The 6% Election

How the ridings decided by six points or less in 2019 could decide the next election

Earlier this spring, I was struck by the honesty of a comment made by a Conservative Party official to the Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier.

“What’s on the target list is seen as this giant, sexy secret, (but) anybody can go to Wikipedia, look at the list of how close the previous election was, and guess 95 per cent of them right,” the official said.

“I could sit down right now and write the NDP’s target list, O’Toole’s target list, the Liberals’ target list. And there’s going to be a few things — because there’s this local dynamic happening in wherever I don’t know about, or there’s a candidate who is great or a candidate who is terrible — but I will get 95 per cent of it right.”

It really cut through to a simple truth: the seats that are the ones to watch in an upcoming election are usually the ones that turned out to be the ones to watch in the last election.

In the end, that is the basis of any seat projection model — if the shift in the polls is greater than last election’s margin between two parties in a particular riding, that riding is likely to flip. It’s not really that complicated.

Sure, there are always a few surprises where a party over-performs in a specific region or a local candidate has an enormous impact on the results, but generally ridings that were close last time will be close next time — if public opinion hasn’t shifted dramatically.

That brings us to the upcoming federal election.

The polls haven’t shifted all that much since 2019. The Liberals and NDP are up a little and the Conservatives are down a little, but the overall landscape is much the same as it was last time.

(The poll published by Abacus Data yesterday suggests that just maybe things are shifting a tad dramatically, but we should wait to see if other polls bear this out.)

So, it seems likely that the ridings that were closest in 2019 will play a big role in the next campaign — and it’s those ridings that were decided by six percentage points or less that will be key to each of the major parties achieving their goals.

Party goals for the next campaign

Is there something magic a margin of six points or less? No, but it is a nice round number that helps focus the mind — and conveniently encompasses just enough swing ridings to make the difference for the Liberals and Conservatives.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals, their goal is simple: win a majority government. Assuming the Liberals can win the 157 seats they won last time, they need to find 13 more on the map — and maybe a few extras so they can elect a Liberal speaker and have some cushion in the House of Commons.

The Conservatives would also like a majority government thankyouverymuch, especially since a Conservative minority government would struggle to find support from other parties in the House.

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However, considering where the Conservatives are in the polls and the poor personal ratings for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, a majority government might not be a realistic goal at this point. But winning more seats than the Liberals is plausible and would be a clear victory, whether or not it leads to O’Toole becoming prime minister.

For the Bloc Québécois and the New Democrats, a majority government for either Trudeau or O’Toole is the last thing they want. Instead, their goal is another minority government where they hold enough seats to have leverage with the government in passing legislation — the status quo, with maybe a few more seats to fluff a leader’s ego.

The 6% ridings

Let’s briefly go through the 6% target ridings for each party. I’ll delve into each party’s target list more deeply in future articles.

Starting with the Liberals:

This list of 21 ridings gives the Liberals a little wiggle room, as it boosts them from 157 to 178 seats — more than enough to survive a few floor-crossings or MP scandals (recall that, after less than two years, three MPs elected as Liberals in 2019 are currently sitting as Independents, and two others have already been replaced in byelections).

The target list runs predominantly through two parties: the Conservatives and the Bloc, with a little over half of those Conservative seats being in Ontario.

Put simply, if the Liberals can gain some traction against the Bloc in Quebec and the Conservatives in Ontario, while holding what they have, they get their majority.

Now, the Conservatives:

Assuming the Conservatives hold the 121 seats they won in 2019 and the Liberals hold all of their seats that aren’t on this list of 24, sweeping this list would give the Conservatives 145 seats and drop the Liberals to 138.

Even without any of the NDP, Bloc or Green seats on this list (let’s put aside that Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin crossed the floor to the Liberals from the Greens) the Conservatives would still eke out more seats than the Liberals. Clearly, the Conservatives really only have one adversary.

Most of these seats are either in Ontario or Atlantic Canada, which indicates where the focus needs to be for the Conservatives. That the Liberals and Conservatives are vying for Ontario is no surprise, but it is an interesting dynamic that the Liberals need to be on the offensive in Ontario and Quebec while playing defense in the Maritimes.

Moving on to the Bloc:

The Bloc can really only prevent a Liberal majority government, as a Conservative majority government is not going to be won or lost in Quebec. If the Bloc wins these seats away from the Liberals, Trudeau’s path to a majority government gets very difficult.

For the Bloc, the focus of their campaign is a little spread out, but it can be narrowed down to holding what they have and targeting a few seats around the island of Montreal and in central Quebec, primarily in the Eastern Townships.

Lastly, the New Democrats:

There are fewer targets on this list, which reflects that Jagmeet Singh’s NDP really wasn’t very competitive in many ridings beyond the 24 they won in 2019.

This list is interesting because, beyond the four Liberal seats, both Port Moody–Coquitlam and Kenora are also on the Liberal target list. So, the New Democrats could block the path of a Liberal majority government by stealing away a few of the Conservative seats that the Liberals are coveting.

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Now, if the political landscape shifts dramatically — say if a party gains or loses 10 points or more — then we’d be talking about a whole other set of ridings. But things don’t often shift around all that much, particularly in a minority environment. Seat changes between the 2006 and 2008 elections were relatively modest, as they were between the 1963 and 1965 elections.

If we do see a small-ball election, then these 6% ridings will be the ones to watch. If, instead, something dramatic happens, then these will be the first dominos to fall.