Setting the table for Election 44
Where the parties stand at the start
Parliament has been dissolved, writs have been dropped/drawn/issued (no judgement on your preference) and the first speeches of the campaign have been delivered.
It took awhile to get here, but we’re finally here. The 2021 federal election campaign has begun.
So, to kick things off let’s take a look at where each of the parties stand as things get rolling. In 36 days we’ll find out where they actually end up — and it could turn out to be very different from where they are today.
Liberals’ election to lose
There’s a big difference between an incumbent government losing a scheduled election and an incumbent government losing an election it precipitated. In the latter case, the government will have no one to blame but itself.
So, Justin Trudeau took a risk — a calculated risk — in sending the country to the polls. The calculation is that his chances of being re-elected in September 2021 are better than they will be in October 2023. It’s as simple as that. But let’s not fool ourselves. If the opposition parties thought their chances were better now than they would be in two years, they are the ones who would have pulled the plug.
But the Liberals aren’t kicking off this campaign with an insurmountable advantage. This isn’t Jean Chrétien in 2000 or John Horgan in 2020. The Liberal lead in the polls is good and the party’s chief opponent is weak. But by no means can the Liberals take a majority victory for granted.
The party is generally around the 35% to 37% mark in the polls, with a lead of somewhere between five and 10 points over the Conservatives. At the better end of those ranges, the Liberals probably do win a majority government pretty easily. At the worse end of those ranges, the Liberals still win the most seats — and probably make gains — but fall short of the 170-seat mark.
That’s what made the repeated questions to Trudeau about whether he would resign if he doesn’t win a majority government a little strange. If, at the end of this campaign, Trudeau’s Liberals have won 165 seats and secured themselves another few years with an even stronger minority government, do we really expect he would announce his resignation on election night?
The Liberals start with some significant advantages. They still dominate in Atlantic Canada. Their lead in Ontario is wide and holding, and the Conservatives are hobbled by a relatively unpopular Progressive Conservative provincial government. They have also increased their edge over the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, giving the party a good shot at gaining seats at the Bloc’s expense.
In British Columbia, the Liberals are ahead of both the New Democrats and Conservatives, and are polling surprisingly well in places like the B.C. Interior and on Vancouver Island.
If you combine these things — holding seats in Ontario and Atlantic Canada and gaining seats in Quebec and B.C. — that alone is enough to win the Liberals a majority government. Add to that some extra seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the Liberals start to have some wiggle room.
Trudeau’s personal ratings have improved since the 2019 election. While his numbers aren’t as good as Jagmeet Singh’s, they are significantly better than Erin O’Toole’s, the person that — at this stage — most Canadians think is Trudeau’s chief rival to the prime minister’s office.
So, the Liberals are in a good spot. But it isn’t an unassailable spot. The Liberals are potentially vulnerable on the election call itself — not because people will be upset that the election is happening, but because it could feed into a narrative that the Liberals are self-interested.
And their polling edge is only just enough to get them a majority government. If they falter a little in Quebec or lose their advantage in British Columbia, the majority goes out the window. A bad French-language debate for Trudeau, for example, could ruin his party’s hopes. Trudeau has a tight rope to walk for the next 36 days.
Nowhere to go but up for the Conservatives, right?
Erin O’Toole has a far bigger challenge: avoid the worst election result in the modern Conservative Party’s history.
Some polls suggest the Conservatives are on track to dip below Stephen Harper’s debut showing in 2004. The Conservatives have been struggling to make any headway since O’Toole became leader at the end of August 2020. In no part of the country are the Conservatives doing notably better in the polls than they did on election night in 2019.
In Central and Eastern Canada, the Conservatives are largely treading water. They’re down a little bit in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. If nothing changes, that could cost them a few seats. The party is, however, holding at around the 16% mark in Quebec that the Conservatives have been stuck at for the last couple elections. East of the Manitoba border, the Conservatives might only be down a handful of seats if an election were held today.
