There and back again in Election 44

On the surface, very little changed last night — but that doesn't mean things won't change

Here are a few narratives for you. Pick your own adventure:

  1. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have won their third consecutive election, securing another minority government.

  2. The Liberals failed in their goal of achieving a majority, and have been returned by voters to the status quo — suggesting the election was indeed unnecessary.

  3. The Conservatives and New Democrats were unable to chip away at the Liberal government despite its lacklustre campaign and six years of the wear-and-tear of government.

  4. For the second consecutive election, the Conservatives failed to make significant inroads in Ontario or Quebec, the keys to an eventual majority government.

  5. The future of the Liberal and Conservative parties remains uncertain, as the days remaining in the leaderships of Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole look numbered.

  6. The polls nailed it! Yay for polls!

I’ll take a #6, with a half-order of the other five.

Broad sweeping narratives about this election really don’t exist. This wasn’t a wave election or a change election, it was a status quo election. At the moment — and the counting of mail ballots will probably change it — the net difference from the 2019 federal election is a gain of two seats for the Bloc Québécois, a gain of one apiece for the Liberals and New Democrats, a loss of one for the Greens, and no change for the Conservatives. Out of an electoral map of 338 ridings!

It’s remarkable. It’s stunning. After two years that included a global pandemic and changes of leadership for two parties, we’re back to where we were at the beginning.

But where we go from here could be very different.

The consensus view is that Trudeau has fought his last election and O’Toole will not be given a chance at another one. That means the two biggest parties — the only two that have ever governed Canada — could have new leaders, and all the change that could come from that.

Maybe we’ll have our first female prime minister since Kim Campbell. Maybe the Conservatives will move further toward the centre or swing back to the right. The future 2023 election (or whenever it is held) could be much different than what the previously-scheduled 2023 election was going to look like, and that’s because of what happened last night.

So, let’s get to the numbers.

Swings in the east and west balance each other out

First off: I’m basing the following on the preliminary results that don’t include the 850,000 or so mail ballots that will only start being counted on Tuesday and won’t stop being counted for the rest of the week. Those ballots are enough to make the difference in perhaps a dozen ridings and could move the national popular vote by a few tenths of a percentage point, but the overall portrait is not going to change significantly.

As of this morning, the Liberals ended with 158 seats and 32.2% of the vote, slightly better than the final polls. The Conservatives have 119 seats and 34%, quite a bit better than the polls suggested.

The Bloc stands at 34 seats. The NDP has 25 and 17.7% of the vote, down more than a point from the final surveys. The Greens won two seats and just 2.3% of the vote (understandably under-performing their polls due to the lack of a full slate), while the People’s Party emerged with 5.1% of the vote, down about two points from the polling average (and half of what some pollsters awarded the PPC).

But let’s look at how things shifted in each province since 2019, because there were some pretty big swings:

Let’s start with the Conservatives, the (current) winner of the popular vote. And yes, the popular vote does exist. If you don’t think so, take it up with Elections Canada and the English language!

The Conservatives saw big increases of four to five percentage points in the Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, and were also up a point in New Brunswick, two in Ontario and nearly three in Quebec.

But these gains were balanced out by big losses in Western Canada. The Conservatives were down nearly a point in British Columbia, four points in Saskatchewan, five in Manitoba and a whopping 14 points in Alberta. They dropped so much in Alberta that it is no longer the most Conservative-friendly province in the country. That title now belongs to Saskatchewan.

In a way, this Conservative jump in Central and Atlantic Canada and loss in Western Canada looks exactly like what you’d expect if the Conservatives decided to transform themselves into more of a Progressive Conservative Party. Atlantic Canadians and Quebecers might like that, but not those folks in the rest of the country that once backed the Reform Party.

The Liberals largely held their vote, gaining four points in New Brunswick and two in Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I., roughly matching 2019’s performance in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Alberta and B.C., and dropping between one and three points in Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan.

The net swing of nearly five points between the Liberals and Conservatives in Ontario should be of some concern for the Liberals, even if it didn’t have much of an impact on the seat count. That kind of incrementalism could mean danger next time.

Speaking of incrementalism, the NDP is still trying to climb its way back to even Tom Mulcair levels of support, at least nationally. The NDP made a gain of five points in B.C. and seven points in Alberta, and was also up a point or two in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Good news for the NDP in a region where they are far stronger at the provincial level.

