Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

What didn't happen in the N.L. election — and why that matters

The PCs didn't win and the NDP didn't tank - and other interesting non-results from the N.L election.

The results of the election in Newfoundland and Labrador are noteworthy for what didn't transpire

N.L. Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie scored gains in Thursday's provincial election, but did not topple Dwight Ball's Liberals from power. (Paul Daly/Canadian Press)

There was no shortage of interesting results from Thursday's election in Newfoundland and Labrador. It produced the province's first minority government in nearly a half century. The House of Assembly will be a fragile kaleidoscope of red, blue, orange and grey. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians could be voting again sooner rather than later.

But also noteworthy was what didn't happen — and what that says about the future of politics both in the province and nationwide.

With 20 seats out of 40, Dwight Ball's Liberals held on to power with the lowest share of the vote for a winning party in Newfoundland and Labrador's history. The Liberals took 43.9 per cent of the vote, putting them just 1.3 percentage points ahead of Ches Crosbie's Progressive Conservatives, who won 15 seats.

Most of the polls did suggest it was going to be a nail-biter. But they also suggested that Crosbie was most likely to finish on top.

The PCs didn't win

Five polls were published during the election campaign. Only the first one — conducted by MQO Research primarily before the leaders' debate — showed the Liberals ahead, and by a far wider margin than the actual result. The other four polls done later in the campaign showed the PCs in front.

Most of the polls pointed to a close race. Polls by Abacus and Forum done about two weeks before the vote gave the PCs a lead of between two and five points. A survey by Mainstreet Research done just two days before the election gave the Tories a four-point lead, but the results fell within the poll's margin of error. A last-minute Forum survey gave the PCs a big nine-point lead — hinting at a late surge in PC support that did not materialize.

It's a warning, perhaps, for both the N.L. Tories and Andrew Scheer's federal Conservatives not to bank on good poll numbers, or assume that the polls always underestimate their support.

The Liberals did see a significant drop in support throughout the province, their share of the vote falling by double digits in eastern and western Newfoundland, in Labrador and on the Avalon Peninsula outside of Metro St. John's. 

But they were able to hold on to power thanks to voters in and around the capital city. The Liberals lost less support there — about 5.8 points — than in any other region of the province. All the incumbent candidates or parties in the city won their districts. The only "loss" compared to 2015 for the Liberals was in Mount Pearl–Southlands, which stuck with a former Liberal — the now newly re-elected Independent MHA Paul Lane.

Had the PCs been able to make some gains in Metro St. John's — the PCs placed second in St. John's West and Mount Scio by margins of 182 and 212 votes, respectively — the night might have turned out very differently for Crosbie.

The NDP wasn't wiped out

It also might have turned out differently had it not been for three Labradorians. If the Liberals had managed to convince just three voters in Labrador West to vote for their party rather than the NDP, Ball would have emerged with 21 seats and the New Democrats would have been returned with just two MHAs once again.

Instead, the New Democrats won the second-most seats they have ever had, falling short of the five seats they captured under Lorraine Michael in 2011.

N.L. NDP Leader Alison Coffin led her party to three seats in the provincial election, the party's second-best performance in its history. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

There was some speculation that the New Democrats were at risk of being shut out of the assembly. Their two incumbents weren't running again and the party was languishing in the polls. With just 14 candidates on the ballot in the province's 40 districts, the NDP couldn't even claim to be running for power.

But with a minority in the legislature, NDP Leader Alison Coffin might have more power than any of her predecessors ever did. The election that was looking like a disaster for the NDP turned out not too bad after all.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, trailing in the polls himself, might take some inspiration from that.

The NL Alliance wasn't much of a spoiler

A new factor in the election was the NL Alliance, led by former PC Party president Graydon Pelley. But if the PCs are looking for a reason they came up short, they can't blame Pelley.

The NL Alliance ran nine candidates across the province, capturing 2.4 per cent of the vote. But the PCs won six of those nine seats and two of them were gains from the Liberals, suggesting that Pelley wasn't much of an obstacle for the Tories.

And while the other three districts with NL Alliance candidates were won by the Liberals, the winning Liberal candidate got a majority of the vote in one and 49.7 per cent in the other. Only in Mount Scio was there the potential for Pelley's 406 votes for the NL Alliance to cost the PCs a win.

Justin Trudeau didn't lose another ally

Outside of Newfoundland and Labrador, the person fretting most over the results might have been Justin Trudeau. The prime minister has seen four Liberal premiers defeated over the last year, in addition to losing sometimes-ally Rachel Notley in Alberta.

The loss of another Liberal premier just five months before the federal election would have been another piece of bad news for Trudeau at a bad moment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's list of provincial Liberal allies in power has been dwindling in the past year, but N.L. Premier Dwight Ball (left) kept his name on that list when he secured re-election in Thursday's vote. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Instead, the week ended on a positive note for the federal Liberals. Yes, Ball was re-elected with a shaky minority government. But these days, any win is a big win for the Liberals. Even better was this week's news that the federal government has finally reached a deal with the United States on removing tariffs from steel and aluminum exports.

Trudeau's re-election hopes were not riding on the results of the provincial election in Newfoundland and Labrador. Expectations are that the province will still deliver a healthy majority of its seven federal seats to his party in October's election.

But the best things for Trudeau that came out of Newfoundland and Labrador were the difficult questions he didn't need to answer, and the congratulations to another newly-installed PC premier that he didn't need to deliver. At a time when Liberal governments have been dropping like flies, that's the kind of change Trudeau can live with.


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.


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