Weekly Writ for Jan. 10: Crisis and opportunity when MPs retire
The impact of incumbents not running again, plus the latest poll numbers
Welcome to the Weekly Writ, a round-up of the latest federal and provincial polls, election news and political history that lands in your inbox every Wednesday morning.
It’s normal when an election approaches for MPs to start eyeing the exits.
Signing on to run for another term of four years is always going to be daunting for some MPs, particularly those who already have a few terms under their belts. It’s all the more daunting when your odds of re-election — or being on the governing side of the House if you do get elected — start to look poor.
So, it’s no surprise that a number of Liberal MPs have already announced they won’t be running for re-election, whenever the next vote is held.
That might sound like a big number — but it isn’t.
In your average minority parliament, roughly 9% of MPs don’t run for re-election. The number of incumbents who don’t run for re-election after sitting through an entire majority parliament is about double that. In a 338-seat House of Commons, that means we should expect 30 to 60 MPs to opt out when the next election rolls around, depending on whether we use the minority or majority precedent here (this minority government might last as long as a standard majority one).
But the nine seats that won’t have a Liberal incumbent in the next general election (Bennett’s seat of Toronto–St. Paul’s will be filled later this year) do give us a sampler of the different kind of vacancies that happen when incumbents don’t re-offer.
First, there are the opportunities. These are seats that are safe for the incumbent party, making it easier to recruit quality star candidates that can help the party’s fortunes far beyond the riding’s boundaries. Of the nine, those would be Vancouver Quadra (Joyce Murray) in British Columbia, Bourassa (Emmanuel Dubourg) in Quebec and Guelph (Lloyd Longfield) in Ontario. These three were all won by large margins in the last election and stuck with the Liberals in the 2011 debacle. If they could stay Liberal in that election, they should stay Liberal in the next one.
Second, there are the battlegrounds. These are seats that will be hotly contested in the next election and where the retirement of the incumbent could have an impact. (How much of an impact? In the 2019 election, I found that the loss of an incumbent was worth about six percentage points.) These battlegrounds would be Markham–Stouffville (Helena Jaczek) and Mississauga Centre (Omar Alghabra) in Ontario and Fleetwood–Port Kells (Ken Hardie) in B.C. Some of these were won by healthy margins (Alghabra won by 26 points), but they are in swing-y regions. The Liberals will need to find good candidates in these ridings to give them a shot at holding on.
Third, there are the lost causes. These are seats that will be very tough to hold in the next election, making it all the more difficult to recruit good candidates. These would be Nipissing–Timiskaming (Anthony Rota) in Ontario, Saint John–Rothesay (Wayne Long, now Saint John–Kennebecasis) in New Brunswick and Bonavista–Burin–Trinity (Churence Rogers, now Terra Nova–The Peninsulas) in Newfoundland and Labrador. They weren’t won by big margins and the polls suggest the winds are blowing against the Liberals in their regions.
Some of these retirements will provide the Liberals with a chance for renewal. Others will just cause problems. Expect more names to be added to the list.
That’s one prediction for 2024. But there are also plenty more to be made for the year to come! So, if you haven’t already, please don’t forget to get your entry in for the 2024 Prediction Contest. The prize is a paid annual subscription for you and a friend, but the honour is to have your name e-engraved on the coveted Writ Cup. The deadline to enter is next Wednesday, January 17. Get your predictions in here! (Only paid subscribers are eligible to enter.)
And, in case you missed it last week, Philippe J. Fournier and I recorded a bonus episode of The Numbers, in which we chatted about some of our past experiences doing the work we do. What were our favourite (and not-so-favourite) elections to cover? What would we do different when starting out if we could go back in time? We have special bonus episodes every second week for members of The Numbers. You can listen to a short preview and join here. We’ll have a regular episode of The Numbers in your feed and inboxes this coming Friday.
Nous avons également notre balado en français, Les chiffres, qui est publié gratuitement toutes les deux semaines!
