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)

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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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The math of the Nanaimo by-election

What can we expect for turnout in the Nanaimo by-election?

I took a look at five competitive by-elections since 1989 – government-held seats where both the government and opposition had a good chance to win.

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In all of these cases, there should have been ample incentive for both government and opposition to win and, therefore, work hard to get their vote out.

By-election turnout as a percentage of the previous general election ranged from 40% to 89%.  None of these examples, nor any example of any by-election in recent memory, saw a higher turnout than a general election.  Therefore, it is pretty safe to say that fewer people will vote than the 2017 general election even though Press Gallery sage Keith Baldrey calls it “pivotal” and NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson calls it, “The most important by-election in BC history.”

The NDP pulled off by-election upsets in 1989 and 2012 when they over-performed declining turnout.  In both cases, they had more votes than the previous general election.   Part of that was motivating their supporters and part of it was winning votes from non-traditional supporters.  In two other cases, the NDP still won by-elections from the BC Liberal government even though they had fewer votes compared to the previous election (in which they lost).

Poor old governments.  They have a tough time in by-elections.  In these five examples, the government of the day had between 30% and 75% of the votes from the previous election.  In Oak Bay in 1989, 75% should have been enough to elect Susan Brice.  Campaign manager Frank Leonard probably thought he had the votes.  But NDP candidate Elizabeth Cull really brought the vote out in an anti-Vander Zalm tide.  (It didn’t help the Socreds that Liberal Paul McKivett grabbed 9% either – a story for another day).

The 2011 Pt. Grey by-election is a good parallel for Nanaimo.  Here was a newly elected leader of the governing party, Christy Clark, seeking her way into the Legislature.  I can say, as her then-Chief of Staff, that I never seriously contemplated losing this by-election.  We were too darn busy at the time to think about losing.  Yet, with our campaign only garnering 68% of the votes from the previous election, and NDP David Eby garnering 78% of the previous campaign’s NDP votes, it became uncomfortably close.  If Eby had taken 90% of the votes of Mel Lehan’s 2009 effort in Pt. Grey, he would have won then, instead of 2013, and created a major problem for me.

In 2017, the Nanaimo riding results were as follows:

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So, you can expect there will be less than 27,399 that vote in this by-election.  According to recent history, we might reasonably expect a range of 69% (Pt. Grey) to 85% (Chilliwack-Hope) of the previous election, or a range of about 18,900 to 23,300 voters.  If 40% share of the popular vote is a win, because of a strong Green in the race, then 7,600 to 9,300 votes might be enough to win.  Maybe less if this emerges as a three-way race.

A more recent example is the ProRep referendum.

A total of 19,938 Nanaimo riding residents voted, with a majority (10,785) voting for First-Past-the-Post.  Perhaps that’s the floor for the by-election turnout.  I will leave it others to speculate what 10,785 First-Past-the-Voters might be thinking about BC politics right now.

Why does this matter?

Because when turnout declines, as it surely will, in this by-election, motivating supporters becomes more important.  The three main parties will work very hard to motivate their support base.

The NDP base may not be as strong as some assume.  First of all, Leonard Krog is not on the ballot.  How much of the vote was NDP and how much was Leonard Krog?  We’ll soon find out.

Secondly, Sheila Malcolmson’s support as NDP MP was not as strong as some assume.  She only received 33% of the vote in the past federal election.  I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I think she did better south of the current provincial riding than she did within.  That may have been more of a problem with Tom Mulcair’s flagging fortunes than anything, but the fact remains that Malcolmson did not have huge coattails of her own.

You might crunch the 2017 numbers and say, “The NDP still have a pretty big cushion”.  You would be right.  But go back to 2013 and look at those results.  It was a lot closer between the NDP and BC Liberals. How much of a difference will Andrew Wilkinson and Tony Harris make in favour of the BC Liberals, and how much difference did Leonard Krog make for the NDP?  We’ll see.

For a deeper dive on BC by-election turnout, see my 2016 posts: A Deeper Dive on By-election Turnout and Turnout goes Underground.

