PEI PCs cruising to big win as opposition tries to survive
RESULTS LIVESTREAM TONIGHT: 6 PM ET / 7 PM AT
Dennis King and the Progressive Conservatives rolled the dice with an early election call, sending Prince Edward Islanders to the polls six months ahead of schedule.
It looks like the gamble will pay off — or at least that it won’t cost the PCs much.
The PCs have led in every poll conducted since they come to office in the 2019 election with a minority government. Over the last four years, the PCs have turned that minority into a majority government thanks to byelection victories that served to confirm the popularity that was measured in the polls. Ahead of the campaign, the PCs were still ahead by a wide margin. In the only poll published since that kick off, that wide margin remains.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t lots to watch for heading into today’s election. The size of the PC victory, even the potential for a full sweep of the island, is one point of interest. But the fate of the Greens and Liberals, and their leaders, adds another element of intrigue that will have political repercussions in PEI for years to come.
Before breaking down how election day is setting up for each of the four major parties in the province, I invite you to join me tonight starting at 6 PM Eastern / 7 PM Atlantic to watch the results of the Prince Edward Island election as they come in:
I hope to see you there! We’ll got through the results in all 27 of PEI’s districts and chat a little politics, on the island and off the island!
So, how are things looking as election day dawns?
Much of the following analysis is based on the survey conducted by Mainstreet Research published on Friday and in the field on Monday and Tuesday, so about a week ago. With a sample of 962 voters (margin of error 3.2%, 19 times out of 20), it is a robustly-sized poll.
The overall results were 50% for the PCs, 22% for the Liberals, 22% for the Greens and 5% for the NDP among decided voters.
The number of undecideds was 20%, or 12% after removing leaning voters. The PC lead is so wide that even if every single undecided voter went to either the Liberals or the Greens, the PCs would still win the most votes.
A smaller-sample poll conducted by Forum Research was published very late on Sunday and was conducted on Friday. Forum often publishes polls an hour or two before midnight on election day, though it does not publish any other polls at any other point. It makes it very difficult to assess any sense of trend or to place the poll in any context.
Because of its very late posting, it is not included in the analysis below. But it hints at a better performance for the Greens than in the Mainstreet poll, though with a 19-point lead across the province it still suggests the PCs are well-positioned to make significant gains. With a sample of only 392 decided voters (+/- 5%), it is not necessarily out of step with the Mainstreet survey.
Progressive Conservatives going on offense
Calling an early election is not as big a gamble for some parties as others. When Justin Trudeau did it in 2021, it didn’t work out as well as he hoped (though it also didn’t turn out as badly as it could have). When B.C.’s John Horgan and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs did it in 2020, it worked out very well — both turned their minority governments into majority governments.
For King and the PCs, a call six months ahead of time wasn’t exactly a huge risk. But, it still could have had some blowback.
While the Mainstreet poll suggests the PCs have a little less support than they did at the outset, the numbers are similar to where Narrative Research put things in the days ahead of the election call.
The PCs have a campaign bus (unheard of in PEI politics), a full slate of candidates and a seemingly well-oiled machine. Their opponents, by comparison, have not been nearly as organized. The Liberals and Greens didn’t even run a full slate. For the Liberals, it’s a first in over a century.
King and the PCs aren’t resting on their laurels, though. A great analysis by PEI journalist Teresa Wright about where the leaders have spent their time shows that King is targeting Green and Liberal seats — including the district of New Haven-Rocky Point, where both the incumbent, Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker, and Liberal leader Sharon Cameron are on the ballot.
The PCs are very likely to make significant gains. And if things split perfectly, a 27-for-27 sweep is not out of the question. It happened once before in PEI in 1935, when the Great Depression took a toll on the sitting government. Single-member oppositions have happened more recently, in 1993 and 2000. That sort of thing could happen again.
