Greg Selinger's cabinet revolt part of worrying trend for incumbents

Incumbency has historically been a powerful electoral advantage, but recent elections and polls point to a new trend in favour of change, the CBC's Eric Grenier reports.

Incumbents face their worst odds in over 40 years

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger lost five cabinet ministers in a caucus revolt in the face of poor polls. He is just the latest in a growing list of incumbents facing electoral defeat. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Is the age of the incumbents coming to an end?

Incumbency has traditionally been an advantage at the ballot box, but recent elections and poll results suggest that incumbents could be in the midst of their roughest period in Canadian political history in over 40 years. And that could prove to be bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The latest incumbent to hit the rocks is Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, who this week saw five of his cabinet ministers resign their posts. Selinger's party has been in government since 1999, but polls suggest the New Democrats are on track for a crushing defeat when the next election is called, likely in 2016. The most recent survey, conducted by Mainstreet Technologies and reported Wednesday morning by the Winnipeg Free Press, put the NDP at just 27 per cent against 53 per cent for the opposition Tories, echoing polls done in September and October before the cabinet revolt. Selinger's NDP has not led in any poll in over two years.

The days are looking numbered as well for the Progressive Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador, who have held power since 2003. Now under their fourth leader since then in Paul Davis, the latest survey by MQO Research puts the opposition Liberals at 62 per cent, with the Tories trailing at a distance with just 28 per cent. The PCs have not led in any poll since the beginning of 2013, and under the province's laws must call an election within the next year.

If both Selinger and Davis meet defeat, they will follow in the footsteps of other incumbents who have failed to secure re-election in recent votes: the NDP in Nova Scotia in 2013, the Parti Québécois earlier this year, and the Tories in New Brunswick this past September. Of note, however, is that all three of these served only one term before being dealt defeat, while the Liberals in Ontario, who have been in power since 2003, were the only ones to survive the recent cull of incumbent governments.

The worst incumbent record since 1971?

This spell of poor incumbent performance is a new phenomenon. Between 1995 and 2012, for instance, incumbency was a decisive electoral advantage with incumbent provincial and federal governments winning 39 of 55 elections, or more than two-thirds. 

But between 2013 and 2016, if we assume that current polling trends hold fast, incumbents will lose or have lost seven of 11 electoral contests (incumbents in Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island look safe, while the federal and Alberta governments are in trouble). The last time incumbents had a losing record over any four-year period was between 1991 and 1994. The dial has to be turned back even further to between 1968 and 1971 in order to find a record as bad as the one incumbent governments currently appear to be on track to meet.

The good news for Selinger, Davis, and Harper is that incumbency still has its ability to pull off surprises. At various points prior to their majority victories, B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, and former Alberta premier Alison Redford were trailing in the polls. But what all three had in common was that it took, in part, a new leader to rejuvenate a party that had been in power for a decade or more. In fact, since 2012, these have been the only incumbent governments to be re-elected.

The Tories in Newfoundland and Labrador will get a stab at it with their new leader, but both Selinger (despite the best efforts of some of his former cabinet members) and Harper are likely to stay put. They will have to defy a new and unusual trend for change to escape defeat.

The poll by Mainstreet Technologies was conducted for the Winnipeg Free Press on Nov. 3, interviewing 2,019 Manitobans via interactive voice response. The margin of error associated with the survey was +/- 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The question asked was as follows: "Which party would you vote for if a provincial election were held today?"

The poll by MQO Research was conducted for NTV News between Oct. 20 and 25, interviewing 400 residents of Newfoundland and Labrador via telephone. The margin of error associated with the survey was +/- 4.9 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The question asked was as follows: "If a provincial election were held today in Newfoundland and Labrador, which party would you most likely vote for?"

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 and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.