There’s Horseshoes, And Then There’s By-elections

November 27th, 2012

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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]

None of the three by-election ridings changed hands at the end of the day, but in the short-term at least, a lot more changed under the surface than expected.


Nov 2012 By-Election Results

By-Election Metrics – 2012 By (Nov)

Metric Victoria, BC Calgary
, AB
Durham, ON
Winner RANKIN,
Murray (M)
Joan (F)
Erin (M)
Contest NDP-Grn Cons-Lib Cons-NDP
Polls 256/256 263/263 236/236
%TO 43.9% 29.4% 35.8%
Raw Margin 1,151 1,167 8,334
Votes/Poll 4.5 4.4 35.3
% Margin 3.0% 4.2% 24.5%
% Marg 1-3 22.8% 11.3% 33.4%
% Marg 1-4 24.2% 33.0% 46.7%


Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt kept party bastion Calgary Centre, AB in the fold by a margin of 1,167 votes or 4.2% of the vote, obtaining a 36.9% vote-share by the time all the polls had been counted, over her nearest competitor Liberal Harvey Locke (at 32.7%).

Meanwhile, expected front-runner Murray Rankin turned in a squeaker for the NDP in their expected stronghold of Victoria, BC, besting the dark-horse Green Party candidate Donald Galloway by 1,151 votes or 3.0% of the vote, and garnering 37.2% of the vote to Galloway's 34.3%.

Victoria bested Calgary in by-election turnout, however, with a final tally of 43.9% (based on the counts from the preliminary voters list) versus just 29.4% in Calgary Centre – the riding everyone had been watching more closely, and which seemed based on early reports to have had higher volumes at the polls. This puts the Victoria by-election turnout higher than any other by-election since Roberval–Lac St-Jean, QC in 2007 (46.8%), and just barely ahead of the by-election to replace Jack Layton last March in Toronto–Danforth, ON (43.2%).

Meanwhile in the third by-election riding of Durham, ON last night, Conservative candidate Erin O'Toole collected over 50% of the vote, with the Liberals maintaining their 17%-ish vote share, and the NDP's Larry O'Connor gaining about 5% in vote-share mainly at the Conservatives' and Greens' expense to solidify second place.

Durham also landed somewhere between Calgary Centre and Victoria in the turnout sweepstakes, finishing at 35.8%.


Nov 2012 By-Election Ridings Result History

Party Scorecard – 2012 By (Nov)

2012 By Lib NDP Grn BQ Cons Rest
Seats 0
2nds 1


It was a night of conundrums though, because the two largest parties in Parliament lost the greatest number of votes and vote-shares, yet kept their seats; while on the other hand the Liberals – and especially the Greens – gained votes and vote-share but left empty-handed for all their efforts.

Close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes. It sure doesn't count in a first-past-the-post Westminster-style parliamentary system.

Although so-closely losing the chance at a second seat in Parliament will be felt keenly by the Green Party, they can at least take satisfaction in a very strong performance indeed in both Victoria and Calgary Centre. For once, the party (which has had a reputation for over-hyping its expected performance in the past), actually met the hype with performance.

The Liberals, however – who had built up so many hopes for an outright win in Calgary Centre – are now left unable to claim credit for their candidate's unusually strong performance, and will start to cast around for who or what was responsible for the shortfall. Did Ottawa South, ON Liberal MP David McGuinty's ill-fated remarks about the role of Albertans – and the found interview with leadership candidate and Papineau, QC MP Justin Trudeau on the same subject – inadvertantly seal the ballot question as one favouring the Conservatives? Did the unexpectedly strong performance of Green Party candidate Chris Turner, or the quixotic methodology used by to endorse him, "split the progressive vote"? No doubt, some in the party will look to McGuinty and Trudeau, who will in turn look backwards to Elizabeth May. It's going to be a very chilly corner of the House of Commons when everyone gets back to Ottawa, that's for sure.

