Just How Conservative Is Alberta?

The NDP’s 2015 Alberta election win surprised many. The Social Credit and then the Progressive Conservatives had ensured that right wing parties had governed Alberta since 1935. Alberta’s politics have been complicated by vote splitting on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Through most of the 1990s and 2000s the Alberta Liberals and NDP split the non-conservative vote, making the left look weaker than it actually was. In 2015 the opposite was the case. The Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance split the right wing vote making the NDP look stronger than it was. With the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance uniting to form the United Conservative Party, and a Liberal resurgence looking unlikely, it is probable that just two parties will dominate the 2019 Alberta election. This makes understanding exactly how many centre-right and non-conservative voters there are in Alberta particularly important. A break down of the vote for centre-right and centre-left parties going back to 1982 shows that Edmonton tends to lean towards non-conservative parties while the rest of the province votes for centre-right parties. This being said, centre-left parties have consistently won substantial shares of the vote outside of Edmonton.

To look at the break down of the non-conservative and right wing vote in Alberta I compared average vote shares across ridings for centre-left and centre-right parties in 5 regions of the province: Calgary, Edmonton, Northern Rural Alberta, Central Rural Alberta, and Southern Rural Alberta. A list of which ridings fit into which regions can be found here (Ridings and Regions). The Alberta Party, the Liberals, and the NDP vote shares were combined to create a left (or non-conservative) vote share for each riding. I take an inclusive approach to categorizing parties as left parties because of the extent to which Alberta politics has often pitted centrist and leftist non-conservative parties against dominant right parties. The Progressive Conservative, Wildrose Alliance, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit, and Western Canadian Concept parties were combined to calculate the centre-right votes (each of these parties won a significant vote share in at least one election between 1982 and 2015 though several have since become defunct).

The two graphs below show the average riding vote share of left and right parties in the five regions from 1982 to 2015 (the graph for right parties is essentially a mirror image of the graph for left parties). The most striking feature of the graphs is the strength of non-conservative parties in Edmonton. Non-conservative parties take an average of at least 50% of the vote in the city in every election except for 1982 and 2012 (and it is notable that in 2012 Allison Redford positioned the Progressive Conservatives as a centrist alternative to the more right wing Wildrose Alliance). When the Progressive Conservatives have been particularly unpopular, in elections in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the early 2000s, and 2015, the non-conservative vote share in Edmonton has broken 60%.

Combined Left Vote

Combined Right Vote

In contrast to Edmonton, the rest of the province has consistently voted for right wing parties. Only in 1989 in Calgary and 1993 in Northern Alberta do non-conservative parties average over 50% of the vote outside of Edmonton. The success of the conservative parties outside of the capital city fits with most people’s perceptions of Alberta politics as being particularly conservative.

The strength of the conservative vote outside of Edmonton should not be overstated, however. There are a substantial minority of non-conservative voters in every region outside of Edmonton (as there are a substantial number of conservative voters in Edmonton). With the exception of 1982 and 2012 the left vote outside of Edmonton tends to be either higher than or around 30%. In other words, in most elections in Alberta slightly fewer than 1/3 Albertans outside of Edmonton vote for a non-conservative party. Even though left parties have struggled to win seats in many of these regions, they are far from homogenously conservative.

These vote shares have important implications for the future of Albertan politics. They show that both the Progressive Conservative/Wildrose Alliance dominance outside of Edmonton and the NDP gains there in 2015 are, in part, artefacts of the way that first past the post electoral treats parties when they split the vote with a similar party. When the NDP and Liberals were splitting the non-conservative vote there was not enough non-conservative support to elect MPs outside of the centre of Calgary and the odd seat in Lethbridge. However, when the non-conservative vote unified behind the NDP and the conservative vote split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, there was enough support to elect a substantial number of MPs. Though the left vote share outside of Edmonton went up in 2015, it was not any higher than it had been in the early 1990s. The NDP made historic gains outside of Edmonton because they were able to unify left voters and because conservative voters were divided, not because the NDP was able to dramatically increase the left vote share outside of Edmonton.*

The implications for this for 2019 are that the NDP will struggle to hold in to many of its seats outside of Edmonton. A united Conservative party will end the vote splitting that handed the NDP a substantial number of rural and Calgary seats in 2015. This being said, the fact that the left vote (barring a sudden resurgence of the Liberals) is likely to remain unified behind the NDP should offer the party some protection. 30-40% of the vote outside of Edmonton, if it is distributed correctly, should allow the party to hold on to at least some seats outside of the capital. Conversely, even with the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Alliance unified, the strength of left support in Edmonton should allow the party to hold on to many of its seats there. Though the United Conservatives are well placed to challenge the NDP for government, the absence of a vote split on the left should prevent the party from dominating the province the way the Progressive Conservatives did through much of the 1990s and 2000s.

* It should be noted that one of the reasons there is a spike in the non-conservative vote in 2015 is because it was very low in 2012. It is important not to look just at the increase in the vote between 2012 and 2015 but also at where the non-conservative vote was in 2015 relative to elections prior to 2012.

