Searching for a Turner Moment: When Debates can Reshape Election Campaigns

This past Monday saw the fourth leaders’ debate of this election, this one focused on foreign policy. The debate was considered by many to be the best of the campaign, with each leader staking out clear and differentiated positiond on the way that Canada interacts with the rest of the world. It is likely to be the last English debate in which leaders of all of the major federal parties will participate. With the debates almost complete, it is tempting to try to determine a debate winner, and whether this winner has managed to improve their parties’ fortunes in the election. When doing this, it is important to keep in mind the kinds of performances that are needed to change the course of elections. Narrow “victories” in debates rarely are enough to make the difference between an election win and a loss. In most debates leaders are too well prepared and arguments are too well rehearsed for one leader to come off as the clear winner in a debate over policy. Often voters end up thinking that the party whose views they already agreed with ended up winning the debate, largely because the leader of that party articulated that arguments that the voter already agrees with. Where debates can matter is in the framing of election issues and conflict between the parties. The interaction between leaders’ gives them a chance to try to frame both their own and each others’ policies as well as the election itself. John Turner’s performances in the 1984 and 1988 elections offer two examples of how this framing can affect election results.

The 1984 debate produced one of the more memorable moments in Canadian electoral history, and one John Turner would probably like to forget. In the debate Mulroney criticized Turner for making patronage appointments at the behest of Pierre Trudeau when Turner became Prime Minister. Turner attempted to claim that he had no choice in making the appointments (at 2:00 minutes in the clip below) and Mulroney capitalized on his statement to making the point that he indeed “had an option” and that Turner’s patronage appointments demonstrated a failure in leadership. The emotional statements by Mulroney helped to underline the problems with the patronage appointments made by the Liberal government and frame the Liberal party as a corrupt government rewarding their friends at the expense of good governance. The exchange helped to raise the importance of governance and frame the Liberals as a corrupt party that needed to be replaced. This contributed to a landslide win for the Mulroney Conservatives in which they took half of the popular vote and almost 75% of the seats in the House of Commons.

Turner faired much better in the English debate in 1988. This time he entered into an exchange with Mulroney over free trade, accusing Mulroney of selling out the country to the United States. Mulroney responded by defending his own commitment to Canada and suggests that free trade is in Canada’s best interest. There was not a clear winner on policy issues in this exchange, but it had a definitive impact on the 1988 election. It helped to make free trade the defining issue of the 1988 election and frame the election as a competition between the pro-free trade Conservatives and anti-free trade Liberals. Even though the Liberals lost the election they benefited from this frame because it made the NDP, who were until the debate threatening to reduce the Liberals to third party status, look irrelevant. Johnston et al. note that the debate led to a drop in NDP support to the benefit of the Liberals as anti-free trade voters moved to the Liberals as the anti-free trade party*.

In a three-way race in which the Liberals and NDP are competing to be the alternative to the Conservatives, the framing of the election and of competition of policy is essential. If either the Liberals or the NDP can make the election about a clear disagreement they have with Harper on which the other opposition party is not strong, they can frame the election as a competition between themselves and the Conservatives. This would help them to look like the party most likely to defeat the Conservatives, and allow them to takes votes from the other opposition party. This election, however, does not lend itself as well to this framing as the 1984 or 1988 elections. Corruption can be used by both the Liberals and the NDP to attack the Conservatives and so does not advantage one party over the other. No single issue has come through in either the debates or the rest of the campaign that either the Liberals or NDP can use to make the election a two-party fight. There is no free-trade issue that either the NDP or Liberals can use to rally all of the voters on one side of the political spectrum to their side. Justin Trudeau came the closest to a Turner free trade moment in the foreign policy debate in his exchange with Harper of the creation of two-tiered citizenship, while Mulcair has been trying to use Trudeau’s support of bill c-51 to cast the NDP as the only party standing up to the Conservatives on civil liberties. Neither issue though has managed to capture voters’ attention in the same way that free trade in 1988, and as a result, neither party has been able to reframe the debate as a competition between either the Liberals and Conservatives alone or the NDP and Conservatives alone**.

