The Splits and the Spoilers

3 minute read

A seat won by five votes is just as valuable as a seat won by 5000. Such is our first-past-the-post system. The most important ingredient for parties’ electoral success is ensuring their total ballots cast turn into as many seats as possible. With less than a week left in a decidedly weird campaign, here is a look at the splits and the spoilers that may well decide the election.

In 2019, the Conservatives gained a higher percentage of popular vote, but lost the election. The Liberals dropped 20 seats, and the NDP lost 15, despite the rising popularity of Jagmeet Singh throughout that campaign. The Conservatives gained 26 seats, but the Bloc Quebecois were the real story. They emerged from the brink of irrelevance with 32 seats and 7.6% of all votes cast in Canada, better than the Greens performed nationally – and more seats than the NDP who had more than twice the votes.

With only five days of campaigning remaining, it looks as though relatively similar seat counts could come to pass for both the Liberals and the Conservatives.

In the aggregate of national polls, the Liberals have rebounded since the start of September. In their best-case scenario, the Liberals could eke out a slim majority. For the Conservatives, forming a minority government remains within reach. That all has to do with the concentration of seats in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C.—the only region where the NDP hold a lead.

The Liberals now have a commanding lead in Toronto and in the vote-rich 905. The area propelled them to their majority in 2015 along with their strength in Quebec. The Conservatives would need to gain ground on their own and have the NDP pull substantial support from the Liberals over the next five days to ensure the Liberals don’t continue to dominate the GTA.

In Quebec, where the BQ turned 32.4% of votes in the province into 41% of the seats in 2019, the federalist vote may skew more toward the Liberals. Last election, the Liberals edged out the BQ in popular vote by less than 2% – now they lead by 7-points, according to Abacus Data.

Yves-Francois Blanchet has mounted a campaign that may preserve most of the seats he won in 2019. The real question is whether he can prevent the Liberals from taking seats from the Conservatives or the last remaining NDP seat in the province, if Liberal strategic voting narrative resonates. If federalist voters coalesce around the Liberals in enough ridings across the province, the math looks good for Justin Trudeau. Erin O’Toole needs to maintain or gain from his 10 seats just as badly.

Justin Trudeau has been the most vocal among party leaders elevating their rhetoric on vote splitting and strategic voting. These arguments aren’t as simple as “a vote for the Greens is a vote for the Conservatives” or “a ballot for Maxime Bernier is a ballot for Justin Trudeau.” There is a real possibility that the parties bringing up the rear will play spoiler in ridings from which the Liberals expected their majority, and where Erin O’Toole sees a path to the Prime Minister’s Office. That is especially true of the NDP in urban centres like Halifax, Toronto, and Vancouver, where they may drain Liberal support.

Despite a strong performance from Annamie Paul in debates, the Greens do not appear to be a deciding factor in ridings where the Liberals could win. However, their lack of candidates in more than 80 ridings could be a factor as many of those voters look for a new home. On the other side of the spectrum, the People’s Party of Canada is registering higher support in the polls and could impactfully pull votes from the Conservatives in Southern Ontario and possibly urban centres in Western Canada. 

This election is very difficult to get a read on. Strategists and journalists are all looking forward to a much clearer picture when the votes are counted and the dust settles next week.

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