Analysis

Candidates matter and the unexpected can happen: lessons from 2017's elections

The slimmest of minority governments in B.C., byelection upsets and the victory of a Democrat in America's Deep South. There are a few lessons to learn from 2017's election oddities.

The past year of elections featured some narrow victories, surprising upsets and a few lessons to be learned

Doug Jones won the special election for Alabama's senate seat in December for the Democrats in a state won by Donald Trump by 28 points in 2016. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

With upsets, underdogs, failures and successes, 2017 was an election year with a few surprises.

The B.C. Liberals narrowly won the most seats in the province's May vote, but its minority government was defeated by an alliance of New Democrats and Greens.

The federal Liberals wrestled two seats away from the Conservatives in fall byelections. 

Jason Kenney pulled off the triple feat of taking over the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, merging them with the Wildrose party and then winning the leadership of the newly formed United Conservatives. 

Naheed Nenshi secured re-election as the mayor of Calgary when one pollster said it couldn't happen.

Andrew Scheer trailed Maxime Bernier on 12 ballots before finally winning on the 13th to become the new leader of the Conservative Party while Jagmeet Singh needed only one ballot to become the leader of the NDP.

And in Alabama, a Democrat won a Senate seat. 

The coming year could see a few elections with enormous implications. Long-running governments in Ontario and Quebec are on the ropes while U.S. President Donald Trump could see his party lose control of both houses of Congress.

But before that, let's cast back to the elections of 2017 and look at what lessons can be drawn from these votes.

Candidates matter

At the right moment, under the right circumstances and with the right candidate, almost any party can win anywhere.

The Liberals demonstrated this when they were able to win two seats away from the Conservatives in byelections held in the ridings of Lac-Saint-Jean, Que. and South Surrey–White Rock, B.C.

The Liberals took just 18 per cent of the vote in 2015 in Lac-Saint-Jean before winning it by a margin of nearly 14 points in October, taking a riding the Liberals haven't won since the 1980s. In South Surrey–White Rock, the Liberals won a riding that had been held by the Conservatives and their predecessors without interruption since the 1970s.

In both cases, the Liberals were able to win thanks to strong candidates. Richard Hébert was a local mayor in Lac-Saint-Jean while Gordie Hogg had been the B.C. Liberal MLA for Surrey–White Rock for 20 years.

Godie Hogg, right, won the B.C. seat of South Surrey–White Rock for the Liberals in a December byelection. The Conservatives had held the seat since the 1970s. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

But bad candidates can have just as much of an impact as good ones.

In the Quebec provincial riding of Louis-Hébert, the Coalition Avenir Québec won the former Liberal stronghold by more than 32 points in October — in part due to the turmoil surrounding both parties' candidates. The Liberals and the CAQ had to replace both of their original candidates due to past cases of harassment.

The CAQ found a good replacement in Geneviève Guilbault. But the Liberals had to settle for their reported eighth choice, Ihssane El Ghernati. Voters were not much impressed, handing the Liberals their worst performance in Louis-Hébert in over 50 years.

And then there was the Republican's Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore. With controversial statements about homosexuals and slavery, he was already a flawed candidate for the Republicans before allegations of sexual misconduct with underage girls emerged. 

The result? A state that preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton by a margin of 28 points in 2016 handed Democratic candidate Doug Jones a victory in one of the reddest red states in the Union.

Small parties can defy first-past-the-post

While 2017 was the year that the Liberals backed away from their campaign promise to end Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system, it was also a year in which small parties showed they could still win in a system that has traditionally been stacked against them.

The Greens in B.C. secured three seats in the May provincial election, while in Prince Edward Island the party captured its second seat in a provincial byelection in November.

Québec Solidaire, a small left-wing sovereignist party, held on to one of its seats in a byelection that put co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in the National Assembly. The party currently holds three seats and polls suggest it could jump to five or more in next year's provincial vote.

Québec Solidaire candidate Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois reacts after winning the provincial byelection in the Montreal riding of Gouin in May. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Nevertheless, after taking 16.8 per cent of the vote in May, the B.C. Greens still hold just 3.4 per cent of seats in B.C.'s legislative assembly. And even if Québec Solidaire does win five seats in 2018, that's just four per cent of Quebec's 125 seats — compared to the party's 11 to 15 per cent support in the polls.

The good, the bad and the ugly in polling

Polls had their usual string of close calls punctuated by one big miss.

The polls were close to the mark in the provincial elections in Nova Scotia and B.C. — the latter an act of redemption after the spectacular error pollsters made in B.C.'s 2013 election. They were also able to call the results closely in a few municipal votes, including in Montreal and Edmonton.

Naheed Nenshi won the Calgary mayoral election in October after one pollster said he would lose. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But polling performance grabbed the headlines due to the miss in the Calgary municipal election. Mainstreet Research projected Nenshi would lose to rival Bill Smith by 13 points. Instead, Nenshi was re-elected by a margin of eight points.

Mainstreet's polling in Calgary sparked a heated war of words between Quito Maggi, president of Mainstreet Research, and critical academics and politicos. In the end, Maggi apologized for his behaviour and his polling firm's performance — and has taken steps to improve both. The next year of elections might show whether those efforts will bear fruit.

Jason Kenney wins elections

It was a good year for Jason Kenney.

The former Conservative MP and cabinet minister secured his first victory of 2017 in March, taking 75 per cent of the vote to win the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives on a platform of merging it with Wildrose, then the province's official opposition.

Jason Kenney become the leader of the United Conservative Party of Alberta, one of four victories to his name in 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

In July, Kenney managed to convince 95 per cent of PC and Wildrose members to merge the two parties and create the United Conservative Party. A few months later, Kenney won the leadership of the UCP, taking 61 per cent of the vote and defeating former Wildrose leader Brian Jean.

And in December, Kenney won a seat in the Alberta legislature in the Calgary-Lougheed byelection in a landslide, taking 71.5 per cent of the vote.

Winning one electoral contest is hard enough. Winning four is something else entirely. 

Expect the unexpected

The past year proved that some candidates and parties are able to follow the most unlikely paths to victory.

Scheer became leader of the Conservative Party on the 13th and final ballot, defeating Bernier by less than two percentage points. He trailed Bernier throughout but just eked out a victory thanks to a confluence of factors — Bernier's weak performance in Quebec and the strong showing for social conservative candidates Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost. 

Andrew Scheer won the Conservative Party leadership in May on the 13th and final ballot. (Canadian Press/Frank Gunn)

In October, Singh won the NDP leadership on the first ballot, signing up just enough new members to carry him over the top.

With the Greens being a small third party, only a very limited number of scenarios could produce a minority legislature in B.C. But that is what happened with the B.C. Liberals falling one seat short of a majority government and the Greens winning just enough seats to hold the balance of power.

And in Alabama, Jones was able to defeat Moore thanks to a high turnout among African Americans and low turnout in counties that have traditionally voted Republican. Even with the allegations against Moore, a Jones victory required everything to go right for him on election night — and it did, giving him the win by just 1.5 points.

This doesn't mean that underdogs always win or that expectations are always wrong. But every now and then, the polls miss the mark, candidates pull off upsets and a series of events produce the least likely of outcomes. And it could happen again in 2018.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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