To this point the debates in this election have failed to produce a moment or a policy issue that has been able to reframe the election as a two party race between that party and the Conservatives. Barring a major failure by either Mulcair or Trudeau in the French debate later this week, this is unlikely to change. The debates may have shored up Trudeau’s reputation (he has come off better than expected) but they have failed to redefine the campaign in a way that gives either the Liberals or the NDP a clear edge in the competition to win the centre-left of the political spectrum. This is likely to lead to a continued close race between the two parties through the rest of the campaign and to continued concern about vote splitting on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

* Johnston, Richard, Andre Blais, Henry E. Brady, and Jean Crete. (1992) Letting the People Decide: The Dynamics of Canadian Elections. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
** It is tempting to argue that the NDP’s fall to third place shows the Liberals won the debate.  The problem with that argument is that polls run before the debate show the NDP slipping to third place.  The 26/27% that the NDP that polls immediately before the debate were giving the NDP is not different than the number polls immediately after the debate gave the NDP.  As a result, the fall in NDP support being registered in current polls cannot be linked to the foreign policy debate.

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Ghosts of Elections Past Part III: What’s Next for the Liberals?

In the first two Ghosts of Elections Past posts I made the case that the split in the right vote between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance played a part but was not sufficient to keep the Liberals in power in the 1990s, and that the collapse of NDP played a crucial role in Liberal victories. The overall point of these posts was to make the case that the 1990s were an outlier in Canadian electoral history, and that the Liberals lost their place as the dominant party in Canadian politics when they lost their ability to win a majority of seats in Quebec in 1984. This begs the question of what place the Liberals will occupy in Canadian politics in the future. The more Canadian politics turns into a left-right competition, the more precarious the Liberals’ position is. It is difficult for centre parties to survive in a party system where both the centre-right (the Conservatives) and the centre-left (the NDP) push to the centre and squeeze votes from the Liberals. Polling in this election, however, suggests that the Liberals have remained competitive, and indeed are in what is more or less a statistical tie for the lead in polls. There are three possibilities with respect to the role that the Liberal party may play in the future. The Liberals could be a meaningful competitor for government in three party races, they could replace either the NDP or Conservatives as Canada’s predominant centre-left or centre-right party, or they could end up as a perpetual weak but important centrist third party.

The Liberals and Three Party Competition

Current polls suggest that the 2015 election could be the first in which all three major parties have a reasonably good chance of winning the election and forming government. This is unexpected given the two-party competition that majoritarian electoral systems are supposed to create. The regional nature of Canadian politics could allow it to sustain three-party competition despite the pressures of majoritarian electoral systems. Canadian elections could very well become a series of different sets of two party competition in different regions. The NDP and Liberals might end up competing with each other in urban regions such as Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, the Liberals and Conservatives in suburbia, and the NDP and Conservatives in the West. In such competition voters’ decision to vote strategically depends on the region that they live in. Voters in some regions would be choosing between whichever of the Liberals and NDP are closer to their views, others would be choosing the Liberals and Conservatives, and yet others might end up choosing between the NDP and the Conservatives. Each party would have its own regional base that allows it to secure a substantial number of seats in parliament and from which it could expand and challenge for government. An increase in support amongst undecided voters could plausibly lead any of the three parties to form government so long as each party’s regional base is reasonably equal.

This competition would have important consequences for Canadian politics. The fact that all three parties are competitive for government may strengthen the support of parties even in ridings in which a given party is uncompetitive. The national coverage that each party would get as a result of being competitive for government would increase parties’ support even in ridings where they are not competitive. Where ridings cross between regions (rural/urban or urban/suburban ridings for example), there could be an increase in the number of three party races. This is likely to reduce the percentage of the vote that a candidate needs to win a riding and, as a result, lead smaller changes in vote shares to have large influences over the number of seats that each party wins. An increase in support by 2% means more in a riding where 35% is needed to win than it does in a riding where 45% is needed to win. Three party competition would likely lead to more disproportionality between and votes. When parties under three-party competition would win a majority government (which would be rare) they would do so with low levels of popular support.