It helps that Mainstreet finds the PCs have made their biggest gains in Prince and Queens counties, where they have seat gains to make. In Kings County, where the PCs already hold all the seats, the PCs have just as much support as they did in 2019. Their jump in support is coming exactly where it needs to in order to win more seats — and maybe all of them.
Election Outlook: Despite a few controversies on the campaign trail, the PCs are virtually guaranteed a big majority government and could make significant gains at the expense of both the Liberals and Greens. The only question is how many opposition members, if any, will be in the legislature.
Greens in tough to defend their beachheads
For the Greens, it is all about retention and maintenance of their status as the official opposition — which normally carries the mantle of being the government-in-waiting.
Over the last few years, the polls suggest that the Greens have not managed to successfully supplant the Liberals. The two parties have been neck-and-neck in most surveys, as they were in the ones published over the last few weeks.
Protecting the ground the Greens won in 2019 means holding on to their seats in and around Charlottetown and Summerside, along with Bevan-Baker’s own seat in Queens County.
According to Mainstreet, the Greens’ sharpest decline has been in Charlottetown, which could put their seats there in danger. They lack incumbents in two of the ridings they won last time. The party has lost less support, but still an important amount, in Prince County, so they might have a better shot of holding their seats in Summerside. But it isn’t a given.
Teresa’s tally shows Bevan-Baker has spent a lot of time in his own riding, suggesting that the Greens understand their leader is under threat. That pulls him away from where he could do some good elsewhere.
The local factor will be paramount for the party. Can the six incumbents running again retain enough of their personal support to hold off the PCs? And will Bevan-Baker, who has held his seat for two terms and has been a candidate in the area (and dentist) for even longer than that, be able to lead enough Greens into the legislature to remain the leader of the opposition?
Or could the PEI Greens find themselves back to where they were eight years ago, when Bevan-Baker was the lone Green candidate to be elected?
Election Outlook: With the exception of Bevan-Baker, none of the Green incumbents won by very sizable margins, which makes them all vulnerable to the rise of the PCs. Getting their leader elected, as well as at least one or two other MLAs in Summerside and Charlottetown, will probably decide whether the party gets to stay No. 2 in the legislature.
Liberals hope to save the furniture, and their leader
The fate of the Liberals is inversely related to that of the Greens. If Peter Bevan-Baker is re-elected, Sharon Cameron is defeated. If the Greens hold on to enough seats in Summerside and/or Charlottetown, the Liberals are probably stuck in third place again.
Whether or not this is a good election for the Liberals, at least in the current context, will depend on whether their leader is elected and if a few incumbents can hold on for dear life.
Based on Teresa’s analysis of leaders’ itineraries, it’s clear that Cameron recognizes the challenge she faces in New Haven-Rocky Point as she has spent a disproportionate amount of the last few weeks campaigning in the riding. If she loses, she might be regretting not running in a more winnable seat, particularly in Charlottetown where the Liberals’ support has held up better than in other parts of the province.
Prince County, which used to be a source of strength for the Liberals, is one of those areas. Mainstreet suggests the Liberals have lost 12 points there. They lack an incumbent in Évangéline-Miscouche and face a challenge from the NDP’s Herb Dickieson in O’Leary-Inverness. Perhaps only Hal Perry, who benefits from the lack of a Green candidate in Tignish-Palmer Road, could be reasonably confident of still having a seat come tomorrow.
As the Liberals have a few incumbents who could survive, it isn’t inconceivable that the Liberals manage to win two or three seats — but end up leaderless again. Alternatively, the splits and the lack of energy surrounding the Liberal campaign could see them shutout for the first time ever. It was the Tories, not the Liberals, who ended up on the receiving end of the shellacking of 1935.
Election Outlook: Compared to the Greens, the Liberals might have more upside if things go well because of their long-standing roots in some of the seats they are defending. But the Liberals also might have more downside, as their leader is in danger. If their incumbents fail to win election, it is unlikely Cameron will succeed where they didn’t.
