Liberals end campaign as favourites, but Conservatives not out of it

Despite the close race in the polls, the Liberals still have the seat edge

When the Liberals kicked this campaign off 35 days ago, they started it as the big favourites with a majority government in reach. That majority wasn’t a given, but it was at worst a 50-50 proposition.

The Liberals are ending this campaign as the favourites. But it was a near-run thing. At the midpoint of this campaign, the 50-50 proposition was over whether they could win the most seats at all. While their position has improved in these last two weeks of the campaign, the Liberals can’t be sure that they will emerge out of election night (or, as you’ll see below, election week) as the biggest party in the House of Commons.

It’s still the most likely thing to happen, but the odds of a Conservative win in the seat count aren’t insignificant — and certainly not low enough that we’d call a Conservative victory a big upset.

I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon before all the final polls of the 44th federal election campaign have been published. I’m not expecting much to change between now and midnight, but I will be posting a final bonus podcast episode for subscribers only after midnight to explain in detail where things stand when all the data is in.

And don’t miss my 2021 Federal Election Livestream special on YouTube, which begins tomorrow night at around 6:30 PM ET. You’ll find it here.

But first, I’m going to give you a broader overview of where the parties stand and what to watch for on election night. Let’s take it one party at a time, before addressing a potential elephant in the room: mail ballots.

The Liberals’ election to lose, and they’ll have no one to blame but themselves if they do

The Liberals are the favourites to win the most seats — roughly two- or three-to-one — for a few simple reasons.

In Atlantic Canada, the gap between them and the Conservatives is virtually unchanged since 2019. While a few local races may cause some flips, the overall portrait there looks very similar to how it did two years ago.

Their support in Quebec is down from the last election a little, but their margin over the Bloc Québécois is about the same, if not bigger. As the Liberals almost exclusively contest seats with the Bloc and not the Conservatives or NDP, who are marginally up from the last election, the end result should be the status quo, with potentially a little Liberal upside in the seat count.

The Liberals lead by a respectable margin in Ontario, and one that looks about as big as in 2019. The NDP is up in the polls in Ontario compared to the last election, but that vote might not turn up at the polls. This isn’t the recipe for a lot of change in Ontario.

In Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Liberals remain unpopular but they are doing better than in 2019. Though that could be a polling mirage, just as it was two years ago, the People’s Party will certainly peel some votes off of the Conservatives in these provinces. Even if the Liberals don’t gain many new votes, that could be enough to help them move ahead in a handful of spots.

Finally, the Liberals are in a worse position in British Columbia relative to both the New Democrats and Conservatives, so could lose some seats in the province.

But they had a 36-seat cushion in 2019. If we’re expecting status quo in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario with a few losses in B.C. and potentially a handful of gains in Alberta and the Prairies, it is hard to see the Conservatives overcoming that 36-seat gap from last time, even if they can whittle it down.

The Liberals do not have the usual — but by no means guaranteed — turnout bump that the Conservatives do. But their support is pretty uniform across all age groups and is actually quite strong among older voters. The Liberals might lose some ground to the Conservatives in the turnout game, but could gain some ground relative to the NDP. The result could be a wash, at least in terms of the seat gap between the Liberals and Conservatives.

Could they cobble a majority out of this situation? They could — if the Conservatives bleed more support to the PPC and the progressive electorate swings to the Liberals and away from the NDP, that could be just enough to do it. If the splits work in the Liberals’ favour in all the right ways, they could squeak by with a majority government even if their vote share is well down from where it was in 2015.

Could they lose? Absolutely. They’ll lose if the polls are under-estimating the Conservatives in Ontario and the Bloc in Quebec, the NDP does not bleed strategic voters and the Green or PPC splits don’t work to Justin Trudeau’s advantage. Not a whole lot needs to go wrong for the seat count to be neck-and-neck, though a whole lot probably needs to go wrong for the Liberals to be more than a handful of seats behind the Conservatives.

Neither party is ending this campaign with much strength. It’s hard to know what that will mean for election day.

Conservatives need to beat their polls to pull off an upset

For Erin O’Toole, this campaign is ending a lot better than he and his party might have had reason to hope for a few months ago. But it is ending a lot worse than it could have if the clock had stopped around the Labour Day weekend.

At that point, the Poll Tracker was giving the Conservatives a 48% chance of winning the most seats. The Conservatives were averaging a lead of about three percentage points with surges in support in every part of the country. They were roaring ahead in B.C., their base was coming back in Alberta and the Prairies, the party was topping 20% in Quebec and the margins were closing fast in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

But then the Conservatives started slipping. A flip-flop over gun control might have cost the Conservatives moderates who feared a hidden agenda and right-wing conservatives who doubted O’Toole’s “true blue” bonafides. The Liberals stopped their slide and the PPC started rising in the polls.