But, if you look more closely at the right-hand side of the second graph above, and examine the parties' historic vote-shares in the three by-election ridings, you are immediately struck by what became in many ways the most unexpected story of the evening. And this has big implications for all those trying to "unite the progressive vote" like,, and authors like Paul Adams of …

… The Green Party cut into the Conservative vote in Western Canada. Substantially.

Party Vote-Shares, November 2012 By-elections, and change from 2011 GE

  Lib NDP Grn Cons Rest
Durham, ON 17.3%
Calgary Centre, AB 32.7%
Victoria, BC 13.1%

Mathematically, even if you assume that the entire 11 point NDP drop in Calgary Centre switched to Chris Turner, the Greens gained at least 4.6 percentage points from the Conservatives over the May 2011 general election.

Same goes for Victoria, where the Greens gained 9.2 points in vote-share from the Conservatives versus 13.6 from the NDP.

What this suggests to me is that strategies aimed at causing parties to withdraw from certain ridings may have quite different outcomes than their proponents predict. And the one riding that was the most beset with endless clumsy tactical manipulation and cross-party griping about who was splitting whose vote, also wound up (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) being the riding with the lowest voter turnout.

Meanwhile, the Greens have clearly delivered a scare to the three other political parties in english Canada in this round of by-elections, and have finally understood the importance of a beach-head versus rising tide strategy to a small party, especially during by-elections. But their continued existence is also in greater jeopardy from the cuts to the public subsidy, as they are not raising nearly enough just yet to replace it and be able to run a substantial enough national campaign to keep beach-head seats in the fold. Also, they have yet to be able to sustain an eye-popping performance from one campaign into the next, as the history of London North Centre, ON, Central Nova, NS, Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, ON, and Guelph, ON amongst others amply demonstrates.

So, if we can read the tea-leaves and try to discern some overall mandates and messages from Monday's by-election results, they might be these:

  • to the two largest national parties, you're on a short-leash for now
  • to the Liberals, read the hypothetical national polls about a Trudeau-led majority with wariness, because when the rubber hit the road on Monday, only one of the 3 ridings showed any growth in the party's vote at all
  • to the co-operation / strategic voting gimmickerists, double-check your assumptions before you launch any more counter-productive initiatives

In the coming days, Elections Canada will release the validated results for the three ridings, and within 90 days the "official voting results (OVR)", including poll-by-poll results and an accurate take on turnouts. Although two of the ridings were close, neither met the narrow test for an automatic recount, and both Messrs. Locke and Galloway have already conceded to their opponents, so that should be that.

21 Responses to “There’s Horseshoes, And Then There’s By-elections”

  1. Ruth McVeigh says:

    As our stupid ‘first past the post’ system cannot be changed except through approval by the current government, which would then be disadvantaged, I see no hope in the near future for what many Canadians feel would be a fairer system.
    Excellent analysis – of course.

  2. George Pringle says:

    Tea leaf wise, the larges parties are on same leash as before, the government holding the reins and the NDP in them.

    The Trudeau facade indeed has been revealed.

    The gimmickerists, pollsters with agendas and a lazy media who ignore the strategic imperative that cannot be trumped by any amount of Harper hatred has been revealed.

    The NDP has to fight to destroy the Libs or be revealed as a one term fluke never to obtain even second place again and the Libs have to avoid being destroyed.

    I’m not a fan of looking at results by vote share but of actual votes. At first glance without seeing poll to poll, it looks like the Greens can get their vote out and become a trash can for those who want to send a message without causing a real change and that Red(ford) Tories are really Liberals.

  3. Marion says:

    Any idea of what the Liberal ground game was like in Calgary Centre?

    Considering it had the lowest turnout of the three, would a top-notch GOTV have won it for them?