Of course, the Conservatives can’t afford to lose any seats — they’re behind, after all. But west of the Ontario border, a lot of gimme seats are looking vulnerable. The party hasn’t lost significant support in Manitoba, but they are down enough to cost them a seat or two around Winnipeg.
The party has lost significantly — suspiciously so, to be honest — in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Conservatives are down about 15 points in Saskatchewan and 20 points in Alberta. That’s huge, and while it might only cost them a half-dozen seats at most, see above. They can’t afford to lose these seats.
The Conservatives have also fallen into third in most polls in British Columbia, putting a whole swathe of seats in B.C. in danger. Put this all together, and the campaign could be one Conservatives would prefer to forget.
But that doesn’t mean all is lost for the Conservatives. The fact that the Conservatives are polling so low, particularly in bedrock portions of the country, leads one to suspect their numbers might be artificially low and they will inevitably get better as the campaign unfolds.
Erin O’Toole might have very poor personal numbers, but a lot of Canadians still don’t know much about him. He has the opportunity to make a good first impression to many voters. He could impress.
And that support that appears to be bleeding away to the People’s Party and Maverick Party could be a mirage — parked votes that will drift back to the Conservatives when push comes to shove.
However, a historical floor is only the floor until it falls out from under a party. Going into the 2011 election, it was hard to believe that Michael Ignatieff would do worse than Stéphane Dion in 2008. Sure, his personal numbers weren’t very good. But once people got to see Ignatieff on the campaign trail, surely the Liberals would close the gap?
Well, we know how that played out. This election might not be it, but sooner or later the Conservatives will have an Ignatieff election.
NDP needs to turn potential into reality
New Democrats seem enthused about the coming campaign. They have the most popular leader and appear far more comfortable in their own skin than they did in either 2015 or 2019. If you recall, the 2019 campaign began with many (including myself) believing it could be a disaster for the NDP, and you could sense that from the party, too.
But Singh turned out to be a likable campaigner and did a good job in the debates. The NDP has been polling well, particularly in Ontario and B.C., and Singh has even placed ahead of O’Toole on the best prime minister question.
The New Democrats are poised to make gains in this campaign — perhaps even significant ones. The party could see itself win many new seats in B.C. and Ontario, maybe steal a second seat in Alberta and make a comeback in Saskatchewan. Quebec still looks like a big challenge, as does Atlantic Canada, but if the Liberals or Bloc falter it’s possible the NDP could squeak by with a couple extra seats east of Ontario.
The challenge for the New Democrats remains turning all of this potential into real votes. Singh is the most popular leader at a personal level, but he still trails Trudeau by a significant margin on who Canadians want to see as the prime minister. That’s telling — Canadians have a history of liking an NDP leader without seeing him or her as prime ministerial.
The NDP was polling in the 18% to 20% range on the eve of the 2019 election. But they only captured 15.9% of the vote. Is their polling support this time for real?
The NDP has lots of support among young voters, who might show up in public opinion polls but not voting booths. Can Singh energize them enough to cast a ballot?
These are big questions. But, on the whole, the NDP has many more reasons to be optimistic going into this campaign than the Conservatives. I see more upside than downside for them. And a weak Conservative Party helps the NDP, robbing the Liberals of the argument for strategic voting.
New Democrats should be enthused. But they should keep their feet on the ground, too.
A chance to re-establish the Bloc
Tucked away on the other side of the solitude, the Bloc Québécois is often a bit of an afterthought in the rest of the country. The Bloc will win give-or-take 30 seats and that’s about as much thought as the party tends to get these days. But the Bloc could turn out to be one of the biggest factors in this campaign.
Is the Bloc back? Well, I wouldn’t go that far. But 2021 gives Yves-François Blanchet the chance to re-establish the Bloc as an enduring force in federal politics.
The party isn’t doing as well in the polls lately, down a few points and dipping below the 32% mark they managed in 2019. But the Bloc is retaining the bulk of its support and, at current polling levels, should retain the bulk of their seats. Their slippage is just enough to help the Liberals get to 170, but a small comeback would pull the Liberals down from that threshold.