The Conservatives have some big obstacles to overcome to win the most seats. Gains in Atlantic Canada and Quebec look hard to come by, Ontario is not heading in the right direction and it is possible the PPC is going to hurt the Conservatives a lot in Western Canada.

They do still have some structural advantages, though. Likelihood to vote for the Conservatives increases with age. Likelihood to vote does, too. The Conservatives beat their polls by a decent amount back in 2019, though a lot of it was in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan without any extra seats to show for it. If it instead turns up in Ontario, that could be huge.

If turnout matters, the Conservatives will probably beat their polls again. But the PPC complicates the equation — is any of that usual Conservative turnout bump now planning to vote for the People’s Party instead? Are the momentum scores recorded by Abacus Data, which are heading south fast for O’Toole, indicative of waning enthusiasm for the Conservatives in these final days?

The Conservatives have a shot of pulling off an upset. The polls could be wrong by enough to matter. The Conservatives’ ground game in the Greater Toronto Area could be more effective than a uniform swing of the polls would suggest. And the PPC’s supporters — who loathe Justin Trudeau — just might hold their nose and vote Conservative to kick him out of office.

Maybe the Bloc does the Conservatives a favour in Quebec and brings some Liberal incumbents down. Maybe the NDP’s vote shows up in urban centres and does the same thing. There is a path for a Conservative minority government here. But it does need a bit of luck.

NDP aiming for gains, but its supporters need to turn out

If we could all forget the 2011 election for a moment (and, hey, let’s toss the memory of Tom Mulcair aside while we’re at it), the NDP’s potential performance in this election would look pretty good.

The party could captured 20% of the vote, a threshold it has only ever surpassed twice. It could win somewhere around 35 seats, a number that usually represents as good as it gets for the NDP. Outside of Quebec, the NDP won 44 seats in 2011 and 28 in 2015. Jagmeet Singh’s performance could compare pretty favourably to that.

But the 2021 NDP campaign feels like a missed opportunity, or at least a case of unrealized potential. Singh entered the campaign as the most popular federal leader. He is ending it as the most popular federal leader, but his party has no extra support than it did at the outset.

A lot of the support the party does have is among the cohort least likely to cast a ballot. If being older is a good predictor of voting Conservative, being younger correlates with voting NDP — or, at least, intending to vote NDP.

If the NDP’s vote actually turns out, if the Liberal-NDP switchers who fear a Conservative government do not lose their nerve, then the New Democrats could have a really good showing on Monday with 35 to 40 seats. But if their vote does not show up and the strategic voters herd back to the Liberals, the NDP might only be able to gain a handful of seats.

It’s the kind of result the NDP used to be happy with. And maybe they’ll have to be happy with it again.

Is the PPC 2021’s spoiler or an enduring presence?

I’ll readily admit that I did not see Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party hitting 6% or 7% in the polls and double-digits in parts of Western Canada. But the impact of the PPC on this campaign could be significant and far-reaching.

I’ve written about what the PPC voter coalition looks like before, so I won’t go into those details again. You can read about it here:

The Writ
Who is voting for the PPC — and will they cost the Conservatives a win?
As we enter these last days of the campaign, the polls are looking a lot like they did back in 2019: the Liberals and Conservatives are neck-and-neck, the NDP is well back but an important factor, and the Bloc may or may not be a big spoiler on election night…
Read more

I think it will be tough for the PPC to concentrate enough support in any one riding of the country to win a seat. There’s nothing about Bernier’s Beauce riding that makes it particularly open to a party that has been courting the anti-vaxxer, anti-vaccine mandates and anti-lockdowns crowd. It’s hard to know where in the country that crowd would be big enough to elect a PPC MP.

Perhaps the recent about-face by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney could turn off some Albertans from the Conservatives and push them to the PPC, and perhaps enough to give us a surprise on election night. EKOS Research recently put the PPC second in Alberta at over 20%.

But I think the bigger question surrounding the PPC is how many seats they will cost the Conservatives. The number will certainly be greater than zero. Will it be greater than the seat gap between the Liberals and Conservatives, even accounting for the fact that not every PPC vote is a vote the Conservatives lost (or could have had)? It very well could be.

The longer-term question is what the future of the PPC is. If it is benefiting from this COVID-19 moment and fails to elect an MP, it might not have enduring support. But if it convinces Conservatives that they need to go to the right to win the next election, the PPC’s biggest legacy could be how it influences the Conservative Party going forward.

English debate saves Bloc campaign, as planned all along

At its lowest point of the campaign, the Bloc was trending below 25% of the vote and was more than eight points behind the Liberals. They were on track to lose perhaps a third of their seats, a result that might have cost Yves-François Blanchet his leadership and once again put into question the pertinence of the Bloc.

Enter the English-language debate.

You can debate the appropriateness of the question posed to Blanchet about Bills 21 and 96, but you can’t debate the impact. The Bloc finally had an issue and gained four points in just a few days. Now, polls show the Bloc could be running even with the Liberals in Quebec, meaning their 32 seats could be held and any hope the Liberals might have had for a majority government would have to be put on the shelf.