Hot Take on ProRep Referendum Results

Last week, I wrote that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) would prevail by “a whisker, a few grey whiskers”.  It turned out that it was a full-on Santa’s beard of whiskers as it prevailed with 61% of the vote, far exceeding projections by public pollsters.

The Regional Story

What’s striking about the win for FPTP is its dominance in the Lower Mainland.  It took 63% of the vote in BC’s most populated area.  The Interior delivered a resounding 67% verdict, but it represented just over a quarter of the votes for FPTP.  The Lower Mainland did the heavy lifting.  The Island was a 50-50 split, a disappointment to ProRep supporters, especially the Greens.  However, as I wrote last week, there are a lot of ‘experienced’ voters (hint: old) on the Island and experienced voters don’t care much for ProRep.

Feast your eyes on this table then I will break it down for you…

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  1. The South Island (south of the Malahat) was the best area of the province for ProRep, delivering a 55% win across seven ridings in the Capital region.  Those efforts were cancelled out by the seven ridings north of the Malahat.  As was the case up north, rural, resource-producing areas are very skeptical of ProRep, which partially explains the difference on the Island between north and south.
  2. In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver-North Shore’s 15 ridings were close with FPTP edging ProRep 53% to 47%.  This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Lower Mainland and should serve as a wake-up call to the NDP.  Richmond-Delta-Surrey voted 72% for FPTP and Burnaby to Mission went 70% FPTP.  This is exactly where Christy Clark’s government met its demise in 2017.  In these areas alone, eight BC Liberal seats flipped to the NDP.  In this referendum, they were clearly not buying what the GreenDP were selling.  The Fraser Valley went strongly for FPTP, as expected, even then, 75% is emphatic.
  3. In the Interior, the northernmost ridings, including the Cariboo, strongly backed the current system with 74% support.  I return to the previous point – it is surprising to me that the suburbs of the Lower Mainland matched the North.  Frankly, it’s shocking, to a guy like me, who obsesses over numbers and ridings.  The Okanagan and Kamloops region were in lockstep at 68-69%.  The Kootenays demonstrate, yet again, that they march to the beat of a different drummer – at least those in the West Kootenay.  Both NDP-held seats there voted ProRep, the only two of the 24 Interior seats to support the proposal.  The region overall was 55% for FPTP due to the East Kootenay BCL-held seats.

Results by Party 

The BC Liberals elected 43 seats on Election Day 2017 and those 43 seats voted 70% for FPTP, nine points above the 61% average province-wide.  The NDP’s 41 seats leaned toward FPTP with 54% compared to 46% for ProRep.  The Green held-seats slightly favoured FPTP, by a margin of 51% to 49%.

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Let’s look at the NDP seats.  ProRep was blown out in Surrey seats with Panorama leading the way at 74.5% for FPTP.  Newton 73%.  Green Timbers 73%.  Fleetwood 72%.  Delta North 70%.  Hop over to Maple Ridge where it was 68-69% for FPTP.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this referendum to the next election but it’s not great when your initiative, which sucked up a lot of political oxygen, is thumped.

In the Interior, the four NDP held seats did OK, relative to the overall result.  Stikine was 60% for FPTP which is better than Surrey, I guess.  North Coast was close (53% FPTP) while, as mentioned above, the NDP seats in the West Kootenay backed ProRep.  Is there anywhere to grow for the NDP?  When you see 25% for ProRep in the Cariboo, where the NDP had seats not long ago, and 26% in Fraser-Nicola which was held up until 2013, it’s hard to see this referendum as an Interior growth strategy for the NDP.

Here are the 16 of 87 seats that voted ProRep:

  • Vancouver Mt. Pleasant (NDP)
  • Victoria-Beacon Hill (NDP)
  • Victoria-Swan Lake (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Hastings (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Fairview (NDP)
  • Vancouver-West End (NDP)
  • Nelson-Creston (NDP)
  • Powell River-Sunshine Coast (NDP)
  • Oak Bay-Gordon Head (GREEN)
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (NDP)
  • Esquimalt-Metchosin (NDP)
  • Saanich North & the Islands (GREEN)
  • Vancouver-False Creek (BCL)
  • Kootenay West (NDP)
  • New Westminster (NDP)
  • Langford Juan de Fuca (NDP)

The top four on the list are probably the top four safest NDP seats in the province.  For the BC Liberals, it stands out that ProRep won in False Creek.  Sam Sullivan hung on by his fingernails last election and this riding is evolving.  The BC Liberals held Pt. Grey, Fairview, Saanich North, and Oak Bay up until 2013.  The BC Liberals, strong proponents of FPTP, continue to go against the grain of these type of ridings.

