryan Breguet (an unabashed PR supporter) who has a blog called “Too Close to Call”.

Ball tracked the rate-of-return of the mail-in-ballots and compared it to the HST and Translink referendums.  The seemingly slow rate of response at the outset of the process was typical of these processes.

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Brequet ran regressions and other analysis to determine who might be voting.  He’s also conducted Google polls, that show the race very tight.  I’m a bit more primitive in my approach so take the following as you will.

Here’s what we know:

1,361,000 ballots were received, and Elections BC has published the riding-by-riding totals for over 92% of those ballots, providing a fairly clear picture of the regional breakdowns.

Turnout

On the spectrum of turnout for province-wide votes over the past seven years, the PR referendum was low.  Take into account population growth and the PR turnout was even weaker when compared to the HST referendum.

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Regional Differences

One of the wrinkles with looking at these results by region is to look at raw votes rather than ridings.  There are 24 seats in the Interior and only 15 on the Island/Sunshine Coast.  Yet the average riding population on the Coast is higher.  In the final analysis, there are about as many votes from the Island/Sunshine Coast as there are from the Interior.

The Interior received ballots earlier, and returned them earlier.  Over the course of the balloting period, the Interior’s share of the overall pile of votes diminished to about its share of registered voters.  The FPTP advocates may have hoped that the Interior would punch above its weight in terms of turnout.  The region that did over-perform its share of the electoral pie was Vancouver Island / Sunshine Coast.  By the time the final 8% of ballots are allocated to ridings, the Island will likely surpass the Interior in terms of overall votes, and will have over 20% more influence on the process than compared to its share of registered voters.  The Lower Mainland will have about 8% less influence on the process that its share of registered votes.

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Partisan Differences

We can also track where the votes came by held-seat.  In the HST referendum, every NDP seat voted against the HST, while half of the BC Liberal seats voted for the HST.  Who represents a seat can be an indicator of support – not because of the MLA, but because of the underlying attitudes that got that party and MLA elected in the first place.  One could reasonably assume that BC Liberal seats will lean FPTP and NDP/Green seats will lean PR.  That will probably be the case writ-large, though there will be exceptions.  (For the purposes of this analysis, I am basing it on held seats as of election night, 2017).

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What does this tell us?  The three Green seats over-performed on turnout, while the NDP under-performed.  NDP held-seats in Surrey, for example, had very low voter turnout.  Apparently, voters in Cowichan, Oak Bay, and, Saanich North & the Islands were more eager to receive their ballots than to have a visit from Santa.  But there may be other reasons for that, stay tuned (see below).  The BC Liberal seats held their own, but no advantage in turnout.  Again, those 20 of 24 seats in the Interior held by the BC Liberals did not generate as much in terms of turnout percentage as I would have thought.

In the Lower Mainland, it was very close in terms of raw vote turnout between the NDP-held seats and the BC Liberal-held seats.  The NDP’s 26 Lower Mainland seats account for about 50.5% of all votes in the Lower Mainland processed already versus 49.5% for the 22 BC Liberal-held seats.  There are no Green seats in the Lower Mainland.  So, in the Lower Mainland, the BC Liberal seats did better relative to the NDP.

In the Lower Mainland, the turnout was highest in Vancouver-North Shore and the Fraser Valley, relative to Burnaby to Mission corridor and Richmond to Surrey corridor.

Older people vote

It is a consistent truth in Canadian elections that turnout is higher among older people than younger people.  In the 2015 federal election, there was a bigger turnout among all age groups, but the old geezers still outpaced the Millennials.

Let’s look at turnout-by-age in the 2017 provincial general election.  Work with me here.

The 18-24s represent 11.1% of the eligible voters (the red bar).  However, they represented only 6.3% of those who actually voted (the blue bar).  Meanwhile, the 65-74s are busy voting on the first day of the advance polls following their coffee and muffin at Tim Horton’s.  This group represents 12.7% of eligible voters (red), but 17.6% of those who voted (blue).  There are only about 10% more 65-74s than 18-24s in terms of eligible voters, but almost a 3X difference between them in terms of who voted.

Chart 1: Turnout by Age, 2017 BC provincial election (source: Elections BC)

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So, the question is, given that public polls indicate a strong preference among seniors for FPTP, did old voters rule the roost in the PR referendum too?

Bryan Brequet from Too Close to Call has undertaken some analysis and he sees a trend toward more younger voters.  I think what he means is that the gap between younger and older voters in the PR referendum may not be as pronounced as the 2017 general election.

I’m not so sure.  When you have a lower turnout, the age discrepancy is usually bigger.  When you have a higher turnout, more younger people (and other less-likely voters) are showing up to the polls.

So here’s what I did…

I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of turnout in the PR referendum.  Parksville-Qualicum is #1, at 46% turnout. Surrey Whalley is #87, at 18%.  (This is, as of, 92% of ballots being screened.  Turnout by riding will increase but the ranking of ridings 1-87 will probably not change that much).

