Politics·Analysis

Win, lose or draw? Byelection results suggest struggles ahead for major parties

The three major parties all came out of last night's byelections with reasons to celebrate - and even more reasons to worry.

All three parties made gains Monday night - and exposed some vulnerabilities

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, centre, campaigns for the federal byelection in the food court at an Asian mall in Burnaby, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats might all be asking themselves that question today after seeing the results from last night's three federal byelections.

On one hand, each party scored a win and made some gains in popular support — the NDP in Burnaby South, the Conservatives in York–Simcoe and the Liberals in Outremont.

On the other, each party also suffered a hit in support in electoral battlegrounds key to their hopes for success in October's federal vote.

Watch the Power Panel break down the results of the byelections on Power & Politics

Eric, Francoise, Stockwell and Supriya break down the byelection results. 9:53

Turnout was abysmal, even by byelection standards. It hit a new low in this session in York–Simcoe, where preliminary turnout figures stand at just 19.9 per cent.

Bad weather undoubtedly played a role in that, but neither Outremont nor Burnaby South had the same excuse. Turnout was just 21.4 per cent in Outremont and 29.9 per cent in Burnaby South — both below average levels for a byelection.

That makes it difficult to draw wider conclusions from the results but — notwithstanding the low turnout — the voting patterns still fit within the broader historical trends in each riding.

So what are the tea leaves saying?

Liberal Rachel Bendayan speaks at her election night party following her win in the federal byelection for the Outremont riding, as Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie Melanie Joly, right, looks on in Montreal on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Liberals can still bank on Quebec to offset losses elsewhere

The path to re-election for Justin Trudeau's Liberals in the fall is to win new seats in Quebec — largely at the expense of the NDP — to compensate for what appear to be inevitable losses in places like the Greater Toronto Area. 

That strategy looks intact after Monday, with the Liberals gaining 6.9 percentage points in the Montreal riding of Outremont and taking the seat away from the NDP.

With 40.4 per cent of the vote, Rachel Bendayan put up the best result for the Liberals in Outremont since 2004. If the party can repeat these gains in other parts of Quebec, the New Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold any of the 16 seats they won in the province in 2015.

But the Liberals will struggle to hold or win suburban seats in the rest of Canada if they repeat the kind of losses they suffered in Burnaby South (a drop of 7.9 points from the previous vote) and York–Simcoe (a drop of 8.8 points).

Singh finally gets his win, but ...

The big winner on Monday has to be NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. He staked his political future on the voters of Burnaby South and his gamble paid off. This is the first win Singh can boast of since he became leader in October 2017 and it's only the second byelection of the 17 held in the current Parliament which saw the NDP increase its share of the vote.

Singh beat his nearest rival, Liberal candidate Richard T. Lee, by a margin of 13 points — far better than the 1.2-point margin the NDP managed in this seat in 2015. He gained 3.9 points over the NDP's performance in the riding here last time. The lack of a Green candidate on the ballot in Burnaby South might have helped Singh, but the jump in the NDP's performance there was bigger than the 2.9 per cent of the vote the Greens took in 2015.

New Democrats should worry about the 18-point drop in their support in Outremont, however. The result is in line with losses the party has suffered in other byelections in Quebec, so it isn't all due to the departure of former leader (and Outremont MP) Tom Mulcair.

Polls suggest the NDP has lost a lot of support in Quebec and every last one of its seats is vulnerable. The results in Outremont did nothing to change that perception.

NDP candidate Julia Sanchez speaks to supporters in Montreal, Monday, February 25, 2019, following the federal byelection results for the riding of Outremont. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With 26.1 per cent of the vote, however, the NDP's Julia Sanchez did better than the party's candidates did in Outremont in 2004 and 2006 — before Mulcair's breakthrough in 2007. That suggests the New Democrats have planted some roots in the province.

But those roots aren't deep enough to allow the NDP to breathe easily in Quebec, though it might offer hope to some of their higher-profile incumbents — people like Alexandre Boulerice, Ruth Ellen Brosseau and Guy Caron — that they can withstand the headwinds pushing against them.

A win is a win, but Conservative numbers flat

Of the three main parties, the Conservatives may have had the least at stake on Monday. York–Simcoe is a party stronghold where conservative candidates (of all stripes) have won the most votes in every election since 1979. But there's nothing in the results that should fill the Conservatives with enthusiasm — or dread, for that matter.

A win is a win, and Scot Davidson secured that for the party by a comfortable margin. But a gain of only 3.6 points in York–Simcoe is not what the Conservatives should be seeing if they're on track to oust the Liberals from power this year.

At 53.9 per cent, Davidson's share of the vote was well below the scores the party put up in York–Simcoe when it won government in 2008 and 2011. The win also pales in comparison to the 10.4-point gain the Conservatives saw in the Leeds-Grenville–Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes byelection in December.

Mixed results for Bernier, new high for Greens

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier might be pleased with Laura-Lynn Thompson's 10.6 per cent result in Burnaby South, but Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is likely relieved that the PPC captured just two per cent of the vote in Outremont and York–Simcoe.

A party with national aspirations should expect to take more than two per cent of the vote in any riding; independent candidates combined for 1.8 per cent of the vote in Burnaby-South and the Progressive Canadian Party captured 3.8 per cent in York–Simcoe. Few seats will be decided by a margin of two points or less in the fall.

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, left, and candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, right. (Facebook)

The Conservatives might be able to write off Thompson's performance as the result of her particular appeal for social conservative voters in that one riding. But if even half of that vote had gone to the Conservatives, they would have finished a strong second. If Bernier can find more candidates like Thompson, he might still have a spoiler role to play in the fall.

The Greens managing 12.5 per cent of the vote in Outremont — the party's best result in any federal election in any riding in Quebec — is notable, as the environment has emerged as a more pressing issue for voters in Quebec than in other parts of the country.

It makes for a crowded field in the province — the Bloc Québécois' new leader, Yves-François Blanchet, is a former environment minister and Singh has used the Liberal government's purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline as a wedge issue in Quebec. There might not be room for three parties in Quebec going hard on the environmental file.

But for now, there's something in these byelection results for just about everyone to be happy about. There's plenty of things there for them to worry about, too — and less than eight months left to worry about them.

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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