Blanchet proved to be a good campaigner the last time around, gaining a lot of support after the French language debate. He could do the same this time, and that would scupper Trudeau’s majority plans.
The Bloc is in an interesting position, having moved itself a little further from the social-democratic bent of Gilles Duceppe to smack-dab in the middle of the francophone political spectrum in Quebec, the same sweet spot currently occupied by François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec. It also means the Bloc faces a couple foes: the Conservatives in the Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean and around Quebec City and the Liberals around Montreal, in the Eastern Townships and in the Gaspésie.
But the Bloc always faces the challenge of its pertinence. Do Quebecers want to vote for a government, or an opposition? That vulnerability for the Bloc is always there, and Blanchet has to step lightly to ensure he makes it worth it for voters to remain on the opposition benches.
Saving the furniture for the Greens
I’ve already written on the problems facing the Greens. Those problems haven’t gotten any better, even if they have faded into the background for the last couple weeks.
As it stands, the Greens will be lucky to win two seats. Elizabeth May in Saanich–Gulf Islands out in B.C. is probably safe, but the neighbouring Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo–Ladysmith of Paul Manly is not.
Fredericton, the upset win the Greens scored in New Brunswick in 2019, seems out of reach with the floor-crossing of Jenica Atwin.
And Annamie Paul’s bid to win her seat in Toronto Centre? It still looks like a long shot, even if she spends most of the campaign in the riding.
For her own interests, she needs to stay close to home. If she doesn’t win a seat in the House of Commons it is hard to imagine her leadership will remain secure. She could hold on if she makes gains for the Greens, but the polls do not suggest the Greens are doing well in any part of the country — certainly not enough for them to contemplate winning new seats.
Paul’s biggest opportunity will be the leaders debates. Most Canadians don’t know much about her, and what they do know is likely limited to the dumpster fire of the last couple months. If she does well in the debate, then the Greens might be able to salvage a decent result out of this election. The flip side, however, could be catastrophic.
Does the far right have a future?
Lastly, what is going to happen with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party and Jay Hill’s Maverick Party? Will they remain on the fringes, or make a real impact on this campaign?
With 1.6% of the national vote and a loss in his own seat of Beauce, Bernier’s performance in 2019 did not meet even the modest expectations of the PPC. The polls are looking better for the party — often putting it in the 3% to 4% range the Greens used to manage — but it is unclear whether that is a parked vote or a real vote.
If the PPC is going to establish itself as a real player and not just the vanity project of a failed Conservative leadership candidate, it will need to show real progress in this election. Bernier needs to win his seat. He can’t remain on the sidelines for another few years without fading away completely.
The Maverick Party is in the same boat, but has even less of a chance of playing spoiler. The PPC will run candidates wherever they can. The Maverick Party is not planning to run candidates in places that could split the vote and elect a Liberal or New Democrat. That means they are largely running in ridings in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan where, even if they captured 20% of the vote, they still have no realistic chance of winning a seat.
I’m not sure what the point is. To plant some seeds? To spook the Conservatives into staying focused on Western Canada? In the end, the impact the Maverick Party really has might not be felt until well after this election is over.
I’m excited that the election has started. When I launched The Writ, I knew no more than anyone else about the likelihood of an election campaign. I’m glad that the site gets to be put through its paces this early.
I have some plans for the coming weeks. Expect regular posts here on the site and in your inbox, including a mid-week check-in on the polls and a weekly look at the tipping point seats. I’ll have other analyses sprinkled in between.
You can continue to expect a regular weekly episode of The Writ Podcast, as well as irregular bonus episodes for subscribers. I’ll also be doing some livestreams on my YouTube Channel to comment on the campaign and take your questions. The first attempt yesterday went pretty well, and next time I’ll give subscribers more warning about an upcoming livestream.
I’m still finalizing plans for election night, but you can join me for a Nova Scotia election night results livestream tomorrow, starting at 8 PM ET. In the meantime, you can subscribe to The Writ’s YouTube Channel here.
If there’s anything else you’d like to see from The Writ over the course of the campaign, please let me know!