Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The real by-election story: there is no (single) story

Every blogger and every journalist is going to try to make a story out of tonight's by-election results--the partisan pundits will all try to spin them to make their side look good, and the rest will just try to spin a good yarn. But poring over these numbers, it seems that finding any one cohesive narrative in these results is automatically going to mean ignoring some of the data. Why? Because instead of clear trends, we've got four unique storylines--one for each riding.

Let's start with Willowdale. It's a suburban Toronto riding, with an emphasis, it seems, on both "suburban" and "Toronto":

Though this was already a Liberal stronghold, the Liberals actually saw their vote increase somewhat this time with Martha Hall Findlay carrying their flag. This increase came almost entirely at the expense of the NDP, since the Conservative and Green votes in this riding remained more or less the same.

Moving on to the more urban riding of Toronto-Centre, we see some of the same themes, but also some major differences:
Here, we see a similar increase in the Liberal vote in an already strong Liberal area with Bob Rae at the helm, and again, we see a decrease in the NDP's vote. But in contrast to Willowdale, we also see a sharp upturn in the vote for the Greens under Chris Tindal, who campaigned very hard in this riding, and a sharp downturn in the Tory vote. It seems safe to assume that the Tory vote either stayed home or bled to the Liberals, while the NDP vote bled to both the Liberals and the Greens.

It's a very different story, though, out west. Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River is a rural Saskatchewan riding, which the Liberals won by a hair last time:
Here, we see a substantial upturn in the vote for the Conservatives, to the extent that they could carry it quite easily this time, and a corresponding downturn in the vote for the Liberals. The NDP vote increased by a few points, probably at the expense of the Liberals, but not enough to make a difference--it's clear that most of the voters who fled the Liberals went Tory this time. The Green vote stayed largely the same.

Finally, we have Vancouver-Quadra, the surprise of the night. This is a wealthy urban/suburban riding, which until tonight counted as one of the safest Liberal seats in the country:
Early in the evening, when it looked for a while like the Tory might actually win, I was astounded. Had the Vancouverites suddenly grown some conservative roots? Well, maybe a few, but as you can see from the chart, that Liberal-Tory migration isn't enough to explain the result. The main reason this by-election was so close was a wholesale transfer of Liberal votes to the Greens. The NDP vote, on the other hand, only went down very slightly.

What you can learn from this, then, depends very much on where you are. But it also depends on who you are.

Lessons for the Liberals: In Fortress Toronto, you're fine. Golden, even--at least as long as you've got candidates like Bob Rae and Martha Hall Findlay. You're in a lot more trouble out west, though, and for very different reasons depending on where you are. In the rural areas, you're losing out to the Tories, and in the urban core, you're losing out to the Greens. So there are plenty of things to be pleased with tonight, but it should be clear that you've also got a good deal of building to do out west.

Lessons for the Conservatives: At this point even formerly Liberal rural areas are turning to you, which meant a pickup, this time. The thing is, it's still rural voters, which isn't anything terribly new or surprising. In the urban areas, things look quite a bit different: out west and in the Toronto suburbs you're gaining, but not enough to make you a winner, and in the core of Canada's largest city, they actually kind of hate you. So go ahead and be pleased about your single win, but if you try to spin that as part of a larger trend where all roads lead to the Tories, you're fooling no one but yourselves.

Lessons for the NDP: You held on nicely to your vote out west, both in urban Vancouver and in rural Saskatchewan. In Toronto, though, you are pretty much in deep doggy doo-doo, at least when you're running against big-name Liberals. Since the NDP is only an associate member of the Toronto club, this shouldn't be taken as any kind of indication for the overall NDP vote in a general election, but it could make a big difference in particular ridings. Specifically, if I'm Olivia Chow or (especially) Peggy Nash tonight, I'm starting to get seriously worried.

Lessons for the Greens: You massively increased your vote in the two urban areas, so much so that you can call tonight a victory-by-the-numbers and party down. But in suburban Willowdale and in rural Saskatchewan, the increase in your vote was negligible. It's not a decrease, so there's nothing to worry about, but you'd be advised against getting too cocky. You've yet to really sell yourselves beyond the country's urban core, and reaching out to rural and suburban voters should be your next step.


Colby Cosh said...

Like the diagrams (and wish our newspapers were as sensible about representing data like this). This was the first place I happened to see the results and I doubt I'll see a better analysis elsewhere.

catherine said...

Yes, the graphs are very useful.

I see a lot of good news for Harper. It is widely accepted that he has written off Toronto and yet he managed to hold his own, except in TC where he pulled a popular candidate and replaced him with an inappropriate one.

Given all the scandals Harper has had to deal with over the past few months, including the recent bribery scandal which touches him directly, I would say things are looking very good for Harper. Unfortunately. It seems their strategies (restricted media access for candidates, sophisticated ethnic outreach, heavy focus on crime, simplistic messaging, while stonewalling on scandals in Ottawa) are working.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


This was the first place I happened to see the results and I doubt I'll see a better analysis elsewhere.