Then I took BC Stats data and looked at the 18-44 population per riding.  I ranked the ridings 1-87 in terms of their proportion of 18-44s relative to the overall adult population of the riding.

The green shading indicates the ridings that are in the lowest quartile of 18-44s (the oldest) ,and the red shading indicates ridings that are in the top quartile of 18-44s (the youngest).

What did I find?  The top 8 ridings in terms of voter turnout in this referendum are also in the oldest quartile when it comes to age by population.  Six of the 8 lowest turnout ridings are in the youngest quartile.  In fact, as you go down the list from highest turnout to lowest turnout, you will see 19 oldest-quartile ridings before you hit the first youngest-quartile riding.

The Rosedeer Decision Desk calls it:  Older people vote more.

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Older People vote more … but what does that mean?

If I’m right, and a similar pattern exists in this referendum as it does in most general elections, then it’s good news for FPTP.  But there are definitely some mixed messages.

One of the oldest ridings is Saanich North & the Islands represented by the Greens.  Will older people deliver this riding for FPTP or will the Greens deliver it for PR?  I think it’s both.  I’m sure the Greens will have worked hard to deliver votes there (they get elected there for a reason), but age will be a bit of a mitigating factor.  This could be the story of the Island – an inexorable pull to PR by the Greens (and to a lesser extent, the NDP), restrained by a sizeable population of old geezers.

In older, BC Liberal-held Lower Mainland ridings like Delta South, West Vancouver-Capilano and White Rock, you might see some of the largest margins for FPTP.

Even if there are more older people voting than younger people voting, the question is, where is support at for FPTP and PR?

If it is 50-50 in the polls, and if public polls are correct in so much as older people favour FPTP and younger people favour PR, and IF an age turnout factor is present is as above, then 50-50 becomes 47-53 or even 45-55 in favour of FPTP.

However, if PR has burst through, and if it has weakened opposition among older people down the home stretch, and made a breakthrough with 35-54s, then overall support of 55% among eligible voters may translate to just enough (50% +1) among those who actually voted.

Language

As mentioned, some of the Lower Mainland ridings have the lowest turnout of any seats in the province. The Lower Mainland also has the highest share of non-English (first-language) households in the province as well.

Similar to age, there is a correlation between turnout and English-language skills.  This table, like the previous, is ranked by turnout. The green shading indicates ridings in the lowest quartile when it comes to non-English households.  The red shading indicates ridings in the highest quartile of non-English households.

What does this tell us? We can hypothesize that election materials were not accessible to some voters, or was not debated as extensively in their language (via media) compared to English-speaking media.  Unlike turnout-by-age data supplied by Elections BC, we do not have comparable data for ethnicity or language.  I can merely point out the correlation.  Anecdotally, the HST referendum appeared to have had a high level of engagement in the Chinese community, owing in part to mobilization of Chinese restaurateurs who opposed the tax.  It’s fair to say, I think, that the PR referendum did not hold the attention of the Chinese media (or Punjabi media) like the HST issue.

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While Chinese voters tend to favour the BC Liberals, historically, and voters from Punjabi-speaking households have leaned more to the NDP over time, the Greens are clearly weaker in these communities relative to support they have elsewhere.  Therefore, one could argue that lower turnout in parts of Surrey, Richmond, and other Lower Mainland areas might be good news for PR, if you think you are more likely to find PR voters where the Green Party finds more fertile territory, generally.

The Upshot?

The voting is done.  I made my case for FPTP (“I was a Teenage Vote Splitter“) and have also pointed out how PR advocates should be careful what they are wishing for.

I think the final result will be close.  I think there was momentum toward PR in the final weeks which helped close a (perceived) gap.  For PR to win, it will have had to have done quite well with 35-54s (assuming young and old cancel each other), and have won the Lower Mainland (assuming Island and Interior cancel each other).

If PR does win, then it will have likely done so with less than 22 to 23% of registered voters.  We can debate the legitimacy of that if it happens.  Gordon Campbell had set a 60% threshold which seemed to be a reasonable threshold for a fundamental change to the electoral system.  The current government obviously thinks otherwise!

I do not think 42% turnout is enough for PR to win with a majority.  I think they needed more voters to flood the polls.  I expect FPTP to win by a few whiskers, a few grey whiskers.  We will know soon enough.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to PR and FPTP supporters alike !

Will voters be in a giving mood in South Surrey-White Rock by-election?

A federal by-election has been called for December 11th in South Surrey-White Rock, which will provide an interesting read of the political thermometer two years out from a general election.

Traditionally, this area has been inhospitable to Liberals.  In fact, I can’t remember the last time the South Surrey-White Rock area had a federal Liberal MP – not in my lifetime.  They took a pass on Trudeaumania (and candidate Bill Vander Zalm!) in 1968, electing an NDPer. At that time, Surrey and White Rock were encompassed in one riding – how times have changed.  Since 1974, the Conservatives have owned the riding.  Voters were Scrooge-like toward my old friend Reni Masi (later elected as MLA) who ran twice as a Grit in the area, but gave like Santa when it came to voting for Progressive Conservative Benno Friesen.

