The media is reading way too much into them. Let me give a couple of examples. From the CBC web site:
The Winnipeg Free Press on Winnipeg North:
It's a sought-after seat that could foreshadow who will come out on top in the next federal election. Winnipeg North voters will cast their ballots today in a hotly contested byelection between NDP candidate Kevin Chief, former Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux and Tory candidate Julie Javier.The only one that is close is the Vaughn riding, an affluent, Italian, heavily Catholic northern suburb of Toronto that has been Liberal federally since 1993 but voted twice for the Mike Harris Conservatives provincially. Meaning it is no big deal if the federal Tories win it now.
Judging from this story in the Toronto Star the other day, if I were a Stephen Harper Conservative, I would be rooting for the Liberal candidate. Julian Fantino looks like he is going to make quite an inept politician.
Meeting Conservative Julian Fantino last month on the hustings for the upcoming Vaughan by-election didn't go as Liberal Tony Genco expected. He'd imagined pleasantries between competing candidates.
“I gave him my best wishes,” Genco told the Star, “and he told me some of my signs were too close to his campaign headquarters so he'd had his people take them down.”
“I was totally surprised,” said Genco. “I asked him if he would please give them back — they're expensive, you know — but he didn't respond.”
Genco apparently never did get his signs back — an example, according to his critics, of the arrogance of a former top cop who's used to doing what he pleases.
“My volunteers followed all the rules in putting our signs up on public property and they weren't placed improperly,” says Genco, 43, of the three or four signs apparently in Fantino's sightline on Major Mackenzie Dr.
Asked about Genco's allegations, a Fantino spokesperson emailed a response: “(Liberal Leader Michael) Ignatieff's candidate may want to talk about signs; I'm talking about what actually matters to families in our community.”Note that the email did not deny the allegation, in effect conceding that it was true. If Fantino is stupid enough to say things like this now, he is likely to make many similar mistakes if elected. This kind of behaviour would be particularly disastrous if he was appointed to cabinet.
As for Winnipeg North, while the Liberals have a strong candidate who has had a successful run provincially in a riding that is about 25% of the federal riding, it is going to remain comfortably in the NDP column. The Liberals will, however, easily surpass their 2008 showing here when they finished third, so they will have something positive to spin from the results. If the Liberals lose Vaughn expect to hear a lot from them about the strong showing here.
A small lesson from history. In the autumn of 1978 Prime Minister Trudeau deferred a federal election call and instead fifteen by-elections were held on October 16. Some called it a mini-general election at the time. It was a low point in Liberal popularity and the outcome was a Liberal disaster. While the results did tell us the Trudeau government would lose the next election, at the time it appeared as if the outcome would be an unprecedented Liberal disaster on the order of a 1958. Instead, Joe Clark's PC's won a minority that lasted less than a year before giving way again to the Trudeau Liberals. Less well-remembered is that two of the constituencies that switched from Liberal to PC that night in October 1978, one in Winnipeg (St. Boniface) and one in Toronto (Parkdale), went back to the Liberals just six months later in the 1979 general election.
UPDATE: a friend pointed out that in addition to St. Boniface and Parkdale, Eglinton and Ottawa Centre also elected PCs in 1978 and Liberals in 1979.
By-elections in particular can be influenced by local circumstances and events as well as broader trends. One should be cautious in drawing overly broad conclusions from them.