But the party was only up a point in Ontario and was down in Quebec, as 2011’s Orange Wave receded a little more. The NDP was up throughout the Maritimes by between two and three points, but was down 6.5 points in Newfoundland and Labrador — unfortunately for the NDP the only place in which they won a seat in the region back in 2019. They still have a long ways to go.

The Bloc ended the campaign on the upswing, finishing with nearly an identical share of the vote as in 2019, and potentially a few extra seats to go with it. Not a bad result for a party whose only goal is to keep its leverage in a minority parliament.

The People’s Party made some big gains, but still didn’t quite meet the level of support they had in the polls. But they were up five points in both Alberta and Saskatchewan and six points in Manitoba. They gained four points in Ontario and New Brunswick and three in B.C. and Nova Scotia. They were only up 1.3 points in Quebec, however, which made Maxime Bernier’s hopes of winning a seat even harder than they already were.

If this were a normal party, this could be the start of a base. Since 2004, the Greens have only scored higher than the PPC did twice, in 2008 and 2019. But the PPC isn’t a normal party, and it is unclear to me what its long-term future is beyond vaccines and lockdowns.

Finally, for the Greens this was a disastrous night saved only by their win in Kitchener Centre, which had more to do with the “suspension” of Raj Saini’s campaign than anything Annamie Paul did. They were down four points nationally, with their support dropping by double-digits in New Brunswick and P.E.I., nine points in Nova Scotia and seven points in British Columbia.

The promise of a new Green base in these regions has been gutted by one campaign. They have a lot of work to do build back better.

Seat trade-offs

While the seat counts hardly changed, a number of seats did (or could) change hands.

Based on preliminary, pre-mail ballot results, the Liberals picked off seven seats from the Conservatives in the key battlegrounds of the GTA (Aurora–Oak Ridges–Richmond Hill and Markham–Unionville), urban Alberta (Edmonton Centre and Calgary Skyview) and the B.C. Lower Mainland (Cloverdale–Langley City, Richmond Centre and Steveston–Richmond East).

The Liberals also gained two NDP seats where they didn’t have incumbents (St. John’s East and Hamilton Mountain).

It’s actually a textbook path to a Liberal majority, if only they had been able to avoid losses to the Conservatives in Atlantic Canada and make gains in Quebec.

The Conservatives only gained Liberal seats, including four in Atlantic Canada and three in Ontario. But only one of those Ontario gains was in the GTA (King–Vaughan), handing the Conservatives a net loss in this decisive region. That was their biggest problem, along with losing ground to the Liberals in other urban and suburban areas.

The NDP gained two seats from the Conservatives in Western Canada (Edmonton Griesbach and Port Moody–Coquitlam), as well as potentially Nanaimo–Ladysmith from the Greens in B.C. Not a bad outcome, but the NDP was hoping to make gains in Ontario (mail ballots could help them win in Toronto, but we’ll have to wait and see).

The Bloc might gain two seats in Quebec at the expense of the Liberals, but other than that Quebec was remarkably unchanged for such a volatile province.

In the end, that lack of change appears to be the big story from these results. But we shouldn’t ignore the broader themes:

  • The Liberals conquered some of their targets but did not make good on their potential in Quebec. Losses in Atlantic Canada made-up for by gains in urban centres make the Liberal caucus less rural than it was.

  • The Conservatives moved into some familiar, more rural territory, but lost ground in the key suburbs. The move to the centre didn’t make much of a difference in Ontario, but might have given new life to the PPC, which contributed to second-place showings in places like Kitchener.

  • The NDP still can’t match its polls and remains a story of unfulfilled potential, but it is becoming the second choice of Canadians in Western Canada.

  • The Bloc is here to stay, as long as they can find an issue that works for nationalist Quebecers.

  • The Greens are in a lot of trouble, even if they did win two seats.

In the coming days, I’m going to spend more time delving into these results. I want to take a detailed look at the impact of the mail ballots once they are counted, and when we have complete results I will do a party-by-party, in-depth analysis of how these results broke down across the country.

But let me take this opportunity to thank you for your support, subscriptions and precious reading/listening time over the last five weeks. It’s meant a lot and has made me certain that I made the right decision in starting The Writ. Here’s to Election 45!