Three party competition would likely to lead to an increase in the number of minority governments in Canada. With each party taking at least 20%-25% of the vote, it would be difficult for any party to win the 35%-40% needed for a majority. As a result parties would have to learn to cooperate within parliament, perhaps even forming coalitions to ensure some degree of government stability. Sustained three-party competition would mean a shift away from the norm of majority governments in Canada (though Canada has had series of minority government that last for up to a decade in the 1960s and 2000s).

The Liberals Replace the NDP or Conservatives

The other alternative scenario in which the Liberals continue to compete to form government has them replacing either the NDP or the Conservatives as Canada’s centre-left or centre-right party. In the past the Liberals have been able to hold the centre of Canadian politics by using non-left/right issues, such as Quebec’s place in Canadian politics to gain the support of non-centrist voters and protect themselves against left and right parties moving to the centre. Through most of the 20th century the NDP’s and Progressive Conservatives’ policies on federalism and language/culture made the parties uncompetitive in Quebec and allowed the Liberals to win the support of Quebecers across the political spectrum. Without that protection, the Liberals might be able to respond to the threat of being squeezed in the middle of the political spectrum by moving out of the middle of the political spectrum. This would involve determining which of the NDP or Conservative is weaker and then challenging that party for either centre-left or centre-right votes. It would, however, mean conceding the other side of the political spectrum to whichever party the Liberals decide not to challenge.

On a policy level this appears to be what the Liberals are doing in this election. They have put forward policies that are on the centre-left of the political spectrum, tried to make the case that the balanced budget commitment by the NDP makes the NDP a right-wing party, and Justin Trudeau spent most of the debate on economic issues attacking Thomas Mulcair for being not left-wing enough. This is all consistent with a Liberal strategy that has them conceding the centre-right of the political spectrum to the Conservatives and competing to be the stronger of the two centre-left parties. This is likely to lead to the success of the Conservatives in the short-term as the Liberals and NDP split the centre-left vote. In the long-term though, the strategy could work for the Liberals if they manage to consistently outperform the NDP electorally. In that case their new, more left-wing policy profile should help convince voters to switch to the Liberals in order to keep the Conservatives from forming government.

For this strategy to work, the Liberals have to win their battle with the NDP for centre-left votes. If they consistently finish behind the NDP, they run the risk of appearing irrelevant, nothing more than an NDP with less chance of forming government. The Liberals do not have the same history of being a centre-left party and they do not have the same core support on the left of the political spectrum as the NDP, so they may be at a disadvantage when competing for left votes. At the same time, current polling suggests that they are holding their own in this competition, though not clearly winning it. If the Liberals can outperform the NDP over the next few elections the may be able to cement themselves as Canada’s new centre-left party. If not, they run a high risk of becoming irrelevant to Canadian politics.

The Liberals Fall to Third Place

If the Liberals fail to replace the NDP, or just decide to remain in the centre of the political spectrum, they are likely to end up as the third party in Canadian politics. It is possible that the Liberals could survive in the centre of the political spectrum. Because under first past the post parties need only around 40% of popular vote to form a majority, neither the Conservatives not the NDP have the incentive to move the exact centre of the political spectrum. The parties are unlikely to move to the exact centre, leaving some voters closer to the Liberals than either of those parties. Because these voters are unlikely to be evenly distributed across ridings, this should leave the Liberals with some seats that they can win on a regular basis. At the same time, the NDP and Conservatives are unlikely to stay far enough to the left or right to leave the Liberals enough centrist voters to win government. A centrist Liberal party is likely to end up like the German Free Democrats or British Liberal-Democrats, both of whom at times influence policy and at times end up fighting just to remain in parliament (the FDP indeed was shut out of the German parliament in the last German election).