 

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Tougher Than One Might Think: Trudeau May Have a Difficult Time Keeping His Majority in 2019

The election of Jagmeet Singh as leader of the NDP this past Sunday set the line-up for the 2019 election. Both of the major national opposition parties have selected new leaders, as has the Bloc Quebecois. To this point, it has often been assumed that the Liberals stand a good chance of maintaining their majority in the 2019 election. They have been doing well in the polls, the NDP has struggled to attract national media attention, and Andrew Scheer looks unlikely to be able to run the kind of charismatic campaign that Trudeau did in 2015. The Liberals’ path to a majority in 2019, however, is more difficult than it first appears. After a very poor result in 2015 that was in part a result fatigue with their time government, the Conservatives are due for a bounce-back election. At the same time, the selection of Jagmeet Singh as leader puts the NDP in a good position to compete for the support of many of the progressives that gave the Liberals their majority in 2015.

Winning back-to-back majority governments is a difficult task. Since 1953, only two Prime Ministers have done this, Jean Chretien in the mid-1990s and Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. Both successes came under fairly unique circumstances. Chretien was fortunate to face little in the form of national opposition. The split on the right between the Reform/Canadian Alliance combined with the historic weakness of the NDP allowed Chretien to take between 98-101 seats in Ontario between 1993 and 2000. Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984 on half the popular vote and was able to hold on to power in 1988 by casting himself as the pro-free trade candidate against a anti-free trade opposition that was divided between the Liberals and the NDP. It is notable that while Mulroney held on to his majority, he saw his share of the popular vote decline from 50% in 1984 to 43% in 1988.

Justin Trudeau’s circumstances are not nearly as favourable. Unlike Mulroney, Trudeau does not have much of a cushion to work with. Trudeau won his majority with just 39% of the popular vote. Since 1900, only Chretien in 1997 has won a majority with a lower vote share. To add to this, it has been a century since a Prime Minister has been able to increase their vote share after winning a majority government for the first time (Robert Borden did so in 1917, largely because his support of conscription won him the overwhelming support of English Canadian voters).* Majority governments have trouble increasing their support because they will inevitably be unable to follow through on all of the promises they made during an election, and that is bound to alienate at least some of their supporters. Governing also requires making difficult decisions that will make at least some people unhappy. Indeed, after the post-election spike in Liberal support, current polls have them a little under 39%, slightly lower than where they ended up in the 2015 election. As the new Conservative and NDP leaders become more well-known, and as being in government forces the Liberals to make more controversial decisions, one might expect that it is more likely that Liberal support over the next two years will fall rather than rise. Given the Liberal vote share in 2015 and where they are in the polls now, any substantial drop in support is likely to put their majority in jeopardy.

Trudeau also cannot benefit from a split right vote, nor NDP weakness, both of which were instrumental in Chretien’s victories. A united Conservative party under Scheer should be able to regain some of its support. Since 1957, a united right party in Canada has won 31% of the vote or less in just three elections, 1968, 2004, and 2015. This suggests that there is plenty of room for the Conservatives to grow in 2019. While Scheer does not have the charisma of Trudeau, he has a policy profile and approach to politics that looks a lot like the one Harper used to consistently grown the Conservatives vote share between 2004 and 2011. In 2019 he will also be free of the some the baggage the Conservative accumulated over their time in government. While this may not be enough to put the party government, one should expect the Conservatives to take back a significant number of seats.

Trudeau also has to contend with a serious left wing threat in the NDP. Despite the disappointment with its performance in 2015, the party still managed almost 20% of the vote. This is a much stronger party than the one Chretien faced in the 1990s, when the NDP fluctuated between 7% and 11%. Even when Trudeau was polling at close to 50% in 2016, the NDP was closer to the 15% that it won under Jack Layton in 2004 then to the 11% that it won under Alexa McDonough in 1997. Barring a significant collapse, the NDP should be strong enough in 2019 to do at least one of two things. If Singh is able to get the party back to 20% (or higher), he should be able to push the Liberals to a minority by taking seats from them. If the NDP stays around where they are in the polls, the strength of the party should still draw enough non-Conservative votes from the Liberals to allow a resurgent Conservative party to take seats from the Liberals.

It is worth noting that Jagmeet Singh is particularly well positioned to challenge the Liberals. He is an Ontario politician with strong support in the Greater Toronto Area and a history of fighting for the rights of visible minorities. This is likely to make him a strong candidate in the suburban Toronto and suburban Vancouver ridings that the Liberal party needed in 2015 to win their majority. Throughout the 2000s the Liberals and NDP have been fighting over the support of urban progressive voters. This fight is likely to continue in 2019, and with Singh heading the NDP, it is far from clear that the Liberal can win it to the same degree that they did in 2019. This makes it particularly likely the NDP will draw enough votes from the Liberals to reduce them to a minority.

In 2019 the Liberals will have to fight a two front election. On one hand they will have to contend with a resurgent Conservative party led by a Harper-like politician that does not have all of the baggage of the near decade of Harper government. On the other, they will face a progressive NDP well-positioned to challenge the Liberals in many of the urban and suburban ridings the Liberals need to win in order to maintain their majority. When one combines this with the likely decline in support that comes to most parties after a leader’s first majority government, it is hard to see anything but a difficult road to a majority for the Liberals in 2019.

* Jean Chretien increased in vote share in 2000 after winning a majority government in 1997. His vote share, however fell in between his first majority win in 1993 and his second in 1997.

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