Now, to what is in this week’s instalment of the Weekly Writ:
News on two new byelections and research on how partisanship is increasingly influencing MP mailers.
Polls on where the national voting intentions climate now sits, where things stand in Toronto, how Quebec’s politicians are doing and just how much we can trust poll-takers.
The Conservative seat-edge over the Liberals would be 100 if the election were held today.
Conception Bay East–Bell Island riding profile ahead of the upcoming byelection.
The Alberta Liberals (briefly) choose a leader in the #EveryElectionProject.
IN THE NEWS
Byelection called in Newfoundland and Labrador
Just before New Year’s, Premier Andrew Furey set the date for a provincial byelection in the Newfoundland and Labrador riding of Conception Bay East–Bell Island. Voters in this district will head to the polls on January 29.
The byelection is to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of David Brazil, who served as interim leader of the Progressive Conservatives before Tony Wakeham was named leader in October. Brazil won the seat by a margin of 23.1 points over the Liberals in the 2021 provincial election. He was first elected to represent the seat in 2010 in a byelection.
There will be four candidates on the ballot.
The PCs are running Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s councillor Tina Neary, while the Liberals will have Fred Hutton as their candidate. Hutton, who has been working as an advisor to Furey, was previously a well-known journalist. The NDP’s candidate will be Kim Churchill, an advocate for the deaf who won a human rights case last year regarding discrimination of her deaf son and his educational needs.
There will also be an independent candidate in the running. Darryl Harding was the president of the PCs’ district association but objected to what he considered an unfair nomination process that named Neary as the PCs’ candidate.
As is often the case in Newfoundland and Labrador, the byelection might hinge on the quality of the candidates in the running — and the list is a relatively impressive one. The presence of Harding as an independent might complicate matters for the PCs, especially as the Liberals have a high-profile candidate of their own.
Nevertheless, the result will mark a first test for Wakeham as leader of the PCs. The polls suggest the race across the province is tight between the PCs and the Liberals, with the next election scheduled for the fall of 2025. The Liberals have little to lose here since they haven’t won this seat since 1999, so all the focus will be on Wakeham to deliver a victory.
Also called last night was a provincial byelection in the Prince Edward Island riding of Borden-Kinkora, to fill the vacancy left by PC MLA Jamie Fox’s retirement. The byelection will be held on February 5. The announcement was made by Premier Dennis King at the PC nomination meeting for the district. I’ll have an analysis of the contest and the riding in next week’s edition of the Weekly Writ.
From the Ivory Tower: Partisanship predicts MP mailer content
Research by Alex Marland of Acadia University and Feodor Snagovsky of the University of Alberta, published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, finds that what most differentiates mailers sent out by MPs to their constituents is not the profile of their ridings or of the MPs themselves, but rather their partisan label.
Marland and Snagovsky analyzed mailers that were sent out during the pandemic, finding that mailers from Liberal MPs focused primarily on what the government was doing to provide supports while mailers from Conservative MPs adopted a “standing up to Ottawa” approach. The researchers found that this was primarily a Liberal vs. Conservative issue, as they found no significant difference regarding COVID-19 messaging between the other opposition parties and the Liberals.
Citing previous research, the authors point out that mailers used to be “one of the last bastions of freedom that MPs have from the constraints of the central party”, but that now “party discipline has caught up with at least one aspect of constituency work—communications funded by Parliament”.
THIS WEEK’S POLLS
The new national environment: Conservative +13?
A few polls have been published since the pre-holiday edition of the Weekly Writ, with numbers coming from Pallas Data, Léger and Spark Insights, along with the usual weekly releases from Nanos Research (which is now putting its national numbers outside of the paywall).
The polls differed very little, but they suggest that the political environment (at least over the last weeks of December and potentially into the first days of January) have shifted, showing a somewhat tighter race than was the case in November.
The polls put the Conservatives between 38% and 41%, with the Liberals trailing at between 26% and 28%. The NDP placed third in these polls with between 17% and 21%.