A centrist Liberal party could have a meaningful impact on Canadian politics, playing king-maker in minority government situations. The Liberals’ position in the centre of the political spectrum would allow them to make deals with either the NDP or Conservatives and extract policy compromises from whichever party offered them the best deal. They would not be likely to win government, and their influence over policy would be far less than it was over most of the 20th century, but they would still matter to Canadian politics.

These next few elections will be critical in determining the role that Liberals play in Canadian politics in the future. If elections turn out to be three-way races, Canadian politics may end being more fractured than they have ever been before. If the Liberals replace the NDP, Canada could see two-party electoral competition between the Liberals and Conservatives for government. Finally, if the Liberals fail to replace the NDP, or move back to the centre of the political spectrum, Canada could see two-party competition between the NDP and Conservatives with the Liberals playing a more limited role in politics.

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A Tale of Two Centre-Left Parties: The Liberals and NDP are Converging Ideologically, but there are Important Policy Differences Between Them

This election’s second leaders’ debate, run by the Globe and Mail, was held this Thursday and focused on the parties’ approaches to the economy. In the lead up to the debate much has been made of the NDP and the Liberals’ ideological convergence. Through the campaign, and indeed over the past ten years, the Liberals have been moving left while the NDP has been moving to the centre. The result has been ideological convergence that is making it more and more difficult to distinguish between the two parties. The Liberals’ promise of budget deficits, contrasted with the NDP’s commitment to balanced budgets, has even led to some suggestion that the Liberals are now the to left of the NDP. The most recent leaders’ debate highlighted two issues on which the Liberals and the NDP can be distinguished, their approach to balanced budgets and their willingness to use government programs as opposed to tax cuts in order to redistribute wealth. Both highlight the way that each party’s pasts have informed their current policy positions.

One of the most significant differences between the Liberals and the NDP in this election has been the NDP commitment to a balanced budget as compared to the Liberal promise to run small short term deficits as a way to stimulate the economy. There is a temptation to use this difference to make the case that the Liberals are to the left of the NDP, but that overstates the degree to which balancing the budget is a left-right issue. Balanced budgets can be quite left-wing if they involve tax increases that are used to finance increased social spending, and deficits can be quite right-wing if they are caused by significant tax cuts. One might note that in the United States Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush ran significant budget deficits while Bill Clinton balanced the budget, and it would be hard to make the case that Clinton was to the right of either Reagan or Bush. The degree to which a commitment to a balanced budget is either left or right wing depends on the way that that budget is balanced. The NDP’s budget should not be considered right of the Liberal one just because the NDP’s is balanced.

The NDP’s and Liberal’s budget commitments respond to fundamentally different social and economic issues. The Liberal’s are right (at least if John Maynard Keynes is to be believed) to point to budget deficits as a way to stimulate the economy. The logic here goes that government spending or tax cuts can increase the amount of money in the economy, lead to greater demand for goods, and create jobs. The Liberals’ budget deficit thus is a reasonable response to Canada’s recent economic downturn. The NDP, however, appears to want to use increases in government spending to attack problems that are not unique to weak economies such as deteriorating infrastructure and transit, access to childcare, and support for retired individuals. These are social and economic issues and inequalities that exist in both strong and weak economies and thus cannot be addressed by budget deficits (unless a government runs a permanent deficit- which has its own problems). The Liberals have a plan that includes a budget deficit not because they are more left wing than the NDP, but rather because the policy options they have chosen to support are the kinds that deal with immediate economic downturns, while the policy levers chosen by the NDP deal with persistent and long-term economic inequalities and social issues. Because persistent inequalities are not well addressed by budget deficits, the NDP budget needs to be balanced no matter how left wing it is. This is not to suggest that the NDP does not have a plan to address short term job losses or that the Liberals do not have policies that respond to persistent inequality, but the focuses of their campaigns are different.