  4. Wilf Day says:

    I would never assume that the entire 11 point NDP drop in Calgary Centre switched to Chris Turner. Likely most of them stayed home:
    Party: 2011; 2012
    Con: 28,401; 10,201
    Lib: 8,631; 9,034
    NDP: 7,314; 1,063
    Green: 4,889; 7,090
    Did not vote: 40,040; 66,334

    The lesson I learn is what the Greens and NDP and former federal PCs learned long ago, and today’s Liberals are increasingly learning: rolling the dice under winner-take-all is a really stupid game. Under a model such as that recommended by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004, on the Calgary votes cast in 2011 Calgary voters would have elected five local Conservative MPs, one city-wide Liberal, one city-wide New Democrat and one city-wide Green. In Alberta in 2011 the turnout was 55.8%,compared to the national 61.1%. In Ontario in 2006 it was 66.6%. In both 1984 and 1988 Canada-wide it was 75.3%. Why vote when your vote won’t elect anyone you want representing you?

  5. Mitch Wexler says:

    Alice I think you accurately concluded that there was not a “split in the progressive vote” that prevented an upset in Calgary Centre and correctly stated that much of the Green increase in the West came from the Conservatives.

    You’ll know from my work that I have contended that urban Greens are often conservative and depending on the factors of the campaign, their vote may be drawn from the CPC just as much as the NDP.

    While in Victoria that is clear, I think that it’s evident in Calgary Centre as well. A lot of the NDP loss here likely moved to the Liberals in the unify-the-progressive-vote effort – while the Green increase came more from erstwhile CPC voters than from anywhere else.

    In other words it is not a split in the progressive vote that prevented an upset, as that segment of the Green vote was not going to vote Liberal or NDP anyhow.

  6. By-elections are funny beasts aren’t they? As far as your thoughts on the strategic voting gimmickrists, it does not appear that they had much impact on Calgary Centre. I doubt very much that they moved over 3% of the electorate to the GPC,at the expense of the Liberals so the margin of victory was in underlying support, not strategic voters. You mention that the GPC does not repeat relatively good performances, citing a series of examples, (London North Centre, Central Nova, BGOS, and Guelph), the reasons are pretty obvious with limited information in hand. AT London North Centre, all of the voter ID records and scrutineers data was shredded and destroyed. The value of such information was not recognised, and the subsequent EDA organisation, (I use the term loosely) had to start from scratch during the next general election. Central Nova, who knows what happened there? Lets be polite and say they could not do anything without Elizabeth May as the candidate. BGOS (Shane Jolley + team) and Guelph (Mike Nagy + team) were birds of a different feather. Both EDA’s constituted a threat to the Leadership of the Party, and eventually the people who made them work withdrew from the Party in disgust to focus on provincial politics. I haven’t a clue if the GPC has mended their organising practices since then, but they will remain choked for funds so long as the party remains so indifferent to systematically managing their campaigns.

  7. Kelsoh says:

    I think it’s hard to make the analysis you’re making about Victoria without looking at how the vote shifted across specific polling areas.

    Even though the Liberal numbers stayed relatively the same, that doesn’t mean it’s the same people voting for them. Just as the Liberal vote in Saanich-Gulf Islands collapsed when Elizabeth May ran, the same effect could be felt Victoria.

    The previous vote that was voting liberal could very well have moved Green while Conservatives bled to the Liberals.

    That explanation is just as probably, and neither hypothesis can be given more insight until poll specific analysis of the byelection to the last general election are made.

  8. Kelsoh, you’re right that this hypothesis should be checked against the poll-by-poll results once they’re available in three months, and I also accept George Pringle’s caution that we should really look at the raw vote totals and how they moved, to be sure of our interpretation and to understand who if anyone stayed home more than others.

    Still, enough people who have already looked at PC-Green shifts in the past — including Mitch Wexler who does so for a living — find the simplest explanation the most plausible here. Certainly that’s the hypothesis one should be looking to disprove once the detailed results are reported.

    And I raise it now mainly as a counterpoint to the inevitable summation of the so-called “progressive vote” that would be the knee-jerk first response of insta-pundits.

  9. George Pringle says:

    All must not forget that the majority of voters are not fixed. Sommerville ran a strange campaign for the Liberals in Victoria with his focus on the sewage issue and probably moved votes to the Greens with his work.

