Saturday, July 10, 2021

Election fever

The Liberal government gives every signal that they intend to call an election in late summer or early autumn with the goal of converting their minority into a majority. One such sign was the announcement of federal money on July 9 for the extension of the Skytrain in BC in Surrey and Langley, which is aimed at shoring up existing Liberal ridings while targeting narrowly held Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) constituencies such as South Surrey-White Rock and Cloverdale-Langley City.   

As soon as a party finds itself in a minority, it immediately begins scheming how to restore its majority. The Liberals appear quite confident that they will be succussful, so we should take the prospect of an early vote seriously. One reason for the early call is to avoid clashing with municipal elections in Quebec.

The published public opinion polls suggest a majority may well be in the offing. While the Liberals and other parties read these surveys with interest, what matters are the private polls that the governing party has no doubt been conducting in marginal constituencies and regions. The Liberals won 157 seats in 2019 and need just 13 more for a bare majority. There are twenty or so that the Liberals lost very narrowly last time, around a third of them in Quebec.

Polling has transformed in the past ten years from standard telephone surveys where when one answers the phone and speaks to a person, to a variety of methods, predominantly surveys conducted online among panels (people who have agreed to answer surveys by email, sometimes for a reward), but also surveys conducted by a computer where you hear a recorded voice and answer the questions by punching the numbers on a the telephone pad. While they work fairly well on the whole, there can be errors. For example, mostly online polling missed the outcome of the 2013 BC election. 

In the 2019 election the regional results in Alberta of the national polls conducted immediately prior to election day generally underestimated the Conservative total in that province by about 10 points. As it turned out the Conservatives were so far ahead in Alberta that it did not matter in terms of seats. There is some evidence from south of the border that some on the political right are reluctant to answer polls and distrust them as a consequence of a more general distrust of institutions. A repeat this time of errors on the Alberta 2019 scale could make a difference. Alberta now has an unpopular conservative provincial government that was newly elected then. If current polling is truly accurate, the CPC stand to lose seats in Calgary and Edmonton to both the Liberals and the NDP. I suspect that polling does under-estimate support on the right in Canada for various reasons including those emerging in the United States. The Conservatives could well do better than polls suggest but they nonetheless have deep problems.

Liberals: On the Cusp of a Majority?

 A recent Nanos poll (available by subscription only) implies (by my method of converting poll results into seats) that the Liberals would win over 200 constituencies, while the most recent Abacus poll would yield a similar, slightly lower, seat count. However, the most recent Leger poll (page 8 on the link) presents a significant contrast; it implies that the Liberals would win just 158 seats, almost the same result as 2019.

Erin O'Toole and the Structural Crisis of Conservatism

Erin O'Toole
The Conservatives have serious issues and are currently being hammered in the polls, but it is not, as is so often suggested, rooted in deficiencies of leader Erin O'Toole; rather it is ideological and structural. To gain more votes especially in large urban and suburban locations in Ontario and BC, they need to at least tiptoe towards the centre on issues like climate change and daycare. But the party represents the regions of the country in Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of BC that depend on the production of fossil fuels - an apparently irreconcilable dilemma. Unpopular Conservative goverments in Manitoba and Alberts are adding to their woes.

Another serious barrier for the CPC is that a part of the political right has become batshit crazy - holding demonstrations against masking and indulging in bizarre conspiracy theories, not to mention supporting unpopular socially conservative ideas on abortion and sexuality, etc. There are now parties able to appeal to these kinds of people, such as the People's Party of Canada (PPC) of Maxime Bernier (he has attended anti-mask rallies), and in Alberta, western independence parties. Their support bleeds from the Conservative Party (we have seen this before with the Reform Party). Recent polling suggests that the CPC is indeed losing votes to the PPC. It will be O'Toole's first national election and while he may be capable of performing well in debates, it is likely not possible to overcome the fracturing and insanity going on among the political right. To take one example, Derek Sloan, the MP for Hastings-Lennox and Addington and a social conservative, was ejected from the Conservative caucus by Erin O'Toole. However, he says he will run again as an independent. In the last election, representing the CPC, he only defeated the Liberal candidate by four percentage points. If he really runs as an independent, he will easily hand the seat to the Liberals. 

The political right increasingly also does not appeal to younger voters and women. It is becoming a haven for cranky old men.

The NDP: Prospects for Growth

Jagmeet Singh
If the Conservatives are doing worse in the polls, the NDP is doing much better. Jagmeet Singh has done quite well in the House of Commons, extracting concessions from the governing Liberals. The party has been quite open about supporting the Liberals on issues, pressuring them to support changes, and voting to avoid an election. It is in marked contrast to how the party handled itself in the 1972-74 House of Commons, the last time they enjoyed similar leverage. At that time they worried an early election would hand a majority to the Stanfield Progressive Conservatives and were reluctant to be seen as too close to the Liberals. By comparison, the current NDP has been much bolder and more self-confident.

The party currently has a comparative video ad on their Facebook page extolling their accomplishments. In the polls cited above, the NDP would win as many as 41 seats, up from their current 24. One factor that is likely helping them right now is a comparative advantage over the other parties on the issue of indigenous rights. 

The Greens:  Prospect of Decline

Annamie Paul
The Greens are having a leadership crisis immediately ahead of the election. Annamie Paul has an impressive resumé, but appears to have no leadership skills whatsoever. Whatever the eventual outcome, whether Anamie Paul keeps her post or is replaced by an interim leader (which would likely be a recycling of Elizabeth May who ought to have given up her seat to Paul in the first instance), the Green Party, already in a weak fourth place position in English Canada (fifth in Quebec), seems destined to decline in the near term. Their longer run potential, which is clearly linked to climate change, may be unaffected. The current crisis, which one suspects would be devastating for another party, has so far had only a limited impact on their position in the polls (their national support has declined from an average of 6.9% in April to 6.2% in June). Part of the Green base consists of ideologically committed environmentalists and they may vote Green come what may. Other Green voters are often lower information alienated voters for whom not being one of the established parties is largely what matters.

Quebec and the fate of the Trudeau Liberals

As noted above, the Trudeau Liberals lost several seats in Quebec in 2019 by narrow margins to the BQ often in the three and four way splits that characterized voting there. They will be looking to get some back. That helps to explain some of their reticence to criticize a popular Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government in Quebec City, which recently made extensive use of the nothwithstanding clause in new language legislation, anathema to the traditional federalist English community in Quebec, and abhorrent to Justin Trudeau's father. We tend to think of Quebec as the province swept by one party and then another. In 2019 four parties won seats and for the first time since 1962 the party that won more seats than any other, the Liberals, who won 35, captured less than a majority of all the constituencies. Quebec is split several ways and that makes it less predictable.

Of course, none of this is really necessary; Canada's fixed election date legislation specifies the date for the next election as October 16, 2023.