Another riding, which was very close between FPTP and ProRep was West Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky.  This is a riding that should be on the BC Liberals’ “watch list”.  It’s changing, as is North Vancouver-Seymour.  Ridings that used to be safe, aren’t as safe anymore.    The key is the suburbs. There are a lot of seats out there and, like Quebec in federal elections, they can go one way or the other, en masse.

In this referendum, ProRep did not have a broad enough coalition.  It did poorly in the suburbs and the regions, and in ridings with higher proportions of people who do not have English as a first language.  This pretty well sums up the Green Party actually.  While it won in Andrew Weaver’s riding (which hosts UVic) and in Saanich-North & the Islands, where it has two elected Green representatives (Adam Olsen and Elizabeth May),  it lost in Cowichan Valley.  It’s more rural, and it’s less typical of the Green base.  The Greens like PR because they haven’t been able to break through in FPTP because of their limited appeal.  The referendum reinforces the Greens’ weaknesses.

ProRep also lacked meaningful support from BC Liberals.  NDPer Bill Tieleman was extremely important to the FPTP campaign, along with other traditional FPTP supporters in the NDP.  Glen Clark’s support for FPTP was an important signal to an element of the NDP base.  Former Premier Ujjal Dosanjh also made interventions into the campaign in favour of FPTP. There was no signalling from iconic BC Liberal / Socreds-of-old to the free enterprise base that ProRep was ok.

The process

At the end of the day, this was a process that was nakedly designed to support the partisan interests of the Green Party, and to a lesser extent, the NDP (who were more interested in keeping the Greens happy).  There was no secret about it.  The consultation had all the appearances of a sham, especially when compared to the much-admired Citizens’ Assembly process prior to 2005.  Here was a Premier, Gordon Campbell, who had 77 of 79 seats.  He put the power of recommending a new system in the hands of two citizens per riding.  They spent months learning and deliberating.  I didn’t like their recommendation but I admired their efforts and their example.  It was democratic jury duty.  That process also had a much better result for electoral reform than what just transpired.  Is this a lesson learned for David Eby? Too clever by half?

Another sign of a flawed process is that 40% of the voters did not even vote on Question 2. There were 1.391 million voters overall, but only 832,000 chose one of the three PR options, while 559,000 skipped the question. Of the options, MMP had the most with 343,000. That would not have been a resounding mandate and such a gap in responses between Q1 and Q2 would have undermined a positive ProRep outcome.

The players

FPTP supporters, like Bob Plecas, Suzanne Anton, and Bill Tieleman, got started early.  They branched out to bring in other voices in multicultural communities. They had the experience to focus their resources and messaging effectively.  They worked on persuading likely voters and punched through with clear arguments.  The ProRep campaign appeared to focus a lot of effort on getting non-voters to vote.  That is harder to do.  As with many campaigns, followers can get fooled by their echo chamber.  If your social media galaxy is made up of people just like you, then you can be led to believe there is more support than really exists.  Clearly, the ProRep campaign was spanked once it left the cozy confines of Victoria and Vancouver.  It did not have a ground game or a regional game.  This was a similar challenge in the Transit Referendum.  The suburbs rose up and defeated the initiative (though there wasn’t a great deal of support in Vancouver either).  What’s the answer?  Show up, listen, engage.  Get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow your cause.