We shouldn’t quibble or worry too much about the small differences between these surveys. They all paint the same portrait, with the average putting things somewhere around a 13-point lead for the Conservatives.
This is a contrast to November, when the polls showed the Conservatives leading by about 17 points, on average. While the latest clutch of polls put the gap at 10 to 14 points, the earlier bunch of polls were between 14 and 19 points.
There’s been a shift, though that shift still points toward a big Conservative victory. It suggests that the Conservatives might have been pushing their limits when they were approaching a lead of 20 points. Landing somewhere north of 10 points is, perhaps, more sustainable.
Liberals have taken a hit in Toronto
Polling by Liaison Strategies shows that support for the Liberals in Toronto has fallen significantly since the last election, putting a number of their seats at risk.
The poll found the Liberals leading in the city with 38% support to 32% for the Conservatives, followed by the NDP at 22%. Compared to the 2021 results, this represents a drop of 14 points for the Liberals, a gain of eight for the Conservatives and a gain of four for the NDP.
Within Toronto, Liaison still gives the Liberals the edge downtown and in North York, though it puts them in a tie with the Conservatives in Scarborough and behind by 10 in Etobicoke. These results suggests a huge swing concentrated primarily in Scarborough (a net 36-point swing between the Liberals and Conservatives) and Etobicoke (29 points), with smaller swings downtown (20 points) and in North York (15 points).
If we apply these swings to the riding results of the last election, then the Liberals would lose six seats to the Conservatives and three to the New Democrats — who have actually lost support downtown, but not nearly as much as the Liberals have. It would still leave 16 seats to the Liberals in Toronto (15 on the new boundaries), which is a reflection of the gargantuan margins with which the Liberals won in parts of the city.
At the provincial level, Liaison finds support converging with the federal numbers: 38% for the Ontario Liberals (+6 since the 2022 election), 29% for the Progressive Conservatives (-3) and 25% for the NDP (-3). That kind of movement would not flip as many seats.
POLLING NEWS BRIEFS
Trekkies or liars? In a poll on the top news stories of 2023, Pollara inserted a question about a story that didn’t happen: the Canadian government signing the Treaty of Algeron. About 20% of Canadians said they had either “actively searched for news on this”, “paid attention to this” or “heard about this in passing” — despite the fact that the Canadian government did not sign the Treaty of Algeron, a fictional treaty signed between the Federation and the Romulans in Star Trek. This is a test question that former Trudeau pollster Dan Arnold has included in his surveys to gauge the truthfulness of people’s responses about issues. Reflecting how partisanship influences people’s views of things regardless of what those things are, Arnold found that the Treaty of Algeron, which was supposedly signed by the Liberal government, had a +5 positive rating among Liberal voters, but was -10 among Conservatives. Maybe Conservatives just don’t trust Romulans.
Speaking of partisan Pavlovian responses, Nanos Research found that 46% of Canadians want the next election to happen in 2024 or earlier. Despite its usefulness for understanding these numbers, no breakdown by party was provided, but people in the Conservative-voting, Trudeau-hating Prairies were most keen on an early election. Coincidence, no doubt.
In Quebec, Léger found that Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon had the highest personal ratings of any Quebec politician tested, with 51% reporting a good opinion of him and just 19% a bad opinion, for a net +32 rating. The worst rating belonged to Quebec Conservative leader Éric Duhaime at -37. Among the other provincial and federal party leaders, the best-to-worst finishers were Yves-François Blanchet (+22), Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (+11), Émilise Lessard-Therrien (even), Marc Tanguay (-8), François Legault (-18) and Justin Trudeau (-22).
IF THE ELECTION WERE HELD TODAY
The Conservatives would win a healthy majority if the election were held today, quite a change of pace from a year ago. When I first made these estimates in January 2022, the Conservatives had a three-seat advantage over the Liberals, 142 to 139. Now? It’s 100 seats. Remarkably, the slide for the Liberals has not helped the NDP at all. They were projected to win 27 seats a year ago, and sit at 28 today.