Still long odds for a return to the legislature
Let’s make this simple. The New Democrats have only ever won a single seat in all of PEI’s history, and that happened more than 20 years ago. So, every election is an uphill climb for the NDP.
But they have a little reason for optimism this time.
Firstly, that one-and-only NDP MLA is on the ballot again: Herb Dickieson is running in O’Leary-Inverness, which includes part of the area he once represented in the legislature. He has lots of name recognition, nearly winning in 2019 when an NDP candidate in 2015 came nowhere close. The polls suggest the NDP is doing better in Prince County than it did in 2019, so they have some reason to hope.
But it means toppling a long-time Liberal MLA in Robert Henderson, no easy feat.
Secondly, NDP leader Michelle Neill handled herself well in the leaders debate. It probably doesn’t mean she can win in Charlottetown-Brighton (the NDP’s historical support there is low), but she could indirectly help Dickieson and increase the NDP’s numbers across the province.
And thirdly, in Stanhope-Marshfield the NDP is the only opponent to the PC incumbent. Winning the riding is probably not doable, but the party is at least assured of a strong showing in at least a few ridings. That could be a building block for the future.
Election Outlook: Winning a seat will still be tough for the New Democrats, but they’ve put themselves in a better position to win than in 2019, when they came close.
If you listened to my podcast last week with Stuart Neatby, you know that this hasn’t been an uneventful campaign. But it seems that whatever impact the last few weeks might have had has been limited. The chances that more has shifted over the last few days since Mainstreet left the field than has shifted in the previous three weeks seem low.
That the result will be a Progressive Conservative majority seems highly likely. A sweep is possible but perhaps less likely than the election of a handful of opposition members. The talk of a need for some opposition might help a few local candidates, Peter Bevan-Baker perhaps most of all. But the lure of having an MLA on the government benches can be strong.
It’ll be at the local level that the real storylines of this election will be decided. Will the leaders of the Liberals or the Greens (or both) find themselves without a seat on Tuesday morning? Can the few remaining Green and Liberal incumbents hold off the PC tide? What will happen to some figures from PEI’s political past, such as Herb Dickieson or Rob Lantz, who led the PCs into the 2015 campaign and is running in Charlottetown-Brighton?
Will the more collaborative atmosphere of the Legislative Assembly over the last few years fade away as the PCs increase their majority and decrease their opposition?
For those of us from away, will there be broader implications coming out of the results?
When thinking about federal politics, we can’t read too much into provincial elections. That’s even truer in a small province like Prince Edward Island.
But politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
I think there will be a few lessons and signals to take out of the results, assuming all goes as expected:
It’s another case of a moderate, centrist conservative party doing very well in building broad-based support. Conservatism in Atlantic Canada might have less of an edge than in the rest of the country, but it is still a model that could be applied elsewhere and adopted by a national party. Right-of-centre parties in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and PEI have found a formula that works very well.
The Liberal brand is struggling at the provincial level, and that brand alone isn’t enough to prop it up in the face of a weak leader or more attractive alternatives. The results in last year’s elections in Ontario and Quebec showed that and this is yet another example (and in a province where the federal Liberals hold all four seats). At the provincial level, the brand is literally going to cease to exist in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and is on life support in Alberta and, to a lesser extent, in Manitoba. People are getting in the habit of not voting Liberal and cadres of potential future Liberal candidates, organizers and volunteers are going to be increasingly depleted the longer that provincial Liberal parties struggle.
The rise of the Greens, which seemed inevitable in 2019, has proven to be anything but. Peter Bevan-Baker’s Greens aren’t exactly like Greens elsewhere in the country (he hardly spoke of the environment in the leaders debate), but over the last few years the party has hit a ceiling and has fallen back in many regions of the country where progress had previously been heading in only one direction.
But, let’s give Islanders the final word. The polls open at 9 AM local time and close at 7 PM tonight. We’ll find out exactly what they think soon enough.