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.
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.
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.
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.