The Toronto poll numbers improve the Ontario Liberals standing a little, while there was a small change in the estimates for Saskatchewan as I am now using the new electoral map for the province.
The following seat estimates are derived from a uniform swing model that is based on trends in recent polls as well as minor tweaks and adjustments. Rather than the product of a statistical model, these estimates are my best guess of what an election held today would produce, based both on the data and my own experience observing dozens of elections since 2008.
Changes are compared to last week. Parties are ordered according to their finish in the previous election (with some exceptions for minor parties).
RIDING OF THE WEEK
Conception Bay East–Bell Island (Newfoundland and Labrador)
The riding of Conception Bay East–Bell Island is located on the Avalon Peninsula and, as its name suggests, it encompasses the eastern shore of Conception Bay as well as Bell Island, with a mix of old coastal fishing ports (such as Portugal Cove) and newly-built suburban areas (such as Paradise) that make up the broader metropolitan region of St. John’s.
Over the last few elections, the electoral pattern of St. John’s has increasingly resembled that of other cities in Canada. The NDP can win a seat or two in the core, the Liberals dominate the rest of the urban area and the PCs win their seats in the surrounding suburbs. This is a change from the past, when the Tories were more competitive in St. John’s.
Conception Bay East–Bell Island is one of those suburban PC seats. David Brazil won it in the 2021 provincial election with 56.2% of the vote, beating the Liberals’ Lynn Hammond, who had 33.1%. The NDP finished third, with Gavin Will taking 10.7% of ballots cast. Only in Cape St. Francis to the north did the PCs win by a larger margin on the Avalon Peninsula.
Brazil’s margins of victory have been enormous over the last three elections, despite his PCs being on the opposition benches. He won the seat by 32 points in 2015 and 48 points in 2019. By comparison, his 23-point margin in 2021 was relatively small.
The riding has been a safe seat for the PCs for two decades now. Though its boundaries have shifted a little bit over time, a riding that combines both Portugal Cove and Bell Island has only existed since 1985. The Liberals won the first five elections of its existence, last taking it in 1999. Since then, the PCs have won seven elections in this seat, including the 2010 byelection that first brought David Brazil to the House of Assembly.
But byelections can be dramatic affairs in this province, no matter how secure a party might look on paper. In 2018, the PCs were able to flip the seat of Windsor Lake thanks to a net 51-point swing between them and the Liberals (the byelection got former leader Ches Crosbie his seat). When the PCs were unpopular in the final years of their last government, they lost six consecutive byelections to the Liberals with an average swing of 68 points taking place between the two parties. Overcoming a 23-point margin, by comparison, should be child’s play.
Of course, the context is very different — Furey’s government is not nearly as unpopular as the PCs had become by 2013 — but this shows that no riding is really all that safe in Newfoundland and Labrador.
(ALMOST) ON THIS DAY in the #EveryElectionProject
Alberta Liberals choose a leader — for a little while
January 15, 1966
Politics was changing in the 1960s. Quebec was in the midst of the Quiet Revolution and the United States was reeling from first the election, and then the assassination, of John F. Kennedy. Student-led protests and calls for change emanating from south of the border were being heard in Canada, too, and before the decade was over the country would have its own youthful-seeming, mould-breaking prime minister.
But one place where politics was still very old-fashioned, at least for the time being, was Alberta.
The province had been governed by the Depression-era Social Credit Party since 1935. Since 1943, the premier had been the unflashy, deeply Christian and solidly conservative Ernest Manning. It didn’t seem like that was going to change anytime soon.
The Socreds dominated Alberta politics, leaving little room for any real opposition. The tiny opposition that was elected in the 1963 election was led by Dave Hunter and the Liberals. They won all of two seats, taking 20% of the vote. The Socreds, by comparison, won 55% of ballots cast and 60 seats.