This is why the system works

As the results indicate, there is dynamism in the system.  I can see in these results how the electoral landscape continues to shift.  It’s not a given how the province will vote next time.  Big-tent parties have to get their arms around the largest swath of voters possible in order to govern.  That requires overarching vision, compromise, and brokering, but all within a unified structure that brings forward a coherent program that that party is accountable for if they win.  Moreover, it is highly competitive.  Elections between two or more big-tent parties bring clarity and a clear choice for the electorate.  Smaller parties play an important role too.  They push issues on to the agenda that big-tent parties must respond to.  If they don’t, big tent parties can disappear and smaller parties can emerge to take their place.  As a Teenage Vote Splitter, that was my story – that of the BC Liberals supplanting the Socreds after 1991 and the Reform Party overtaking the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.  It happens all the time.  We have a highly competitive, dynamic electoral system.  It’s not perfect, but it’s not static either.

The best argument I heard during this debate was that FPTP is the most effective system for throwing out a bad government.  It’s decisive.    In most cases, these parties are the better for it.  Out goes the old and in comes a new generation of leaders that rebuild. ProRep would allow power structures to linger like last year’s salad dressing.  So, I’m obviously happy with the outcome.  Our system largely works.  There are a few changes that could be made that would help, not requiring a referendum, but that is a post for another day.

Now that this is over, next stop for BC politics: Nanaimo.

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 !

30 years later: the election that shaped Canada in 1988

November 21st marks 30 years since the most consequential election in a generation – the 1988 federal election.   This rematch of 1984 was remarkable for its substance, its strategies, and its aftermath.

It demonstrated that campaigns matter, with huge momentum shifts and gutsy, dramatic performances by John Turner and Brian Mulroney. It was an election that pivoted on Canada’s image of itself in relation to the United States and drew 76% of voters to the polls. Not only did the election decide Canada’s course on free trade, it represented the climax of the Mulroney era. No Conservative government had won back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald in 1891. Despite this moment of triumph, five years later the Progressive Conservative Party would be a smoldering ruin, its grand coalition (Quebec-Alberta Bridge) ravaged by regional alienation and Quebec nationalism.

It was the first general election where I was able to take a peek in the campaign cockpit. It was an election I will never forget.

The Substance

Like no other campaign in the past 30 years, it revolved around one major issue- Free Trade. Canada had signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At that time, there was a much stronger sense of Canadian economic nationalism than there is today.   Already a prominent issue, Free Trade dominated the agenda when Liberal leader John Turner instructed Liberal senators to block Free Trade legislation. The Liberals had a majority in the Senate. The Mulroney government was powerless to pass Free Trade without Senate approval. Turner had forced Free Trade as the defining issue of the election.

The other centerpiece of Mulroney’s agenda was the Meech Lake Accord. In 1987, Mulroney secured the approval of all ten premiers for a package of constitutional reforms that would bring Québec ‘into the Constitution’. The most contentious aspect was recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society”. Many critiques complained about its decentralizing power. It became a very controversial issue among elites (particularly liberal elites) and discontentment grew, especially in Western Canada.

The Strategies

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 10.56.10 AMJohn Duffy’s excellent book, Fights of Our Lives, outlines the political strategies used in the 1988 campaign – he named 1988 as one of the five top campaigns in Canadian history.

The Mulroney campaign started off in a bubble – a frontrunner campaign. After three years of scandal in his first term, Mulroney had righted the ship, in part because Free Trade provided him with a proof point of his leadership traits and economic agenda. The Liberals were internally divided and Ed Broadbent’s NDP were threatening to vault into second place. It seemed that Mulroney just had to play it safe, but that was hard to do in what was a seven-week campaign.

John Turner had his back to the wall. He had embraced the Free Trade issue and took some control of the agenda through the Senate gambit. He had public backing for his position: “Let the people decide”. However, by the time the election was called on October 1st, the Liberals were sagging in the polls. The Meech Lake Accord had badly divided them, while Free Trade also exposed a major rift. As Duffy writes, Turner supported Meech Lake for Quebec, and opposed Free Trade for English Canada. That was the bargain. In the first two weeks of the campaign, Peter Mansbridge breathlessly reported that there was a push within the Liberals to replace Turner mid-campaign with Jean Chrétien, his leadership rival. Turner stared them down and held on for the national TV debates taking place October 24 and 25.