  10. Observant says:

    Let’s compare results of this byelection with the 2011 general election:

    Conservatives strategically voted Green in an attempt to defeat the NDP. Green vote went from 12% to 34% in the riding, while the Conservative vote went from 24% to 14% and Liberals went from 14% to 13%. Chilling result for the NDP because they dropped from 50% down to 37%.

    Disaffected Liberals parked their votes with the Green party because they couldn’t vote NDP nor Conservative. Liberal vote went from 18% up to 32% but that wasn’t enough to cover the losses to the Greens.

    25% of the vote in this Calgary riding is not Green; it’s Liberals voting Green! Last election Greens only got 10% of the vote so that confirms many Liberals fled to the Greens to punish the party.

    McGuinty and Trudeau drove Liberals away with their bigoted anti-Alberta insults, otherwise the Liberals would have taken the riding in a cakewalk.

    Western Liberals are obviously turned off with federal leaders from Quebec and Ontario campaigning in the West and flocking to the Greens as a protest vote.

    Liberal and NDP Ottawa HQ’s must be in full panic mode..!!!

  11. Mitch Wexler says:

    Further to my point above and in partial answer to Marion about voter turnout. The CPC would have the best infrastructure for GOTV and that may have helped them, but most likely it is Conservative voters who by and large stayed home.

    Calgary has a notable pattern of low voter turnout, likely because of foregone conclusions. Take a look at turnout here provincially prior to 2012 as a perfect example.

    In this by-election if anyone was motivated to come out it was those wanting to cause an upset; CPC voters figuring a foregone conclusion or not sufficiently motivated were much more likely to stay home.

    Let’s play Tuesday morning quarterback for a moment. If enough regular CPC voters came out to lift them another 5 points to just under 41%, that would drop the Liberals roughly 3 points and the Greens 2. In this scenario the CPC would be -15.8 which is closer to the Greens’ gain of 13.7, and the Lib gain of 12.2 is closer to the NDP drop of -11. Overly simplistic, yes, but the numbers point even more so to the CPC-Green hypothesis.

    Simply put, there were not enough Lib-NDP votes to defeat the Conservatives here; a vote split has nothing to do with it.

    As an aside I’m not optimistic that the poll by poll results will make this question any clearer. With the CPC so strong in 2011 and with swings for each party likely happening riding-wide, it may be hard to draw conclusions from that data.

  12. Adam Sobolak says:

    A little word on Durham, too: where unlike Calgary Centre, the Conservatives actually benefited from their nominated candidate (the son of the local MPP: just the thing to make voters forget Bev Oda). And all things considered, even if they held onto 2nd place the NDP actually underperformed, given their calibre of candidate–if they reran their 2011 standard-bearer, they could conceivably have fallen back to third…

  13. George Pringle says:

    Mitch – I do not believe the vote splitting malarky. I’m want do a poll by poll look at Victoria. I used to run the poll org there in the Reform days when it was a Lib/Ref battle. I want how the trend to an NDP seat occurred and if the Green actually have a riding regional base. Or spread out as would happen in a byelection fad

  14. Observant says:

    What about lingering hangovers and despondency in Calgary Conservative supporters after the Calgary Stampeder loss in the Grey Cup? That could also be a cause of lower turnout, n’est-ce pas???

  15. Blue says:

    Wow! This is my first time here and I am so impressed with the quality, depth and tone of these comments. I had given up reading comments in the big papers because they were so partisan and adolescent. I have been on a search for informed, serious and adult conversations on politcal topics for months and didn’t really think such existed – I am so pleased. It has confirmed for me that the big papers are, generally, the WalMarts of news business.

  16. Ropshin says:

    A belated contribution to this discussion.

    TC Norris has argued on his blog that Victoria and Calgary Centre should be seen as DEFEATS for the Greens. He makes the point that each registered among the top 10 Green percentages in all of Canada in 2011. Yet even being able to concentrate their resources in byelections the Greens could not pull off a win.

    This raises the very difficult question for the Greens: How do you reasonably expect to win any additional seats in a general election when you fall short two of your best prospects in byelections?

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