This difference fits with the different history of each party. The NDP, as a party that started off further on the left of the Canadian political spectrum, has a history of being concerned with persistent inequalities regardless of the country’s economic well-being. The Liberals, as a centre party, have a history of being more responsive to the country’s overall economic condition, but have often taken longer than the NDP to include responses to social justice issues in their platforms. As the NDP has become more moderate it has had to adjust many of its positions, but in this election, its commitments are still broadly focused on issues of broad social inequality. Similarly, the Liberals have had to increase their commitment to social justice issues as they have moved to the left of the political spectrum, but one of the highlights of their campaign is still a measure directed at responding to short-term economic growth and not social and economic inequality.

The second contrast between the two parties lies in the role that they see for government in wealth redistribution. The Liberals highlighted plans to adjust income taxes, with tax increases being levied on high income Canadians and the proceeds being used to decrease taxes on middle and low income Canadians. The NDP’s policies include little in the way of income tax changes (though they support a reduction in small business taxes as a job creation measure), but rather use corporate tax increases and the repeal of certain tax credits and loopholes to fund government spending on programs such as childcare, infrastructure, and health care. There is a distinction to be made between the Liberals and the NDP with respect to the extent to which they use government programs to redistribute wealth. The Liberals plan to do a large amount of their redistribution through the tax code while the NDP has emphasized government programs as a way to improve the lives of low and middle income Canadians.

Like the distinction between two parties on budget deficits, this difference fits with each party’s history. As a social democratic party, the NDP has a history of support for government programs, and pushed and were early advocates for the expansion of the welfare state into areas such as healthcare and pensions (both programs at the federal level were brought in by the Liberal government that was being pressured by an NDP that held the balance of power in parliament). The Liberals, as a centrist party, have never had the same ideological commitment to the expansion of government programs as the NDP. The Liberals have never been strongly opposed to increasing spending on government programs, but rarely have they been the first party to adopt such initiatives either. It thus makes sense that the NDP’s policies would focus more on government action while the Liberals adopt an approach to redistribution that is less about government programs and more about changes in the way that Canadians are taxed.

The Globe and Mail leaders debate on economic issues saw the Liberals and NDP compete with each other in an attempt to win the support of centre-left voters. The NDP’s move the centre of the political spectrum and the Liberals’ move to the left has meant that the parties are now competing over the same ideological ground. Each party’s past, however, has left it with an ideological legacy. With respect to the NDP, this comes through in their commitment to balanced budgets, responses to persistent social and economic inequalities, and support the expansion of government programs. For the Liberals this has meant a willingness to support budget deficits, a focus on improving economic growth in the short-term, and the use of tax policy to facilitate wealth redistribution. Both parties are trying to speak to similar voters, and many of their policies overlap, but the different focuses of each party’s policies suggests that there are still important distinctions to be made between the parties on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

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Ghosts of Elections Past Part II: The Return of the NDP

In the first Ghosts of Elections Past post I looked at what would have happened in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 election if the Conservatives were united. The simulations that I ran suggested that a united Conservative party would have needed to take every Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative vote just to reduce the Liberals to a minority, and would not have been able to form government. Yet, when the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives combined to form the current incarnation of the Conservatives they reduced the Liberals to a minority government in the first election they contested, and managed to win government in the second. They did this with a lower vote share than the combined share of the right parties when they were apart. The decline of the Liberal party is not just a result of unity on the right, but also of the increase in support for the New Democrat Party. If the NDP had not taken a large number of votes from the Liberals, the Liberals would have likely been able to hold on to government through the 2000s.

If one looks only at votes and not seats, the 2004 election was a disaster for the Conservatives. Their share of the vote dropped from the 37.7% the Canadian Alliance and PCs won in 2000 to 29.63%. The Conservatives’ 2004 totals were only 4 percentage points higher than the Canadian Alliance’s 2000 share of the vote on its own, suggesting that the PC MPs that joined the new Conservative party took fewer than half of their voters with them. The simulations conducted the previous Ghosts of Elections Past post suggests that this would have led to an electoral crash for the Conservatives, yet they managed to pick up 16 seats and reduce the Liberals to a minority government. This occurred because NDP growth meant that the Liberal party that the Conservative party was competing with was substantially weaker in 2004 than it was in 2000.

