New Brunswick·Analysis

Liberals plagued by inefficient vote after racking up big wins in some N.B. ridings

The New Brunswick Liberals were punished for having an inefficient vote. They won the most votes in Monday's election, but they fell short in terms of seats compared to the Progressive Conservatives.

Brian Gallant's Liberals are unable to translate a 22,491-vote advantage into more seats than the PCs

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant won the most votes in Monday's election, but his party has one less seat than the Progressive Conservatives, according to the unofficial results. This is the latest example of his party's vote inefficiency. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

In any election, someone needs to win — even if it is by default.

The actual outcome of the New Brunswick provincial vote may not be known for some time to come.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant says he will test the confidence of the legislature after his party fell just one seat short of the Progressive Conservatives but won the popular vote by a margin of 5.9 percentage points.

PC Leader Blaine Higgs thinks New Brunswickers have given his party a mandate to govern, while a series of potential recounts may yet change the numbers.

But someone will emerge as the winner of this election, despite the fact that both Gallant and Higgs saw support for their respective parties fall since the last time the province voted in 2014.

If Gallant does not continue as premier, his will be the third consecutive single-term government in New Brunswick.

He lost — or at least is in a position to lose — because his party shed support at a greater rate than the PCs did, with the People's Alliance under Kris Austin and David Coon's Greens tapping into voters' dissatisfaction with the only two parties that have ever governed the province.

The results exposed a divide in New Brunswick between francophones and anglophones that may be getting wider — and how a province that had one of the last remaining two-party political systems in Canada is now splintered. 

Francophones stick with Liberals

The Liberals captured 37.8 per cent of the vote in Monday's election, a drop of 4.9 points from 2014.

While Liberal support plummeted in certain parts of the province — six points in Fredericton, nine points in western New Brunswick, 12 points in Miramichi and 16 points in the rural south — it held firm in the predominantly francophone areas.

The polls suggested this would be the case.

Watch N.B.'s election night in 90 seconds:

New Brunswick election night in 90 seconds

5 years ago
Duration 1:40
As PCs claim victory, Liberals try to hold onto power.

The Liberals retained their support in both Moncton and northern New Brunswick, and won an average of 57 per cent of the vote in the 14 ridings where French speakers make up at least two-thirds of the population.

The PCs took just 22 per cent of the vote in these ridings, winning only one, Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, by a margin of 99 votes.

Liberal vote inefficiency hits a new high

But the Liberals' high support among francophones increased their vote inefficiency to new heights.

The party padded their leads in northern New Brunswick while losing in southern New Brunswick by narrower margins.

The Liberals have historically had an inefficient vote, but not to the extent seen over the last two provincial elections.

The Liberals secured nearly 22,500 more votes than the PCs, but they were clustered in a few ridings. (James West/Canadian Press)

In 2014, they needed a margin of at least 6.7 points over the PCs to win a majority government.

On Monday, the party lost four ridings by margins of 2.9 percentage points or less, suggesting that they needed to beat the PCs by 8.8 points province-wide to push them up to the 25-seat majority threshold.

That inefficiency helped the PCs hold their own in the number that matters most, despite their popular vote dropping by 2.7 points to 31.9 per cent across the province.

Losses to the People's Alliance and, in particular, the Greens ensured that the Liberals dipped below the Tories in the seat count.

Third-party splits cost Liberals and PCs

The People's Alliance, Greens and Jennifer McKenzie's New Democrats had an impact on the results in two ways.

First, they took seats from both older parties.

The People's Alliance won one Liberal and two PC seats. The Greens, who were up 5.3 points to 11.9 per cent, made their two gains at the expense of the Liberals.

PC Leader Blaine Higgs told his supporters on Monday night that he intends to govern because he won more seats than the Liberals. His party lost votes in 2018 compared to 2014. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Second, their votes could have made the difference for either the PCs or the Liberals.

Support for the People's Alliance exploded across the province, to 12.6 per cent from 2.1 per cent four years ago. Gains were particularly marked in Miramichi (32.5 points), Fredericton (21 points) and in rural southern New Brunswick (20.5 points).

These votes did not all come from the Progressive Conservatives; the math alone suggests that some must have come from the Liberals and the New Democrats, who had their vote fall by eight points to just five per cent. But in three close ridings (Carleton-Victoria, Saint John Harbour and Fredericton North), if only a small share of those People's Alliance votes had gone instead to the PCs, it would have made the difference, giving Higgs his 25 seats.

Green Party Leader David Coon won re-election on Monday and two other Green candidates picked up seats in previously Liberal-held ridings. (James West/Canadian Press)

For the Liberals, in five tight ridings (Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou, Oromocto-Lincoln-Fredericton, Moncton Northwest, Moncton Southwest and Fredericton West-Hanwell) just a few Green or NDP votes cast for the Liberals would have seen their candidates beat the Tories — enough to put the Liberals over the majority threshold.

It is no wonder that both Higgs and Gallant expressed concerns at the end of the campaign about "splitting the vote": it might have each cost them a clear victory, if those votes were ever theirs to begin with.

Polls capture late campaign dynamics

These concerns came as the polls suggested the People's Alliance and Greens were making serious inroads into Liberal and PC support. The results indicate that the polls were largely on the mark.

Surveys by Nanos Research, Forum Research and Mainstreet Research were all close to the final results, with an underestimation of both the Liberals and PCs across the board. Forum and Mainstreet overestimated support for the People's Alliance and Greens, while Nanos overestimated support for the NDP.

This could be a sign that some voters did heed the warnings from Higgs and Gallant, or that the better-oiled party machines of the Liberals and PCs got more of their supporters out to vote than the smaller parties could.

NDP Leader Jennifer McKenzie is the only leader of a major New Brunswick party to be shut out of the legislature after Monday's election. (Photo: CBC)

But in all cases, the error between the election results and final polling was well within normal levels, making it a good performance in an unpredictable election.

The seat results also fell well within the confidence intervals of the CBC's New Brunswick Poll Tracker, which put the odds of a minority government — something that hasn't happened in the province in nearly a century — at better than one-in-five by the campaign's end.

With these numbers, political bettors in Fredericton will now be wagering on how long this minority government will last. The seat results split the legislature almost perfectly between right and left.

It might not be long before New Brunswickers are called back to the polls again, with every party's count being reset to zero.

New Brunswick's political deadlock: what's next?

5 years ago
Duration 8:45
'We've squandered our potential by dividing our province,' says PC leader Blaine Higgs.

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Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

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