NDP leader Ed Broadbent did not want a referendum on Free Trade. He wanted to talk about social issues and trust. He had successfully likened Mulroney and Turner as “Bay Street boys” in 1984, hurting Turner, and by 1988, there was also an aroma around Mulroney on trust. A Free Trade election would relegate Broadbent to the sidelines while Mulroney and Turner went mano a mano.

Meanwhile, out in the hinterland, Preston Manning was recruiting candidates and running a slate of candidates in Western Canada. He was gaining notice in church basements and in rural areas, but not seen as a major threat.

Mulroney, Turner, and Broadbent all supported Meech Lake. It did not become a vote-driving issue in the campaign.   This all-party consensus would have far-reaching implications after the election.

In 1988, campaigns could not advertise on TV until the time of the TV debates toward the end of October. The first few weeks were the ‘phony war’. It was the debates that changed everything, until they changed again.

John Turner limped into the debates looking like a political dead man – metaphorically and physically. He was fighting immense back pain. In the French debate, he exceeded expectations and brought some fight. Ed Broadbent, with limited French skills, was peripheral.

In the English debate, the fireworks came near the end. In 1984, Mulroney had destroyed Turner with a devastating attack on political patronage. In 1988, Turner assailed Mulroney on Free Trade, demonstrating considerable passion and conviction. As Duffy points out, Turner had been coached specifically on body language. While Mulroney returned Turner’s salvos, Turner was simply more convincing and authentic.

As has been the case with highly-charged leaders’ debates, the full impact is not known until days or even a week later. The same-night judging is conducted in a vacuum. It’s not until news clips have been repeated endlessly, and water cooler discussions take place, that momentum truly forms. Within a week, the Liberals were on a big-time roll, galloping into the lead. The PCs were on their heels. At this point, there were three weeks to go.

The Liberals also released one of the best TV ads ever produced in Canadian elections. It showed the Canada-US border being erased as part of Free Trade negotiations.

As a Young Liberal working in the trenches in BC, the sense of momentum was palpable. Excitement flowed through the campaign. For the first time since John Turner was elected leader in 1984, there were real grounds for optimism. Turner had been a major star as a cabinet minister, but after his retreat to law, he had not thus far returned to form as leader. The debate was a major turning point for him.

As Duffy chronicles, Mulroney held things together using his instincts while his strategists, like polling wizard Allan Gregg, crafted a new approach to deal with the Liberal insurgency. Ultimately, the PC campaign, which had lots of money, sent in the B52 bombers to pound the Liberal campaign, “bombing the bridge” of Turner’s credibility. The PCs had wisely agreed to TV debates well in advance of Election Day. This allowed them crucial time for a course correction. In provincial campaigns in BC in 1991 and 2013, and in Manitoba in 1988, TV debates that led to huge momentum changes occurred relatively close to voting and had big impacts. Mulroney’s forces turned back the Liberal tide.

The campaign saw a gutsy charge by Turner, taking his opponents by surprise with his passionate opposition to the Free Trade Agreement. It also saw a skillful counterattack by Mulroney in the final weeks, restoring the PC’s advantage. Both campaigns showed initiative and resolve. The Liberals, weakened by years of infighting and the disastrous 1984 campaign, simply did not have the wherewithal to win.

The Aftermath

Mulroney held Québec for which he had a clear proposition – pro-Meech Lake and pro-Free Trade. He held the West, which also embraced Free Trade. The Quebec-Alberta Bridge of 1984 was kept in tact, but would soon crumble.

Turner’s Liberals reclaimed some of their lost ground in English Canada, especially in Ontario. The Party, reduced to rubble in 1984, now had a much stronger caucus and a lot of new blood.  Turner left the Liberals in better shape then he found them in 1984.

The NDP had its best showing, in part because it did very well in British Columbia. Strategic voting against Free Trade in BC meant voting NDP instead of the Liberals. Overall, the results were a disappointment for Ed Broadbent in his fourth campaign as leader.