If the 2004 vote shares suggest a disaster for the Conservatives, they do the opposite for the NDP. In between 2000 and 2004 the NDP vote share almost doubled, rising from 8.5% to 15.7%. While this only earned the NDP three additional seats, it reduced the Liberal vote totals in several ridings and allowed the Conservatives to take seats from the Liberals. The graph below shows the average swing in votes between 2000 and 2004 in ridings the Liberals lost, ridings the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois held, and ridings each of the opposition parties picked up. It shows that the Conservatives actually saw the largest drop in support of any party in the ridings they gained, dropping an average of 6.8 percentage points*. Unsurprisingly Liberal losses are not far behind the Conservatives in these ridings, they drop an average of 4.8 percentage points. The only party that averaged vote gains in the seats that the Conservatives picked up was the NDP, their vote share increased by 6.7 percentage points. The gains that the NDP made at the expense of the Liberal party were as important to Conservative seat gains in 2004 as the union of Canada’s two right wing parties.

Vote Change (2000-2004) By Seat Change

By 2006 the Conservatives had recovered from their losses in 2004. The Conservatives’ share of the national vote in 2006 was 36.3%, much closer to the 37.7% the Canadian Alliance and PCs won in 2000. The graph below shows that the Conservatives gained votes in the ridings that they picked up between 2000 and 2006. At the same time, the NDP still average larger gains in these ridings between 2000 and 2006. In the ridings that moved to the Conservatives in those 6 years the Conservatives increased their vote share by 3.7 percentage points on average while the NDP increased their share of the vote by 7.9 percentage points. Over the this period the Liberal vote share in these ridings absolutely collapsed, dropping by 14.6 percentage points. Like in 2004, in 2006 the weakening of the Liberal party by the NDP set the stage for the Conservatives to pick up seats.

Vote Change (2000-2006) By Seat Change

One final graph underlines this. The graph below shows vote changes in just the ridings that that the Conservatives took from the Liberals (the graphs above include in Conservative gains ridings that the Conservatives took from the NDP and Bloc Quebecois). Unsurprisingly, the growth of the NDP was an even bigger factor in these ridings than in the other ridings the Conservatives won. The 9.1 percentage point NDP gains between 2000 and 2006 and the 14.1 percentage point Liberal drop likely played a much larger role in the Conservatives taking these ridings from the Liberals than the modest 1.4 percentage point increase in Conservative votes.

Vote Change in Seats the Liberals Lost to the CPC

It is worth noting here that the NDP vote shares in the 2004 and 2006 elections were not out of the ordinary historically. The 1990s and not the 2000s look like the outlier when one looks at NDP support in the latter half of the 20th century. Their strongest election for the NDP vote wise between the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections was the 1997 election in which they won 11% of the vote. Yet, one has to go back to 1958 to find an election prior to 1990 in which the party (at that time the CCF) did that poorly. The 17.5% that the NDP won in 2006 is lower than their vote share in all of the elections that took place in the 1980s. The early 2000s were thus a period of recovery from the crash in NDP support that occurred in the 1990s. It would take until 2011 for the party to move past the 18%-20% of the vote that it won in the 1980s. The NDP resurgence thus should not have been a surprise, and the potential damage a simple return to their pre-1990s strength would have caused to Liberal fortunes should have called into question the ability of the Liberals to maintain their electoral dominance.

