P.E.I. PCs score another upset byelection win

Seat goes to the governing PCs for the first time in nearly 40 years

Last night’s provincial byelection in the riding of Cornwall–Meadowbank was another big win for Dennis King’s governing Progressive Conservatives, who overcame a 30-point deficit to win a seat in a part of the island that hasn’t voted blue since 1982.

It's another sign of the allure of the governing benches in a byelection, and shows that a referendum on a sitting government can be a good thing for that government if it happens to be a popular government.

The riding was vacated due to the resignation of Heath MacDonald, a Liberal MLA who decided to run (successfully) for the federal riding of Malpeque in September. The seat, located just west of Charlottetown and centred on the town of Cornwall (pop. 5,300), has been solidly red for nearly four decades, even sticking with the party in 2000 when the Liberals won a single seat against a near-sweep of Prince Edward Island by the Pat Binns PCs.

MacDonald won the seat handily in the 2019 provincial election, despite the Liberals falling from government to third-party status. He took 47.9% of the vote, finishing 14.7 points ahead of the Greens and 30.3 points ahead of the PC candidate.

But even that sort of margin wasn’t enough to keep the seat in Liberal hands.

Mark McLane of the PCs captured 40% of the vote, a gain of just over 22 points since the 2019 election. Jane MacIsaac, the Liberal candidate, took 33.2% of the vote, down nearly 15 points from MacDonald’s performance two years ago.

The Greens were also down, with Todd MacLean capturing 23.4%, 9.8 points down from 2019, while the NDP’s Larry Hale was up two points to 3.4%.

The “Polling Benchmark” in the chart is the share of the vote each party would receive if we swung the 2019 results in the riding by where the polls stand in the most recent survey by Narrative Research. By this measure, the PCs beat their polling benchmark significantly. The Liberals performed only a little worse than the benchmark, while the Greens were significantly below it.

Broadly speaking, this argues in favour of the voters of Cornwall–Meadowbank giving the PCs a governing-party bump that came at the expense of the Greens, who were pitching to voters that they switch their allegiance from the Liberals to the Greens to remain on the opposition benches — not quite the same proposition as asking voters to stick with the same party they have supported for a couple generations.

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The PCs’ win, however, does appear to have come from both the Liberals and the Greens. In the poll-by-poll results, we can see that the Liberals’ biggest drops (down 19 points in Candlelight Park and 23 points in Primrose Point) came in areas where the PCs had their biggest jumps (32 and 33 points, respectively). But a lot of that support had to come from the Greens, too.

Turnout was 55.3%, certainly respectable for a byelection. There were just under 1,000 fewer votes cast than in 2019, but nevertheless the PCs took 380 more votes than they did in the general election. So, some of those had to come from the Liberals (down 828 votes) and/or the Greens (down 563 votes). McLane’s win can’t just be attributed to Liberal and Green voters staying home.

Another big win for King

The gain of 22.4 percentage points is impressive, but it isn’t unusual for this government (and it was also predicted by Teresa Wright on Friday’s podcast).

In November 2020, a high-stakes byelection was held in the riding of Charlottetown–Winsloe. It delivered the one seat that King’s PCs needed to form a majority in the Legislative Assembly.

To win it the PCs overcame a 16.4-point margin from 2019, picking up 23.5 points overall. The swing in that byelection, then, was even bigger than last night’s in Cornwall–Meadowbank, though the margin that was overcome was smaller.

This means the win shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it is a sign that this government remains very popular and that the high polling numbers from August probably haven’t changed much. One could argue, considering the polling benchmark, that the PCs might have even gotten more popular since then, when Narrative Research found 81% of Islanders saying they were satisfied with the government’s performance.

Historically speaking, this result is good for the PCs — but not record-breaking. It’s their best result since the PCs captured 43.8% of the vote here in 2000 when it was part of the North River–Rice Point riding.

For the Liberals, it could have been worse

This is, however, the worst result for the Liberals in this area since the province went to single-member districts in 1996. The previous worse had been 46.3% in 2015, so this is quite a new low bar that has been set.

But things aren’t going particularly well for the P.E.I. Liberals, who have been leaderless since Wade MacLauchlan lost the 2019 election. At times, it has even seemed that no one in Prince Edward Island wanted the job.

The potential for the Liberals to fall into third was a real one here, and would have signalled that the party was being eclipsed by the Greens as the alternative to the King PCs. So, while the loss probably stings and is nothing to be happy about for Liberals, it could have been much worse — and could have made the task of recruiting a good leader all the more difficult.

Greens take a hit, but they have a base

But if it could have been worse for the Liberals, that means it could have been a lot better for the Greens. To miss their polling benchmark by so much might be chalked up to the special circumstances of this byelection, but dropping 10 points since 2019 is not a great look for the P.E.I. Greens.

While Islanders are very capable of keeping their provincial and federal politics separate, it does make one think that the shine could be coming off the Green brand in P.E.I. due in part to the federal party’s struggles — the federal Greens lost more than half of their vote in the province in the September election.

But 23.4% of the vote is still a good showing for the Greens, because it is well above the 12.1% the party captured in Cornwall–Meadowbank in the 2015 provincial election, before the party had made its breakthrough. This suggests that the Greens are building a base that has some staying power.

So what does this result mean for Justin Trudeau’s minority government in Ottawa?

Nothing, of course. I’m kidding.

But the Nova Scotia and federal election results over the summer were our first cases of incumbent governments not doing well — or at least not as well as they might have liked — at the polls despite receiving good marks for their handling of the pandemic. In 2020, it was all about incumbent governments being rewarded for their COVID-19 performance. So far, 2021 has been looking like a problem for governments. This small byelection is a counterpoint to that narrative.

Perhaps more tangibly, it means Dennis King’s Progressive Conservatives can breathe just a little easier in the Legislative Assembly. Their one-seat majority (after subtracting the speaker) is now a two-seat majority.

In a 27-seat legislature, that’s not nothing!