With a majority in hand, the Senate relented, and Free Trade was passed. In the 1990s, it would morph into NAFTA. As a national policy, it has stood the test of time.

The re-election of the Mulroney PCs also led to the introduction of the GST. The GST had as much or more to do with its ultimate demise than anything. But again, it’s a policy that has stood the test of time. No government will get rid of the GST.

Has there been an election since Confederation that led to two foundational blocks of our national economy like 1988?

Despite the all-party consensus over Meech Lake, the consensus would break down as new premiers were elected. Liberal Frank McKenna expressed his doubts. A minority government in Manitoba in 1988 forced PC Premier Gary Filmon to take hard line, in step with his opposition leader Liberal Sharon Carstairs. Then Clyde Wells was elected as Premier of Newfoundland, the staunchest critic among the premiers. Preston Manning and the Reform Party were a gathering storm in Western Canada. With Free Trade settled, westerners turned their attention to a constitutional deal that went against their grain.

In 1990, the Meech Lake Accord fell apart in a final desperate week to salvage it. Regional forces were unleashed that blew up the PC’s Quebec-Alberta Bridge. Brian Mulroney’s star recruit in Quebec in 1988, Lucien Bouchard, spectacularly resigned and formed the Bloc Quebecois, later leading the Oui forces in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Mulroney would try again in 1992 with the Charlottetown Accord which was put to national referendum. Everyone was in favour of it, except the people. Lucien Bouchard’s Bloc Quebecois and Preston Manning’s Reform Party would be the 2nd and 3rd parties in the House of Commons after 1993.

Kim Campbell became the first female prime minister, and first home-grown British Columbian to be PM, and went down to a historically brutal defeat. A mere five years after its climactic victory, the PCs had virtually been wiped out, reduced to two seats. They would limp along until merging with the Reform Party’s successor, the Canadian Alliance. In effect, the Canadian Alliance conducted a reverse takeover of this venerable national party.

Jean Chrétien won the first of three successive majority governments, based largely on an Ontario vote split caused by Meech Lake and the GST.

The aftermath of 1988 also had a huge impact on Canada’s aboriginal peoples. As Meech Lake reached its final moment, Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper blocked approval in the Manitoba legislature.  Harper’s act of defiance put aboriginal issues front and centre on the constitutional agenda.

What If?

What would have happened if John Turner had won in 1988? He would have had a huge challenge holding his government together on Meech Lake.   Is it possible that Turner could have resolved the impasse with Liberal Premier Clyde Wells. Unlikely, but it’s possible. Mulroney was unsuccessful, but Turner would have had a shot.

Turner would have had a very difficult road ahead in re-negotiating or walking away from the Free Trade deal. He would have faced blistering opposition from the Canadian business community.

It’s unlikely the Liberals, given these challenges, would have had the courage to bring forward a value added tax, like the GST on the same timetable as the Mulroney government.

The PCs would not have been decimated in 1993. Had they lost in 1988, they would have had a strong opposition. Perhaps a new leader would have taken over, or Mulroney would have stayed to fight another day.

Would we have seen Jean Chrétien as prime minister?  Probably not.  He would have been on the outside looking in while Turner governed.

Campaigns matter. They change the course of our country, provinces, and communities. And no campaign in recent times changed the course of Canada like 1988.

For further reading:

Fights of Our Lives is an outstanding (and fun) analysis of election campaigns in Canada since Confederation. John Duffy pulled off an epic volume. My only complaint is that he hasn’t updated it!

Letting the People Decide. A scholarly analysis of the 1988 election by UBC Professor Richard Johnston and other academics. It takes a deep dive into (credible) polling data.

Elusive Destiny. Paul Litt’s book on John Turner’s political career. Strong recommendation.

And finally, my Poli Sci guru Prof. Ken Carty weighs in on the reading list:

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Six-pack of BC local elections columns

Global News has kept me busy over the past six weeks thinking about BC local elections on October 20th.  Here are six columns covering Vancouver, Surrey, the wave of changes in Metro Vancouver, voter turnout, and how candidates are seeking votes this time around.