The Liberals return to power in the 1990s was the result of two things that were unique to that decade; the split of the Conservative party into the Reform/Canadian Alliance and the PCs, and the collapse of the NDP vote. The Liberals might have been able to hold off a challenge from the right had the NDP vote share remained at its historic low, but they could not fight off both a united a right and resurgent NDP. That both the divide on the right and the weakness of the NDP appear unique to the 1990s suggest that the Liberals are done as Canada’s “naturally governing party”. When the Liberals lost their ability to win large majorities of seats in Quebec in 1984 they lost the alliance that had kept them in government through most of the 20th century. The 1990s only hid how vulnerable the Liberals had become.

* It is possible for the Conservatives to loss more than any other party in the seats that they picked up because of the merger. Many of the seats that the Conservatives gained in 2004 would not have been Liberal seats had the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives run as one party in 2000. It is worth noting here that had the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives managed to hold on to every one of their voters in 2000 as a combined party they would have won 111 seats as compared to the 99 that they won in 2004.

** Riding data is taken from the Pundits’ Guide website.  A spreadsheet with calculations in changes in support for each riding can be found in the data section of this site here.

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Ghosts of Elections Past Part 1: Even if the Right Wasn’t Divided, the Liberals Would Have Won the 1990s

When he called the election this past Sunday, Stephen Harper entered his fifth campaign as leader of the Conservative party. Harper has had a great deal of success, over five elections he has taken the right in Canada from being divided into two parties and stuck in opposition to minority and then majority governments. The rise of the Conservatives has been paralleled by a collapse in Liberal support. The party that dominated the 1990s (and much of the 20th century) has experienced declining vote shares through the 2000s to the point where in 2011 Canada’s former “naturally governing party” fell to third place. Understanding past elections is important to understanding current ones. A dramatic Liberal decline that occurred steadily over the course of a decade cannot be explained by looking at one or two elections. One has to examine why the Liberals were so successful in the decades prior to the 2000s and what is different now.

Through most of the 20th century the base of Liberal support was in Quebec. In the first half of the 20th century Liberals governments would win by linking support in Quebec with support in Western Canada and to a lesser extent Ontario. In the later half of the century, after the rise of Diefenbaker and the building of a strong Conservative base in Western Canada, Liberal victories came from an alliance of Ontario with Quebec. This changed in 1984. In that year’s election Mulroney’s Conservatives took 58 seats in Quebec compared to the Liberals 17. The Conservatives built on that total in 1988, increasing their share of Quebec seats to 63 (as compared to 12 for the Liberals). Indeed, the Liberals have not managed to win a majority of seats in Quebec since the 1980 election. When the Conservatives collapsed in 1993 they were replaced by the Bloc Quebecois, and when the Bloc collapsed in 2011, they were replaced by the NDP. The loss of the Liberals’ Quebec base should have meant disaster for the Liberal’s governing prospects but in the 1990s they strung together three straight majority governments for the first time since the 1950s. Vote splitting on the right of the political spectrum between the Reform/Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives is often considered a partial explanation for the Liberal success in the 1990s. An examination of what would have happened had the right not split, though, suggests that Liberals would have thrived under all but the Conservative’s most optimistic scenarios.

In order to test what might have happened had the Liberal run against a united right in 1993, 1997, and 2000 I calculated results for an imaginary united Conservative party on a riding by riding basis under several different scenarios. The first is a naive scenario in which all Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative voters support the Conservatives. This required simply adding the Reform/CA vote totals to the PC vote totals in each district to generate a vote share for the united Conservatives or CPC. This scenario is, however, unlikely to have been the reality had a single Conservative ran in the 1990s. There were undoubtedly Progressive Conservatives who felt closer to the Liberal party than to the Reform and Canadian Alliance. Indeed, when the parties merged 4 of the 12 PC MPs (including Joe Clark and Scott Brison) refused to join the new party. Brison would cross the floor to become a Liberal cabinet minister under Paul Martin. It is also worth noting that the 30% of the vote that the actual CPC received in the 2004 election was significantly lower than the combined CA and PC share of the vote in 2000, which was just under 38%. It makes sense to assume then that not all Progressive Conservative voters would support a united Conservative party. Because of this, I also calculate seat totals for scenarios in which the Conservatives retain 80% and 70% of the PC vote. Because the Liberals are the closest party (excluding the Reform/CA) I assume that the remaining PC votes would have moved over to the Liberals. It is unlikely that PC voters would have jumped all the way across the political spectrum to the NDP, and the Quebec nationalist voters that the PCs won in the 1980s would have likely already moved to the Bloc Quebecois by the 1993 election.