Thanks. (Although if true, there's something sort of sad about that.)


There's more good news here for Harper&Co. than there is for many, but it's not exclusively good news for them, either. They put a lot of money into Vancouver-Quadra, and yet still don't have a toehold in any urban centre in the country.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the graphs and the analysis.

Willowdale isn't downtown core, but it is seeing a lot of condo intensification along the Yonge and the Sheppard subway corridors. I am not sure how suburban I would consider it -- there are many much more lonesome inner suburbs out there.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, they sure vote like suburbanites!

Jim Johnston said...

I agree with Colby, this is a very balanced and measured analysis. I think that the observations and suggestions you have made for each party are quite appropriate.

There is always an argument that a by-election with a 25% turnout rings differently than a general election with a 60% turnout, but there is really no way of knowing how representative this result is. The urban/rural difference is certainly an interesting barometer.

catherine said...

I consider Vancouver Quadra urban, even if it doesn't have the apartment dwellers and denser concentrations in the downtown or other neighbourhoods of Vancouver. I suspect the CPC got a lot of useful strategy information from their gains there. Since most of the press was negative (the candidate did after all openly shun media and events) and the bribery scandal is closer to home , I consider this a substantial "win" for the CPC. They can get a majority by getting suburbs and rural areas, and leaving the very center urban cores alone.

Note that their Willowdale support stayed at 2006 levels, despite the fact that election had the Liberals pummelled by Gomery and the timely RCMP investigation of Goodale. This says to me that people actually see Harper even better than they saw him in 2006, despite all the scandals and heavy tactics we've seen since then.

Scott Tribe said...


Quite an assertion that people see Harper in a better light over 4 by-elections that had about 25-30% turnout at most. I don't buy it.

There was some discontent out west with Joyce Murray.. and seeing as most of the Liberal vote went Green, that's hardly an endorsement of the Cons... I think you're too much caught up into the Con spin cycle.

catherine said...

Scott, I agree with the 25-35% turnout in these two ridings, one has to be careful in interpretation.

I'm still struck by Willowdale, as the view of what Harper/Flaherty think of Toronto would probably not change much if they just came out and said "we hate Toronto"! Yet, here the CPC is holding on to 30% of the vote still, without the RCMP weighing down on the Liberals and with what looked like a strong campaign by the Liberal candidate.

Sean S. said...

In T.O. Centre, I would suggest a CPC bleed to the Greens....if you can apply national polls to this riding (a stretch I know) they suggest that the NDP and Greens are not interchangeable.

ALW said...

There are about 30 seats in Toronto. That's 10% of the country. Why should the Tories care so desperately if that's the only place they can't win - and with the razor-thin loss in Vancouver, isn't that the real lesson here?

And if its true that Torontonians "hate" the Tories, how is that a new development? Also, do they "hate" the NDP and Greens - since the Tories polled about the same as them in Toronto Centre, and easily outdistanced them in Willowdale?

You have a funny definition of "urban centre" if you exclude Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, London, Kitchener, Barrie, St.Catharines, Ottawa, Quebec City, St. John's. etc etc.

The real story isn't that the Tories do poorly in Toronto. That's always been the case. What should be alarming for the Liberals is that they seem to be doing increasinly poorly everywhere except Toronto

Anonymous said...

In a way these by-elections proved one thing. Dion’s political instincts were right all along. He knew one thing. The only way we can get the urban progressive liberals to swing to the Grits is through an electoral alliance with the Greens. Failure to expand on further co-operation by not supporting proportional representation will lead to more results similar to Quadra in Vancouver Island come election time. The result might be Gary Lunn picking up the crumbs and winning once again.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The only way we can get the urban progressive liberals to swing to the Grits is through an electoral alliance with the Greens.

Wow, I'm not seeing that at all. The Grits are taking votes from the NDP in Fortress Toronto (at least when they run former leadership candidates), but failing to do so in Vancouver (where they lost a significant amount of vote to the Greens and the NDP vote stayed the same). There's no way to know whether that Liberal-Green migration was as a result of the alliance with May or despite it, but it's quite clear that the Liberals and the Greens are in fact competing against each other for votes. Pretending that's not the case isn't going to help them, and it might actually hurt them.

I can't disagree with you about proportional representation, though. (And why you stick with a party that steadfastly refuses to come out in favour of it remains a puzzle to me.)

Kuri said...

It seems safe to assume that the Tory vote either stayed home or bled to the Liberals, while the NDP vote bled to both the Liberals and the Greens.

Is it not also possible that some Conservative vote bled to the Greens? Isn't this were the Cons kicked out a moderate candidate for a synchophant? I could see a few upset red Tory types swinging Green in that scenario.

Anonymous said...

