How Erin O'Toole is carving a path to government

The demos and the regions that could put the Conservative leader in the prime minister's office

If you peruse the Wikipedia page for the latest federal election polls — and, let’s face it, you probably have it bookmarked — you might have noticed a lot of blue.

Indeed, before the next round of online polls might mix things up, the last 14 entries — and 18 of the last 20 — have given the Conservatives a lead. These are all the daily trackers from Mainstreet, EKOS and Nanos, however, as none of the online polls have put the Conservatives ahead since the campaign began. But that could change very quickly.

In the aggregate, the Conservatives probably aren’t ahead by enough to win the most seats. But they are inching toward the place where they will not only be ahead in the popular vote but in the seat projections, too. And while there are constitutional reasons why winning the most seats won’t necessarily make Erin O’Toole the next prime minister, it is something that is no longer an unlikely outcome of this election.

So, let’s take a look at how Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives have got here — and what their path to a plurality looks like.

Older, less-educated Canadians going Conservative

To get an idea of what demographic shifts have produced this surge in the polls for the Conservatives, I’ve taken a deep dive into the EKOS Research crosstabs. In order to get a good sample size for all the demographics, I’ve averaged out the results from four EKOS surveys, comparing those conducted between Aug. 14-20 to those conducted between Aug. 21-28.

Here is how things have shifted between the first and second weeks of the campaign, with some of the bigger shifts highlighted:

You can see that the Conservatives have had roughly equal gains among both men and women, with the Liberals dropping among both genders. The Conservatives are averaging a 17-point lead among men, while the Liberals are ahead among women by eight points. The NDP has made gains among men while it has dropped among women, but overall the shifts by gender don’t reveal much.

By age, however, we see some much bigger shifts. The Conservatives have not increased their standing among young voters — in fact, the People’s Party has made more inroads than the Conservatives. It is a tight race among the 18 to 34s, with the NDP two points up on the Conservatives and the Liberals one point back of them for third.

I suspect there are big differences within this age group, with the New Democrats leading by a wide margin among the very youngest and the Conservatives ahead among the older cohort.

A lot of the movement has instead been among older Canadians. Those between the ages of 35-49 have moved toward the Conservatives in the same proportion as Canadians as a whole (the Conservatives lead by eight points among this group), but those over the age of 50 have been moving from the Liberals to the Conservatives more significantly. This is where most of the Liberal drop has been concentrated, with the Conservatives (and PPC) taking advantage.

The Liberals had an advantage among older voters going into this campaign. Now, the Conservatives lead by four among those between the ages of 50-64 and by three among those over the age of 65. This is traditionally a solid Conservative voting bloc, so it seems these voters are coming back to the fold.

The Conservatives are up about six points among those with a college or high school education. The NDP is also up five points among those with a high school (or less) education. Those gains have come at the expense of the PPC and the Greens, as well as the Liberals. Among college graduates, however, the Conservative gain has been almost entirely from the Liberals.

University graduates haven’t moved much (though the PPC is up three points), which means the Liberals still lead by five points among these voters. The Conservatives are ahead by 19 points among those with a college education and six points among those with no more than a high school diploma.

So, we see here what the Conservatives have done to put themselves in contention: getting older voters and less educated voters back to their side, with their biggest leads among men and college graduates. Women, university graduates and young people are voting for the other parties, but even here the Conservatives are, at worst, holding what they had.

Conservatives up from coast to coast

Those are the demos. Regionally, we’re seeing big gains from the Conservatives across the board.

In the CBC Poll Tracker that I am running, the Conservatives are up five points nationally since the beginning of the election, with the Liberals down four points. The swing has primarily been between those two parties, rather than between the NDP and Liberals, as has been the case over the last three elections.

The biggest gains for the Conservatives have been out west, with a gain of nine points in British Columbia, six points in Alberta and five points in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Again, those have come largely at the expense of the Liberals.

The Conservatives are also up five points in Ontario and four points in Atlantic Canada, while they have marginally increased by two points in Quebec. In every case, there is a correspondingly-sized drop in Liberal support.

The gains in Alberta and the Prairies largely serve to secure the seats the Conservatives won in 2019. But those in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada are what carve out the path to a (potential) minority government for Erin O’Toole.

The path to 150-ish

What O’Toole will need to become prime minister is an open question. Theoretically, if he can get the Conservatives to 140 seats or so, he will probably have a bigger caucus than Justin Trudeau. But being ahead by just a handful of seats might not be enough to get Trudeau to resign the prime ministership — and being at around 140 seats probably means the Conservatives would need to rely only on the New Democrats to gain the confidence of the House, since the Bloc Québécois wouldn’t have enough seats to make the difference.

At 150 seats, however, the Conservatives probably have 10 or more seats than the Liberals and could turn to either the NDP or Bloc to pass legislation. That seems like a more plausible scenario for a viable O’Toole government.

So, what’s the path?

The path primarily runs through Ontario, B.C. and Atlantic Canada, with a smattering of help from Quebec.

Let’s assume the Conservatives win all (or nearly all) the seats they won in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in 2019. Allowing for dropping a seat in Alberta and gaining one like Winnipeg South, that puts the Conservatives at 54 seats. We’ll start with that, and throw-in Yukon as well to get them to 55.

In British Columbia, the Conservatives can pick-off Liberal seats in the Lower Mainland like Fleetwood–Port Kells and Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam, take the B.C. Interior seat of South Okanagan–West Kootenay from the New Democrats, and maybe make some inroads on Vancouver Island in a seat like Nanaimo–Ladysmith. With the ones they won last time, that bumps the Conservative haul to 22 in B.C. and 77 once they reach the Ontario border.

There, the Conservatives have plenty of options at the expense of the Liberals: Bay of Quinte, Kanata–Carleton, Whitby and Peterborough–Kawartha east of Toronto, King–Vaughan, Newmarket–Aurora and Richmond Hill north of Toronto, the two Oakville seats to the southwest of the city and York Centre as the sole 416 representative. Kitchener–Conestoga, Kitchener South–Hespeler, Niagara Centre and Sault Ste. Marie push the Conservatives to 50 seats in Ontario, and 127 once they reach Quebec.

There are fewer opportunities for gains here, but the two Beauport seats around Quebec City and a three-way squeaker in Trois-Rivières, along with their 2019 haul, add another 13 to their total. That puts the Conservatives at 140.

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Finally, to get them to safer minority territory, Atlantic Canada could provide 10 seats. In New Brunswick, those gains would be Fredericton, Miramichi–Grand Lake and Saint John–Rothesay, while Cumberland–Colchester and both Cape Breton seats get them to double digits — and 150 seats nationwide.

Is isn’t an easy path.

The NDP could be tough to dislodge from the B.C. Interior and could put some pressure on Conservative seats in Saskatchewan and parts of Ontario, while the Greens might have a hold on Vancouver Island. Gains in Quebec are hard to achieve, and O’Toole’s French will be put to the test twice more in leaders debates. The Conservatives haven’t swept Cape Breton since John Diefenbaker’s landslide in 1958. Not even Robert Stanfield could pull it off. And there are some indications the Liberals have hit their floor in Ontario. Gaining 14 seats in the province could prove challenging.

But it isn’t impossible — or even that difficult — to see this path work out for the Conservatives. It’s there for them. Will it still be there by Sept. 20th?