It should be noted here that this is not an attempt to imagine a re-running of the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections. There is no way to account for the way that an election campaign would have been different had the Liberals been running against a united Conservative party instead of a divided right. The way that parties approached the campaign, the strength of the united Conservative campaign, and the way that voters approached strategic voting all would have been different had the right been united. There is also no way to estimate the effects that having a united Conservative party in parliament between elections would have had on results. This is simply an attempt to understand the extent to which vote splitting on the right led to Liberal victories in the 1990s. It looks at whether uniting the Reform/CA and PC voters would have on its own been enough to beat the Liberals, not whether a united Conservative party would have been able to take votes from other parties in order to beat the the Liberals.

These hypothetical scenarios suggest that the split in the right did not play a large role in the Liberal victories of the 1990s. If the Conservatives had managed to keep all of the PC voters they would have managed to limit the Liberals to minority governments, but as noted above, that seems unlikely given the substantial numbers of Red Tories in the PC party. The graphs below show that if the Conservatives lost even 20% of PC voters to the Liberals, they would be looking at Liberal majorities once again. Only in 1997 is the result in the scenario where the Conservatives win 80% of the PC vote close, with the Liberals holding their majority by just two seats, but it is worth noting here that the Liberals were already extremely close to losing their majority when competing against the divided right. The 152 seats that Liberals win against the united right in the 80% retention scenario is only three seats fewer than the 155 that they won against the divided right. If the Conservatives lose 30% of the PC vote, the Liberals do as well as, if not better than, they did against the divided right.

1993 Simulation   1997 Simulation

2000 Simulation

While the split on the right did not seem to help the Liberals all that much, it did hurt the Conservatives. In each scenario presented, the united Conservatives take more seats than the divided parties combined. The problem for the united Conservatives face is two-fold. First, a small part of the increase in seats for the Conservatives is coming at the expense of the NDP and not the Liberals. This is useful for the Conservatives in the sense that it makes them stronger vis a vis the other opposition parties, but it does little to reduce the Liberal’s ability to form a government. Second, in the 80% and 70% retention scenarios the PC defections to the Liberals hand the Liberals a handful of Bloc and NDP seats that were otherwise close wins for one of the two non-conservative opposition parties. The graph below shows that Liberals pick up in between 2 and 9 seats in Quebec when they compete against a united Conservative party. This corresponds with a similar drop in seat share for the Bloc in every situation except for the 80% retention scenario in 1997. A united Conservative party would likely not have been able to take enough seats from the Liberals to both knock the Liberals down to a minority and compensate for the Liberal gains provided by defecting PC voters.

Losses and Gains in Quebec

It is tempting to make the case that the Conservative victories have been in large part a result of the uniting of the right in Canadian politics. For all of the success that Harper has had, the right party vote in 2011 (just under 40%) was not much higher than the combined right party vote shares in 2000 (just under 38%) and in 1997 (just over 38%). Yet, if nothing else had changed, uniting the right in the 1990s would have been unlikely to lead to Conservative governments, let alone Conservative majorities. Having a united Conservative party certainly contributed to Harper’s success, but it was not on its own sufficient to produce Conservative governments. An understanding of how electoral politics has changed between the 1990s and 2000s requires looking at shifts on the left side of the political spectrum. The Liberal survival in the 1990s despite the loss of their Quebec stronghold cannot be fully understood without looking at the NDP and their collapse in that decade. This is something that I will examine in one of my future posts.

*Election results data that was used for these calculations can be found at Pundits’ Guide.

**Seat by seat calculations can be found here.

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