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On December 11th, will South Surrey-White Rock voters continue to be Scrooge-like toward the Liberals?  Or give like Santa?

Gordie Hogg tried in 1993, unsuccessfully, as a Chretien Liberal, losing to upstart Reformer Val Meredith.  MLA Wilf Hurd resigned his seat to try it on as a Fed Lib in 1997 and lost; Hogg then took Hurd’s seat in the Legislature and served for 20 years.

Will this time be different?  After a brief two-year stint in Ottawa, Conservative Dianne Watts resigned her seat to contest the BC Liberal leadership.  If successful in her quest, she will be on a very short list of people who have served as Mayor, MP, and MLA.  In the meantime, Gordie Hogg may do the same if elected on December 11th, becoming the first to do so since (I think) Gerry McGeer, the former mayor of Vancouver, who accomplished that feat, plus senator.

The Liberals are bullish and must be encouraged by not only Hogg’s candidacy, but a strong turnout for PM Justin Trudeau last week in White Rock.

Let’s take a look at 2011 and 2015 numbers for BC and  South Surrey-White Rock:

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The Conservatives hung on in 2015 – barely.  Despite Dianne Watts’ profile as longtime mayor of Surrey, the Conservative vote dropped from 52.9% to 44%.  Taking a closer look, however, it appears that Watts ran ahead of the curve, salvaging the seat.  In 2011, the Conservatives ran 1.16X the BC popular vote, whereas in 2015, they were 1.47X ahead.

The Liberals were shot out of a cannon in 2015 compared to 2011.  The Liberal vote in BC increased 2.63X, but in South Surrey-White Rock, the gain was only 2.18X.  Had the trend been replicated there, Judy Higginbotham would be the MP.  There are extenuating circumstances – Judy wasn’t supposed to be on the ballot.  The longtime Liberal warrior jumped in when the initial candidate was ejected mid-campaign for a since-forgotten gaffe.  Arguably, the Conservatives benefited from that bit of luck.  At the outset of the campaign, it must have looked like they would cruise to victory with Watts and, by the end, they were in an unexpected fight of their life.  It’s one of the few toe-holds they have left in Metro Vancouver.

With the Liberals leading the Conservatives by about five points in the BC popular vote in 2015 but losing this seat, it stands to reason that the Liberals need to be as popular relative to the Conservatives in BC now in order to win the by-election, and trust that Gordie Hogg’s profile in the area lifts them a few additional points over former MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay, who has parachuted in.

The NDP is not a factor here.  I’m sure that strategists at Big Orange are devising ways to drive up Justin’s negatives in the by-election to aid the election of a Conservative.

The latest public polls (caveat emptor) are contradictory regarding federal party standings in BC.   Angus Reid has a four-point CPC lead; Nanos has a six-point Liberal lead; and Abacus has an 11-point Liberal lead.

Then there is turnout.  The 2015 general election had a 75% turnout.  It was a high turnout election to begin with, but in South Surrey-White Rock, they have voting circled in their calendars – it’s an event.   I would expect a drop in turnout like any by-election but not as steep a drop as other places.  Older people will disproportionately vote in a by-election compared to a general election (I have no data at my fingertips to back up this claim, but I think it’s true).  That should give the Conservatives a bit of help.

The Upshot:

The Conservatives had a stronger candidate in 2015 relative to 2011, and the Liberals had candidate trouble.  The Conservatives over-performed; Liberals under-performed.

The Liberals have recruited a strong candidate in 2017; the Conservatives have a good candidate but she is not personally well-known in the riding.  Advantage: Liberals.

The atmosphere in BC is the wildcard.  The Conservatives have a new leader in Andrew Scheer – are they better or worse off than 2015?  Likely worse off as Scheer is not very well-known or defined.  CPC has to make the by-election ballot question about the Liberals and Trudeau, not about local representation.

To that end, just how damaging are the Morneau-small business tax changes?  This riding should feel this issue more than most – it’s full of upper income, white collar professionals with a small ‘c’ conservative tilt.  Many of the people who voted Liberal last time in South Surrey-White Rock are the type of voters that Scheer needs to attract.  If anything, this by-election is a litmus test as to whether that issue – which dominated federal political headlines in August-September, has any teeth at the ballot box.

In three weeks, we’ll know if the voters are feeling like Santa or Scrooge when it comes to the mid-term government.  For the Liberals, this is a seat they never win so they have little to lose so long as they manage expectations.   For the Conservatives, it will be tough loss for a new leader, on the heels of losing a Quebec seat to the Liberals recently, though also an opportunity for momentum for a new leader trying to get established.  Right now, the Conservatives look like they have their work cut out for them.