The over/under for the Bloc seems to be around 30 seats and 30%. Over those thresholds and this will have been seen as a successful campaign for the Bloc, which is only two years removed from near-irrelevancy. Under those thresholds would be a disappointment, but not necessarily a disaster. The Bloc is in the enviable position of having every reason to believe the results for them will be just fine, thanks to the unlikeliest of events.

Could this campaign actually end OK for the Greens?

Finally, the Greens. They have lost half of their support from 2019. A quarter of the country has no Green candidate on the ballot. All but a handful of Green candidates will meet the thresholds needed to get their expenses reimbursed by Elections Canada, bad news for an already broke party. The future of Annamie Paul, who ventured out of her riding only in the last phase of the campaign, is completely uncertain and the party is internally divided. By most standards, this election is a catastrophe for the Green Party.

And yet, it could still turn out to be not too bad.

The Writ
Where the lack of Greens will matter
For roughly one-in-four Canadians, the Green Party will not be an option on their ballot. That’s because, for the first time since the 2000 federal election, the Greens are not running a full or nearly-full slate of candidates. Just 252 Greens will be on the ballot in this campaign, leaving 86 Green vacancies across the country…
Read more

The Greens’ polling numbers in Atlantic Canada are awful, so coming out of the region with a seat like they did in 2019 seems unlikely. Despite spending nearly the entire campaign in Toronto Centre, Paul looks no closer to winning it than she did in last year’s byelection.

Yet, Elizabeth May is still favoured to be re-elected in her Saanich–Gulf Islands seat and Paul Manly in neighbouring Nanaimo–Ladysmith could also eke out a win, too. The Greens might even score a surprise victory in Kitchener Centre, thanks to the Liberals’ having “dropped” their candidate (he’s still on the ballot). Could the Greens come out of this with three seats again?

They could and, on paper, this campaign will not have been a disaster. But if they don’t win Kitchener Centre and Manly does not secure re-election, the Greens could be back to just Elizabeth May. Ten years after her first seat win for the Greens, that would not represent progress.

Mail ballots will matter, but will they make the difference?

In an election with a number of unknowns, here’s one last one: mail ballots. As of Sunday’s update, Elections Canada is reporting about 780,000 local mail ballots that won’t be counted until Tuesday, along with another 147,000 mail ballots cast from outside the country or voters’ home ridings.

Those numbers will increase as more votes arrive in the mail on Monday.

Will these mail ballots be consequential?

In most polls, including this recent one from Ipsos, it’s clear that Liberals and New Democrats are much more likely to cast their ballot in the mail than supporters of the Conservatives, Bloc or People’s Party. It means that the Liberals and NDP will almost certainly see their vote tally increase once the mail ballots start being counted on Tuesday (the count could continue for as many as four days).

The number of mail ballots is not consistent across the country, averaging under 2,000 per riding in most of Atlantic Canada, in Quebec and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But it averages nearly 2,500 per riding in Ontario and over 4,000 per riding in British Columbia.

In fact, in 45 ridings across the country the number of mail ballots cast is greater than the margin of victory in 2019.

Of course, while the Liberals and NDP will probably get a boost once the mail ballots start getting counted, the partisan divide won’t be as stark as it was in last year’s U.S. presidential election. But it could be stark enough to flip a few seats.

Based on the 2019 margins, I identify about a half-dozen seats that could go from blue to orange/red as the mail ballots are counted. These are ridings like Yukon, Coquitlam–Port Coquitlam, Port Moody–Coquitlam and South Okanagan–West Kootenay in British Columbia, Kitchener Centre and Richmond Hill in Ontario and Miramichi–Grand Lake in New Brunswick.

There are undoubtedly others that will turn out to be closer than they were in 2019, and close enough that the mail ballots could matter.

Will it make it hard for the networks to call a winner on election night?

If the Liberals are ahead in the seat count, it is extremely unlikely that the mail ballots would overturn that.

If the Conservatives are ahead in the seat count by 10 seats or more on election night, it is unlikely the mail ballots would overturn that.

But if the Conservatives are ahead by fewer than 10 seats, it is not at all unlikely that the mail ballots could turn their seat lead into a seat deficit. If the Liberals are 10 seats short of a majority government, it’s possible that the mail ballots could get them there.

Mail ballots will almost certainly make the difference for a few individual candidates’ political careers. Will they make a difference for the future careers of Erin O’Toole or Justin Trudeau? If it’s close, yes, they could.

Alright, so that’s a wrap on Election 44. Thanks so much for your support over the last five weeks, and there will be plenty more from The Writ in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, look out for the bonus podcast episode in your private feeds and inboxes some time after midnight, get out to the polls tomorrow if you haven’t already, and don’t forget to stop by for tomorrow night’s YouTube livestream!