"Pretending that's not the case isn't going to help them, and it might actually hurt them."

I am not pretending. The effect of the Greens hurting the Grits is omnipresent for a East End Toronto boy like me. Watch these ridings in the next election: Beaches-East York, Parkdale-High Park, and Davenport. If I am Maria Minna, Gerard Kennedy, and Mario Silva, I would be concerned of a double digit Green vote.

So Marilyn Churley and Peggy Nash can be help or hurt by the Green factor. Speaking of Churley, there are stories about her in T.O. that have turned her off a lot of urban progressives. One reason why many of them haven't switched to the NDP, as you have been questioning.

Anonymous said...

"Is it not also possible that some Conservative vote bled to the Greens? Isn't this were the Cons kicked out a moderate candidate for a synchophant?"

The Greens take votes from many people. They have formed what academics called a "vegan and Volvo" coalition. Vegans with dreadlocks who have participated in environmental direct action movements are voting Green now. Twenty years ago, most environmental activists would vote NDP. Parents who drive Volvos and buy organic produce are now voting Green due to their concern for global warming and clean air for their kids. Thirty years ago, they would vote for the Progressive Conservatives. Now these Volvo drivers would not touch Harper's Cons with a ten foot pole.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Is Toronto really all you're thinking about today? The real problem in terms of Grit-Green bleed is going to be in B.C., as Quadra suggested.

Saskboy said...

Nice graphs, they are helpful.

Although, if this were a paper and not a blog, I'd be griping about how they don't use the same scale (some to 60, some to 70) so you can't visually compare all 4).

Anonymous said...

"The real problem in terms of Grit-Green bleed is going to be in B.C., as Quadra suggested."

Koby at the Maple Three has blogged on this recently. I don't think Hedy will lose a 70 000 margin in Vancouver Centre due to Adrienne Carr. Keith Martin is in trouble, no questions asked. Don't know about Richmond and Delta though. Grits not competitive in the BC Interior where the Greens are the joker in races between the Cons and the Dippers.

My take on Grit voters is this. "In 2006, I lend my vote to Jack Layton. The next time, I will lend my vote to Lizzie May." These voters have not come back to Stephane Dion as of yet.

BTW, Dad has been talking about a Green and NDP merger again this morning. He said that when the Greens got 8 per cent in the Ontario elections.

Mark Francis said...

Quadra is the only significant bellweather, I think, and with a sample size of one, I'm not sure we can infer much about the Liberal slide there.

However, the overall upsurge of the Greens is starting to cause some electoral mayhem.

Green-Grit is the future of the Liberals, if they have the balls to really do it. Otherwise, the Greens will continue to bleed the Liberals and, along with the longstanding NDP vote split, will spell too much CPC success for my liking.

BTW, I was attached to Chris Tindal's campaign last night in TO-Centre, and met with and talked with Mark Warner, the deposed CPC candidate. I will blog about my discussion with him on The Wingnuterer shortly.

Gazetteer said...

Mark F.--

It's actually a sample size of two in VanQuad (Point Grey)....Green vote also surged and gave Premier and (so-called)Liberal, Gordon Campbell, considerable trouble last time out.


MarkCh said...

If the next election is fought, outside of Toronto and Alberta, on whether you hate Toronto or Alberta more, I think the Conservatives might be sitting pretty.

Of course, I am a downtown Toronto Conservative, so what do I know?

¢rÄßG®äŠŠ said...

In both the Saskatchewan riding and the BC riding that we're looking at here, I think the specific candidates involved (as opposed to the respectived parties that they represent) had much to do with the result, and to a greater extent than would be true in a general election.

Agree? Or no?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Oh, absolutely. With a controversial appointment in SK and a formerly quote-unquote "lousy MLA" in BC running for the Liberals, the local ground game definitely played into the results. But don't stop there--the fact that the Liberals in the two Toronto ridings were high-profile leadership candidates had at least as much of an effect in those two ridings as well. Just in the other direction.

But all that's nothing new for by-elections, really. Local issues and candidate specifics always matter more in a by-election than in a general election.

Moe said...

Hey IP,

Thank you for this posting. The graph is useful, and I hope you don't mind if I use it for a brief report? Let me know:

I worked on the Willowdale campaign, and you are right about not wanting to get cocky about our earnings. But I would partly disagree with your comment about it being a negligible increase. This was a first time campaign for many of us, and considering that our candidate, Lou, was a spring chicken in the political world and that our team and budget were far more limited than all of the other campaigns, these numbers hide far more success than a first glance at the numbers shows. I think taking all of this into account really shows the consciousness of voters and the growing strength of the Green Party style and mission.

But we have much to learn and to improve upon! It was a fun campaign overall and I was happy to be apart of it. (It also helps that Lou is a fantastic person and a very good, albeit DIFFERENT type of candidate)

Moe Berrigan
Operations Intern, GPC