The extent of Manning’s dominance was so great that, in 1965, Hunter felt he had better prospects as a federal Liberal — even in Alberta. He resigned his provincial leadership and ran for Lester Pearson’s Liberals in the 1965 federal election, placing a distant second in his riding of Arthabaska.
But with the Alberta Liberals now searching for a leader, there was a bit of optimism around the party’s chances. Social Credit was increasingly showing its age, and when the Liberals mounted their leadership convention the Ottawa Citizen’s correspondent, James H. Gray, noted that “greying heads were notably absent from the convention platform and the convention floor”. This was a more youthful, forward-looking party than it had been before. It was certainly more youthful than the Socreds.
Alberta was changing. Another party had an opportunity to be the vehicle of that change, according to Gray.
“The Alberta population has changed drastically in the past 15 years,” he wrote. “The Socred proportion has been drastically reduced by the huge influx of outsiders and by the attrition of time. A good half the population knows nothing and cares less about the economic conditions that spawned Social Credit.”
There were two front runners for the Alberta Liberal leadership, which would be decided on January 15, 1966.
There was Calgary alderman Adrian Berry, who had ran for the federal Liberals in the last election, finishing a respectable (but still distant) second in Calgary North.
His main rival was Robert Russell of Edmonton, the former executive secretary of the provincial party. According to the Calgary Herald, he hadn’t “cut his chances any by having corsages handed out to the female delegates” of the Women’s Liberal Association, who gathered to hear from the contestants in the days ahead of the vote.
Also on the ballot was Richard Broughton of Ponoka and Wilbur Freeland of Peace River.
A farmer and a veteran of the Second World War, in a couple years Freeland would become the grandfather of Chrystia, the future federal finance minister. For now, though, he was an also-ran in this contest, an “outspoken advocate of left-wing policies, such as public ownership of power”, according to the Herald. Broughton also had little shot and it probably didn’t help that he spent the final days of the campaign on vacation in Mexico.
The convention in Calgary was well-attended, with some 1,000 voting delegates and observers present. The Alberta Liberals wanted to spice up the contest a little and adopted a voting system reminiscent of the American primaries — delegates would choose leaders from within their groups, and have those leaders announce which candidate their group would be backing.
Drawing a queen of spades from a deck of playing cards, Berry spoke first to the convention. He sharply criticized the Social Credit government but he didn’t spare the Liberal Party either, saying “I’m not impressed with our organization in this province.”
The voting system, meant to create excitement, instead sparked confusion, delays and recounts, taking some energy out of the event. The presence of the youth delegates was felt, however, when they voted to add lowering the drinking age to 18 and legalizing birth control to the party platform.
The first ballot ended in a tie, with both Berry and Russell taking 231 votes, each heavily backed by their respective Calgary and Edmonton bases. Freeland took just 78 votes, while Broughton had only 15.
On the second ballot, Freeland’s support was cut nearly in half as most of his and Broughton’s backers went over to Berry. On the final ballot, Russell wasn’t able to pick up more than two votes to Berry’s 16, and that settled matters. Adrian Berry would be the new leader of the Liberals and the standard bearer for change in the province.
It wouldn’t last. Citing divisions with the party executive that made his position “untenable”, Berry resigned in November 1966. Michael Maccagno, who led the opposition in the legislature and who had been interim leader after Hunter’s resignation, resumed that role and kept it, leading an unprepared and divided party into the 1967 election held in May.
The unsteady Liberals weren’t able to become the vehicle of the new Alberta. Instead, it was Peter Lougheed and the Progressive Conservatives who displaced them, finishing second in the 1967 election with more seats than they had ever won since the formation of Social Credit. In 1971, the PCs would finally break the Socreds’ strangle-hold on the province — and the Liberals, now finally under Robert Russell, fell to just 1% of the vote.
That’s it for the Weekly Writ this week. The next episode of The Numbers will be dropping on Friday. The episode will land in your inbox but you can also find it on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting apps. If you want to get it early on Thursday, become a Patron here!