The tepid race to be Vancouver’s next mayor, Global News/CKNW (October 15, 2018)

Surrey election may be BC’s most consequential, Global News/CKNW (October 12, 2018)

Crowded races and changing times – the many ways candidates can seek your vote, Global News/CKNW (October 3, 2018)

Voter turnout in local elections trails federal and provincial elections – why?, Global News/CKNW (September 28, 2018)

A surprise exit opens up Vancouver’s mayoral race, Global News/CKNW (September 21, 2018)

Wave of changes coming in Metro Vancouver politics, Global News/CKNW (September 15, 2018)

Wave of changes coming in Metro Vancouver municipal politics

Published via Global News and CKNW (September 15, 2018)

First, the Sedin twins retired. Now, it’s the local mayor. Two-thirds of Metro Vancouver’s mayors have decided that it is time to bow out and won’t be seeking re-election this October.

Only 8 of the region’s 21 mayors are seeking re-election, compared to 16 who campaigned to keep their job in 2014 (with 14 winning re-election).

Why so much change? Like the Sedins, some veteran mayors have run their course after lengthy careers in office. After ten years as mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson is leaving office, as is Metro Vancouver chair and Port Coquitlam mayor Greg Moore. All three mayors on the North Shore are hanging up their chains of office. While Delta’s Lois Jackson plans to run for Council, she leaves the Mayor’s chair she held since 1999. Ralph Drew has been the mayor of tiny Belcarra for over 34 years. He’s like the Gordie Howe of Metro Vancouver mayors.

However, four rookie mayors are “one and done”. Newly elected in 2014, Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, Maple Ridge mayor Nicole Read, Bowen Island mayor Murray Skeels and Lions Bay mayor Karl Buhr have decided to head to the locker room after one term.

Is the high number of retirements the ‘cycle of life’ or is there something deeper happening?

First of all, politics in Metro Vancouver have been disrupted significantly by housing affordability. It may well be the single most important factor toppling the Christy Clark government in 2017 as her party lost significant ground in the region. One year later, it may have also resulted in a game misconduct for Vision Vancouver. Voters are grumpy, whether they are renters or homeowners, with policy prescriptions and blame zigzagging all over the political spectrum. It feeds ‘time for a change’.

Second, is serving as the mayor (or Councillor) becoming a thankless task? Earlier this year, Metro Vancouver board members were roasted over a one-time retirement allowance and pay increase.  In this age of social media, reactions can be immediate and harsh. Greg Moore complained about the change in discourse this week at the Union of BC Municipalities convention. Many local politicians are paid for part-time work and expected to work full-time hours. Well, they did sign up for the job four years ago, but re-upping for another four years requires a heavy gulp.

Finally, there are new campaign financing rules restricting donations to individuals which makes fundraising harder. Not that the old days were particularly desirable, but campaign finance records show that developers and unions took care of most of the financing. The new rules will be a chore to put together the funds necessary to order signs, print brochures, run social media ads, and otherwise get the word out.

Yet despite these reasons, the lure of politics and service is drawing flocks of candidates. Mayoralty races are flourishing throughout the region. Vancouver will have in the neighbourhood of 40 ‘serious’ Council candidates seeking 10 spots. It’s fair to ask all candidates rushing headfirst into politics– do you know what you are getting into? Are you ready? Do you have your head screwed on right?There will be a lot of rookies around Metro Vancouver board table and at Translink Mayors’ Council meetings.

Will wily veterans like Derek Corrigan, Richard Stewart, and Malcolm Brodie, assuming their re-elections, skate circles around the newcomers? Or will the rookie mayors bring a new dynamic, a new style, and new priorities to regional politics? That’s unclear. Voters have the opportunity now to press all candidates on their agenda. How do they propose to implement their ideas? How will they move things through the process? It’s one thing to promote an idea, but how prepared are they to get it done? Are they surfing on sound bites alone, or have they done their homework?

The campaign is only just beginning and, with the new timetable moving the election from November to October, there are only five weeks remaining to Election Day on Saturday, October 20th.

The next five weeks will be like training camp. Voters will need to give these candidates a good workout because they’re signing their mayor and council to a four-year contract.